Designer-PMs Are the Next Unicorns
The best designers are expert project managers and astute business people.
When I started out as a naive freelance “web designer” 18 years ago, I thought design would be mostly about creating things. But running my own business very quickly dropped me into the deep end, and it didn’t take long to realise it’s wasn’t actually my design work that kept me afloat. The real superpower that determines whether you sink or swim is how well you manage your projects.
I’ve written before about how designers need to be consummate professionals, flawless communicators, T-shaped problem solvers, and savvy business strategists, but even more fundamental than that: modern product designers must be expert project managers.
Designers as project managers
Freelance designers, you’ll know this already. You don’t work on a team with a PM who manages the details for you. It’s always been down to you and you alone to manage your clients and projects with the same attention to detail as you execute your design work. You know through experience that exceptional design work is dead in the water if you don’t have the acute management skills to carry it from idea to delivered solution.
Freelance designers can’t survive without project management skills, but up until now, employees could have skated by without them, because there’s usually been a team member or manager who’s assumed that role.
I believe this is changing. Even before COVID-19 forced everyone to work autonomously at home, the value of the designer-PM was on the rise.
Teams are getting smaller and more agile, while organisations are getting leaner and more flexible. The designer-project-manager hybrid that makes experienced freelancers so valuable is becoming the new expectation for in-house product designers too. Single-faceted designers are a dying breed.
In Abstract’s What is the future of product design in the 2020s?, Marissa Louie (of Expedia, Animoodles) predicts:
“Designer-PMs will be the new designer unicorns.”
The line between product designers and product managers will continue to blur as more designer-PM hybrids uncover new value for both users and organizations.
Business-savvy product designers who are adept at product thinking, data analysis, data science, strategy, and user research will be increasingly sought after as design metrics gain a larger seat at the table.
What does a designer-PM hybrid look like?
You might be a designer-project-manager hybrid if this describes you:
- You’re a designer who keeps track of the details: schedules, task statuses, feedback cycles, and unresolved design decisions. You remind your clients or team members about dependencies and priorities, rather than relying on someone else to maintain the details.
- You’re a designer who anticipates developer needs before they’re asked for. You bring empty states, error messages, (all that stuff OFF-the-happy-path), and precise interaction documentation to the table as part of your default design process.
- You’re a designer who manages stakeholders. You know who needs to be involved in which phase of the project to get the most useful feedback and generate the best collaborative outcomes. You routinely set expectations and communicate with those groups to balance agendas.
Designers as better business people
To take this idea a step further, designers have the opportunity to become better business people in general, and that extends far beyond just project management.
Jasmine Friedl (of Intercom) supports this prediction:
“Designers have a huge opportunity to become better business people.”
For quite some time, we’ve had a healthy tension (OK, sometimes unhealthy) between product managers and designers, in that designers want to be as much a part of what we design and build in addition to how we design and build. But I haven’t seen as many designers grounded in great business and business-growth thinking.
The ones that are grounded in business strategy become ultra-valuable commodities. I see this evidence in my own work repeatedly.
More often than not, it’s my management and business sensibilities that clients appreciate and remember me for. Not because I don’t produce great design (I do, but that’s just expected), but because it’s an area where many designers are lacking. They remember me because I make their jobs easier. I managed myself so well that they can spend less attention on me and more on other parts of their business.
When a client finds a designer with a business brain, it’s a breath of fresh air. You're a bridge between their world and yours. You instantly earn respect and a bigger seat at the table.
You can look at anyone’s design portfolio and know if they’ll deliver high-quality visuals. You can read how they describe their process and be confident they’ll facilitate uncovering great UX design solutions. But it’s awfully difficult to judge someone’s business and project management skills until you actually work with them and see those skills put into action.
A designer who can articulate their capacity for business strategy is on a whole new level. They’ve unlocked a value proposition that most designers don’t even know existed.
What does a designer-business-person hybrid look like?
Does this describe how you think?
- You’re a designer who’s keen to understand the full context of a business before you can tackle any design problems within it. You think business first, design second, because one is a prerequisite to the other. You spend your first meeting with a new client digging deep — asking questions about their company, operations, and goals.
- You’re a designer who can connect business goals and user goals to create customer-centric design solutions that satisfy all stakeholders at once. This can require careful compromises, but you’re in the perfect position to make them, because nobody else understands the holy intersection of business, the user, and the design landscape like you do.
- You’re a designer who sees how your work fits into a bigger picture of customer experience, branding, sales, marketing, growth, and business opps. You can speak enough of those languages to facilitate communication about design across an entire organization, and sometimes drive change in business opps through UX-design-led improvements.
Pass plateaus by becoming the new unicorn
If you feel like you’ve reached a plateau in your design career, stop looking at Dribbble and don’t bother signing up for that online UI design course. It’s probably not inspiration or more practice of your craft that you need most.
To take your career to the next level and become the new design unicorn — whether it’s as an employed team member or a freelance consultant — grow your project management and business strategy skills. This will open doors to bigger and more meaningful opportunities than you thought you'd ever see. Trust me, your next 10 years will thank you for it.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
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