How to Succeed as a Design Manager at a Startup

For many designers, the question of when—and if—to move into management can be the beginning of an existential crisis. For designers in particular, management is more than just a step up the corporate ladder—it’s a complete shift in skillsets. One day you’re mapping out UX flows, and the next mapping out your team’s roadmap.

So how do you know if you—or someone on your team—is ready for this change? Whether you’re a newly minted manager or considering making the leap to become the first design manager at a startup, we gathered insights from some of the top design leaders from a variety of different companies: Catt Small, Staff Product Designer at Dropbox and formerly at All Turtles; Jacob Zukerman, Chief Product Officer at Mento; Carly Lodge, Senior Design Manager at Instagram and formerly at Hipmunk; and Enrique Allen, Managing Director at Designer Fund. Here’s what they shared about how to succeed as a design manager at a startup.

🗓️ Are you an early stage founder using design to improve health, sustainability, or prosperity for all people? Apply to Designer Fund Partnership for a strategic investment offer of $500K along with hiring support, expert design advice, and a community of design leaders you can call upon. Apply by September 22, 2023.

💡 Founder callout: Additionally, in this article we’ll also share callouts for founders who are interested in hiring their first designer, their founding designer, or expanding the team by bringing on their first design manager—including tips for what makes a good design manager, what you should look for in your next design hire, and best practices for managing your design team.

Topics covered:

  1. What’s the best way to become a design manager?
  2. What do designer managers need to be successful at a startup?
  3. How should you structure your design team at a startup?
  4. What’s the best way to onboard new designers at a startup?
  5. What are tips for building a great design team culture?
  6. What tools can help you become a better design manager?

1. What’s the best way to become a design manager?

There are many paths to becoming a design manager, and lots of ways to explore whether you like being a leader or not before making it part of your official job title.

A strong design leader can come from anywhere.

While some design managers have a resume that looks like a steady climb up the corporate ladder, others arrive at the role with very different backgrounds. There is no one “path” to look for—especially within a startup environment.

Before overseeing design teams at Instagram, Carly Lodge began her career as a high school art teacher. After moving into design, she quickly found herself in a management role.

“I just fell into management, if I’m being honest. I’ve probably had a similar path to a lot of people that started their design careers within a startup. When you become the most senior designer there, the next logical step seems like management.” – Carly Lodge

While design leadership worked out well and ended up being a perfect blend of Carly’s passions and skills, she recommends being more intentional about your career choices. Management isn’t always the next logical step for every designer—and leadership doesn’t always need to come from a title. In fact, some folks will be happier as senior ICs who can lead the team in other ways, such as through their depth of craft or as a mentor.

Test out a management role on your own timeline

Not sure if management is for you? Consider testing the waters before jumping in. Even what you do outside of work can help you identify what you might enjoy—or not—about a manager role. For example, although initially unsure about a leadership role, Catt Small recognized that she had already built up some of the key skills through her extracurricular projects—and that she really enjoyed the work.

“I constantly found myself in community organizer situations, whether that was through mentorship or constantly being the connector between teams. I also did a lot of volunteer work with employee resource groups at different companies and realized, ‘Oh, all of these skills that I'm building are actually really helpful for being a great manager.’” – Catt Small

2. What do designer managers need to be successful at a startup?

Once you’re in a design management role, you might find the initial shift in responsibilities overwhelming. From identifying gaps in your current capabilities to hiring new designers, there’s no shortage of projects to focus on. So what are the most important things to focus on when taking a design leadership role at a startup?

The skills of a good IC are very different from the the skills of a good manager. Carly Lodge

Create a 90-day plan to set expectations from the start

As a new manager, creating a 90-day plan is the key to getting started off on the right foot. The benefits of this document are twofold: a 90-day plan helps you set expectations with leadership and other stakeholders on what you’ll be doing in the first 90 days on the job—it also helps you focus on what’s realistic and achievable as you get more familiar with the company and your role.

As a part of your 90-day plan, you’ll want to do a thorough audit of the company and the design org. Get to know the industry, your customers, the company, and the team—and identify where the gaps are. Because this can easily turn into information overload within a startup environment, Catt recommends making use of the “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing” framework to identify what stage of a project you’re in, so that you can clarify what comes next and set accurate expectations with partners.

“It was helpful to figure out where exactly am I on the map. Are we in forming right now, or are we storming?” – Catt Small

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing Framework
Tuckman's Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing framework explains the stages of team development and the challenges that often arise during each stage. By recognizing where your team is in the process, you can better guide them through the stages towards successful outcomes.

Build relationships across the org

One of the most important new things you can do as a new design leader is to build relationships across the organization. You’ll want to get to know your leader peers, such as product heads and engineering leads, as well as the teams that will help you operate day-to-day: HR, finance, ops, and other functional teams. Having good relationships across the company will enable you and your team to do better design work over time, Jacob emphasizes.

“Often the success of your design organization is just as much as about the relationships and trust you've built with other leaders at the company than just about the design work you’re producing.” – Jacob Zukerman

Build new relationships with your team

As a manager, you’ll need to build new relationships with your team. Although you may not feel fundamentally different from your ICs, your role has changed dramatically—so how you communicate, relate, and work with your team will need to go through a transition.

The hardest part for me in figuring out my new role was around my relationships with the people on my team. I think part of that transition came naturally for me since I've always considered myself more of a servant leader, but at the same time, it was a different level of responsibility. I had to grapple with making decisions for the entire team and assess our talent across the board. – Carly Lodge

“The relationships change overnight. You go from being a peer (and you still want to be a peer!) but the relationship has shifted and you need to reestablish trust.” – Jacob Zukerman

Both Jacob and Catt recommend approaching the transition to management with candor. If you can be honest about what you’re still learning, your team will be more likely to trust you and give you some grace as you get up to speed. Consider creating a “How to work with me” guide for your team to quickly learn who you are, how you like to communicate, and what you expect from the team. Transparency breeds trust.

“One of the first things I did was share my ethos in terms of management, as well as my boundaries and expectations, which helped my team feel more comfortable with me showing up and essentially turning the table on its head.” – Catt Small

Julie Zhuo's user guide to working with you
The goal of Julie Zhuo's "user guide to working with you" template is to create clarity for your team on how you work. The key to a good user guide is to make it as specific to you as possible.

Ask for feedback

Asking for feedback is a great way to build trust with your team, and will also help you identify where you have room to improve as a manager. At the end of the day, check in with your team. What’s working well? What’s not working well—and why is that?

Once I hit that 90-day mark, I requested feedback from the team. It’s really important to make sure you're regularly getting feedback because that helps to build trust. It also helped me see how much I had accomplished already. Catt Small

While you should definitely build in regular moments for more formal feedback, don’t be afraid to open the door to casual feedback as well. Showing your team that you’re open to their input can continue to build trust over time—and have the added benefit of helping you grow as a manager.

“I always ask for feedback at the end of every single 1:1, as well as how I can support folks.” – Catt Small

Define your own leadership style

While it’s easy to assume there’s only one way to be a leader—strong, loud, charismatic—that’s simply not true. There are many different types of leaders, and you’ll need to find what feels authentic for you.

Jacob found his own leadership style through trial and error, figuring out what worked and didn’t after trying things and seeing how it felt for him.

“Don’t be afraid to try different things with your leadership. Things that work for others might not work for you. Figure out who you are and what your blind spots are to get a better understanding of how you could be most effective.” – Jacob Zukerman

3. How should you structure your design team at a startup?

What comes as a surprise to many first-time managers is that you’ll likely spend a lot of your time focused on hiring, even at a startup. Once you’ve identified some of the hiring gaps on your team, how do you identify the right people to fill them? How do you build a design team from the ground up?

Hire for a range of talent

While it can be tempting to hire the most senior designers possible, Carly has found it more beneficial to hire for a range of talent, creating a more resilient team.

“As I grew more senior at Hipmunk and we started to bring on more people, it became really clear that you need a range of talent on your team. Of course you always want senior people, but if you only have senior talent, that backfires every time—you end up with a bunch of senior talent who either don’t have enough scope or they don’t have enough growth opportunities for themselves.” – Carly Lodge

Consider what specializations your team actually needs

Generalists are great, but sometimes you need someone with a specific skill. If you don’t have an in-house person and the need isn’t enough for a full-time person on staff, consider hiring a contractor to fill the gap.

“For most of the teams that I’ve hired, we’ve hired generalists across the board. But there are times where you need a specialist who’s really dialed in to one specific skill, like a motion designer. But that’s only after a talent assessment where you know your team can’t fill those gaps.” – Carly Lodge

But when building a product that requires a special skillset on an ongoing basis—you should definitely hire a specialist.

“I was working on building a product that helps people get out of credit card debt, which is something that’s so deep and personal. Not only was it complicated, it was also heavily regulated. The words you use within that product really matter. In that environment, a product designer will not survive well without a writing partner. So our small team included a researcher, a product designer, and a content designer because we needed all of those to be successful.” – Jacob Zukerman

Establish just enough overlap across the team

One of the challenging parts of structuring a design team is giving people enough flexibility that they get to try out and learn new things, without overwhelming them. But there are clear benefits to having some overlap in responsibility, even if it means less efficiency in the present moment. Having knowledge shared across different teams and people can help avoid a single point of failure if someone leaves or something comes up.

“While I typically try to staff people to a home base team, I still set the expectation that things will be fluid and that it’ll shift as needed.” – Carly Lodge

“What’s been fun is figuring out how to be strategic but also somewhat scrappy with the work. Something I think about a lot is how to create meaningful opportunities for people to learn about our different studio partners.” – Catt Small

4. What’s the best way to onboard new designers at a startup?

Onboarding a new designer offers an ideal moment to introduce them to your team culture and ways of working. Here are some things to keep in mind as you build out your onboarding process for designers at a startup.

Establish a baseline of trust

Trust is the basis of healthy and effective team relationships. When onboarding someone new to your team, consider ways to grow that trust—now, and over time. Activities like working style surveys and “get to know me” questionnaires can set the stage for positive collaboration later.

“One thing you’ll hear a lot of from me is that the most important thing is establishing a baseline of trust—and so that’s what I focus on in my earliest days of onboarding somebody. But I don’t think that there's a single silver bullet to build trust. It takes time, and everybody approaches trust in a different way.” – Carly Lodge

It may sound obvious, but when welcoming new people to your team, it’s important to remember that they might operate very differently than you do. For example, Carly even makes it a point to ask new hires about how they approach trust. Are they all in from the beginning, or does someone need to earn their trust over time?

“I’m a person who's usually 100% all in, I trust you, from the beginning. But some people don’t approach it that way. You have to navigate what each individual on your team needs.” – Carly Lodge

Give new hires something to own right away

Jacob will start each new hire with a project they can own. Not only does this let them get their feet wet right away, it starts them off with a feeling of empowerment and responsibility.

“We want people to feel like, ‘This is your team now, too. You’re here to shape the culture and the product.’ It’s important to establish that ownership from day one.” – Jacob Zukerman

Plant the seed for connections

As a part of onboarding, make sure your new hire knows which teammates they need to meet. Jacob kicks off each onboarding with a list of people a new hire should connect with—he’ll schedule the first few meetings for the new hire, but encourage them to schedule the remainder as they start to integrate more with the team and grow in their autonomy.

Get designers close to customers

The more empathy a designer has for your customers, the more effective they can be. Jacob likes to find opportunities to get new hires in front of customers as soon as possible. Are there videos they can watch? Customer conversations they can listen in on? Research interviews they can join?

Get your designers close to your customers because they need to really understand who they’re building for and what problems they are solving, so they can do great work. Jacob Zukerman

Build rinse-and-repeat processes to save time

Just because every new hire is an individual doesn’t mean their onboarding process needs to be. Tap into the power of templates to streamline the onboarding process, and make adjustments over time as you identify elements that have room for improvement. For some great inspiration, check out Faire’s guide to onboarding designers when you’re scaling at hyperspeed.

“I’ve gotten my onboarding down to a playbook at this point. I have a new hire Google file that I duplicate. Within it, it outlines goals and expectations, and includes a list of all of the docs I’m going to need to go through with the designer. It helps me be more efficient, but it’s also really important in that it sets expectations with the new hire about all the things they don't know, and will have time to get up to speed on.” – Cary Lodge

“Templatize as many things as you can.” – Catt Small

5. What are tips for building a great design team culture?

Design culture: one of the hardest—but one of the most important!—things to pin down as a leader. Nurturing a culture that’s authentic to your team and company takes time, but here are some tips to get you started.

Empower individuals with autonomy

While the anxiety of becoming a manager can lead some people to become micromanagers, do your best to remember that your team is more likely to do their best work when they feel a sense of both responsibility and autonomy.

“It’s really important that you delegate the appropriate level of responsibility to your team. You need to know what your designers are capable of, and then give them a little bit more than that. As a former micromanager, I’m now really explicit about how and when I want to check in after that, which empowers the designer to to take on that work, know that it’s theirs, and that they own it.” – Carly Lodge

Schedule non-work time with your team

Free time isn’t wasted time—it’s an important opportunity for bonding. Whether your time together is completely unstructured or highlights certain rituals, reserving moments for your team to connect outside of their roles and responsibilities is important for building strong connections.

“We call it the WTF meeting. We always start the first 10 minutes with everyone sharing their feelings, if they want to. No one’s forced to talk. Folks can express any sentiment or idea, and they start to open up. Sometimes you get into light things, sometimes really deep things.” – Jacob Zukerman

“When I was at All Turtles, our structure was unique because everybody was working on something completely different, so there was a lot of opportunity to get inspiration from each other. We would do a show and tell every two weeks, making it a good moment to connect.” – Catt Small

Articulate your values—and live them everyday

The company you work for might already have defined values, but the ones for your design team might be slightly different or more nuanced. Take the time to think deeply about these values and how you want your team to show up—then communicate them and practice them daily.

“Every company has a set of values and principles—whether or not they're actually explicit. What I’ve worked really hard to do is to make the implicit more explicit. Being explicit about your values is super important to making sure that you’re creating the kind of culture that you want to see.” – Catt Small

“It’s really about articulating your values. This is something that I didn’t do at smaller companies that I wish I had done. It’s something I learned at Instagram—we have very clear principles. Everybody knows them and everybody internalizes them, and they really permeate our work because of that.” – Carly Lodge

Instagram's Design Principles

Instagram keeps design front and center, guided by a unique approach and these shared principles:

People First: We serve people’s evolving needs.

  • Focus on real-world opportunities. Know your audience and test hypotheses to understand where we can be effective.
  • Go after breakthroughs. Build an informed perspective and pursue ideas that could dramatically improve our products.

Simplicity: We focus on what adds the most value.

  • Do the simple thing first. Break big problems into smaller pieces and don’t over-design or over-engineer solutions.
  • Do a few things extremely well. Stay vigilant about the cost of complexity and remove anything unnecessary.

Craft: We take care in what we create.

  • Sweat the details. Consider decisions carefully and take pride in holding a high bar for everything we build.
  • Keep improving. Stay open to ways we can continue refining our work to create the best possible experiences.

Celebrate your wins as a team

As a designer, especially when working at a startup, it’s easy to get caught up in putting out fires, or always focusing on issues that need to be fixed. As a design manager, you can play an important role in tracking and spotlighting the team’s successes. Remind folks about why you’re doing the work you’re doing together—and celebrate your wins.

“Something else that’s important is to make sure that you're actually celebrating your work and not just being critical. It's really, really easy to fall into the space of like asking, “What could we be doing better?” Make sure you’re also centering the cool things your team is doing and the impact they’re making. That’s huge.” – Catt Small

6. What other tools can help you become a better design manager?

You don’t have to figure it out all on your own. Here are the tools that can help you grow quickly as a new manager and build camaraderie with your team.

Hire a coach

First and foremost, consider hiring a career coach—even before you might think you need one. A good coach can help you uncover what’s holding you back from your full potential, and share tried and true advice on growing as a leader.

“Having a coach is a great investment as a designer—especially when you’re starting to take on more responsibilities.” – Catt Small

Working with a great coach and mentors earlier in my career helped me unlock a lot of blockers. Most of them were about me or my own narratives, versus anything external. – Jacob Zukerman

Use career cards to glean insights

Intimidated by the idea of leading career conversations with your team? Use tools like career cards to direct the process, opening up the conversation for honest insights.

“One of the very concrete exercises that has been successful for me is a career card sorting exercise. In Figma, I have 10-15 different qualities or values people might be looking for from a career—promotion, compensation, recognition, et cetera—and I ask people to rank them from least important to most important. I also ask them to rank where they stand on those items—are they achieving what they want to. It really fuels understanding on what that person is looking for from their career.” – Carly Lodge

Invest in a good design system

A final word of advice for all new design managers out there—it’s absolutely worth it to invest the time into building a robust design system. It will save you hours of revisions in the future, and help streamline your work with engineering partners.

“Something that’s continuously underinvested in is just having a good design system in place. Don’t make the mistake of putting it off.” – Jacob Zukerman

“Having a design system in place is crucial.” – Carly Lodge