Zwetana Penova,
Service & Product Design

Design Management — a Paradox?

Published May 25, 2016

I have been teaching design management for a while. One of my small pleasures is starting a course with a short brainstorm about what design management involves. First understandings are pretty much the same – students presume that design management is a process of organizing and running a design project. They picture it as a kind of project management, where the word “project” is simply replaced by “design.” In this article I would like to outline the opportunities we miss by sticking with this definition.

What is the Difference Between Design and Project Management?

The goal of a traditional project manager is to conduct a product realization process and to be in charge of the time and budget. The routes of this profession can be found in the industrial age – the renaissance of the waterfall model, whose guardian was a project manager. In today´s praxis the project manager focuses on realization steps in order to reach medium-term targets like product realization rather than being involved in concrete issues. The design manager focuses on the long-term strategic targets of company. This young discipline operates within brand identity and its main goal is to form a great continuing brand experience for the clients. Unlike a project manager, joining different disciplines and steps into a smooth realization process, the design manager´s job is to lead a brand’s design DNA through its products and communication channels.

How did Design Management Appear?

Let’s have a brief look at design’s history – the link with technological innovations is obvious. Before the industrial revolution we would not find a big difference between design and realization – mostly it is the same person – a craftsman. But even so, big well known furniture or porcelain manufacturers had an artistic lead forming special aesthetics and usability.

  • The industrial age separated design and production. Serial manufacturing needed an early design and technical prototyping. Bauhaus celebrated a social and avant-garde aspect of design – as a guide for modern people in the new 20th century.
  • In the1960s function and form were merged in the pure harmony of Dieter Rams’ design.
  • Advertising industry and post-Bauhaus design movement like Italian Memphis in the 1980s groups discovered the narrative and lyric abilities of design to reach people emotionally.
  • In the pure, corporate orientated 1990s the focus was on corporate identity within clear roles: The sender (brand) and message receiver (the customer).
  • The digital revolution of the 21st century turned the industrial production models and hierarchical brand communication upside down – today, waterfall models are getting replaced by agile processes and design is not just a single production step but the strategic point to synthesize different disciplines and channels. Creative leadership must be embedded in the strategy design. Design management is a process to create and to lead design.

Which Skills do Design Managers Need?

I see a design manger as someone who is able to think strategically, recognize patterns, empathize with customers and stakeholders and make decisions. Here are my personal top five:

Be a designer

The word “management” does not mean that there is no creative aspect. Design managers must have the ability to think, understand and create designs. They must learn to give constructive feedback and to inspire their team.

A design manager’s result will only be as good as his or her team. The design manager needs to know how to deal with different disciplines, to set realistic goals and to lead people in a supportive way.

Be a communicator

Sometimes the job of design manager is like being a translator. He or she needs to understand the vocabularies of creative people, business people and their customers.

Be a strategist

Design managers must understand the message behind their company and instill it into the experiences of their customers.

Be a decision maker

Design managers must learn different techniques and methods that help them to plan, run and model their project. They must be ready to face different types of problems and learn how to deal with them.


Raymond Turner, famous design strategist and author, said in his book „Design Leadership“, that: Design leadership helps define the future, design management is a tool for getting there. The goal of design management is not only to organize and structure the design process but to inspire and lead design strategy through all the production and communication channels.

Few Blogs, Artikels, Talks

Books Recommendations on Design Leadership and Design Management