The 10 principles of good management

Applying Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of good design to the job many people fall into. Managing other designers.


If you’re a designer who loves to read about the history of the craft (and you should be, it’ll make you a better designer) you’ve probably read Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of good design. If not, take a few minutes to watch him talk about them in the excellent movie, Objectified.

These oft quoted principles hide something else that I only discovered once I stopped designing full time, and moved into management. They’re also the principles that you should apply to your management, not just your design work.

Good management is innovative

Management has not been perfected. As culture and society subtly shifts all the time, we’re going to have to constantly reassess the best way to lead, motivate and get the most out of people. Read, learn, and think about management. A lot. Start by reading about how great creative environments have been run in the past (I highly recommend Creativity Inc). New tools for working together, like Jira, Basecamp…hell, even email, are all relatively new and still evolving. New tools are appearing all the time. Take a look at what makes them different, and then think about what effect that might have on your team. And adapt to the people in your team — if you have a “management style”, that’s probably a bad sign (for more on that, read The One Minute Manager).

Good management makes a company,
or department useful.

Many new managers fall into the trap of focusing on either making their team like them or respect them. The real focus needs to be on making your team more useful. In every way. Naturally, that means making sure they’re more effective and productive. Yes, it also means they need to make more money for the company.

But a company also fills a use for its employees, and you should keep an eye on that too. Make sure you’ve created an environment where work fits into their lives, not the other way around. Make sure they’re remunerated fairly, whether that’s just salary, or other benefits. And then try to make sure they’re growing in directions that will help their career ambitions.

Good management is aesthetic

This one sounds like a stretch, but its actually the most overlooked in my experience. Your management should be pleasing to your staff. Literally. This isn’t a metaphor.

You shouldn’t have to stomp around and yell, even if you personally are in a shitty mood (I really struggle with this personally). You should be able to make the workplace, as well as the digital tools that make up your virtual workplace, pleasant. Everyone’s got that one tool, place or process they hate to use — not because it’s a bad idea, but just ‘cause it’s kinda ugly, or a pain in the arse to use. If you have to fill out time sheets, you know exactly what I mean. Your job as a manager is to make work more beautiful, wherever you can.

On the flip side, you probably have a boss too. Make your management of your team pleasing to them as well. Come to them with solutions when you bring them HR problems. Give them reports on how your team is performing before they need to ask for them. Remove the sand in the machine of modern work life wherever you can.

Good management makes a company, or department more understandable

Internally, make sure that the way your team works makes sense to each other. Know those people with weird, ambitious job titles? Imagine what it’s like to be their colleague. Ideally, you should be able to make a team of people where the way everyone has to work together is completely naturally, rather than constantly reinforced via process. I run a daily stand up in my team, but If I’m not there, the guys find a way to run it themselves every day. It’s just how we work now, and the meeting is more useful for it.

Externally, make sure everyone knows how to work with your team. Who would be most helpful in any given situation, and how they can go about getting access to them when they need to? Protect your team from the “Hey have you just got 5 minutes?” culture. And remember that you’re the champion of the brief — if you let something slip into the team that’s unclear, you’re just setting them up for failure.

Good management is unobtrusive

Let your team work. You know that Office Space “if you could just” meme? If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. It’s an excellent cautionary tale for managers. Don’t be the guy who decides getting an update on how your team is progressing right this second is more important than them actually doing the work.

Beyond these interactions, you should also make sure that you haven’t set up any processes that really interrupt the workflow of your staff. If you run a standup, do it first thing. Even if you run it at 10am, that’s a full hour of the day that’s probably going to be wasted, because it’s not really enough time to really get into anything before the meeting.

Good management is honest.

In most workplaces, the smell of bullshit is the only thing stronger than the smell of fear — especially if people get the sense things aren’t going well.Don’t imagine that you’re really in control of any message that you want to feed down to your staff either. Your designer Steve is good friends with Amy from Accounts, and her boss told her something that contradicts what you told Steve. Now Steve doesn’t trust you, even if you were actually the one telling the truth. Champion truth wherever you can. This can be surprisingly hard to do.

But remember, just like a parent shouldn’t tell their kids about their own sex life, you shouldn’t tell them everything. Not everyone has the experience to understand the context around business news. If asked directly about something that you don’t think they should know, tell them so. Or explain why it’s a policy that not everyone know these things. Withholding isn’t lying. Lying is lying.

Good management is long-lasting

Especially if you work in an agency rather than in an in house team, making decisions geared to fix your immediate problems is incredibly tempting. New job coming in that requires a specific aesthetic? Need to hire a new designer? Better hire a new designer that’s really good for that look. But decisions like these can really fuck you up once that emergency is dealt with. Instead, focus on the the work and the problems that you don’t have yet. How are you going to make sure you land the right kind of projects? What kind of projects are the right kind of projects? How are you going to make sure common problems like miscommunication never start to happen?

And in an industry full of innovation, spend the time looking at each new fad to determine whether or not it really is a game changer, to just the new phase that people love to blog about. Some really have, look at responsive web design, but don’t waste time chasing skills in everything that your competition is blogging about.

Good management is thorough down to the last detail

Every part of work life is your problem. The big picture direction of the design in your company, to how much of a pain in the arse it is to file expense reports.

When you become a manager, it’s a responsibility, not a privilege. No work is “beneath you”. File server gotten really messy? Fix it yourself. It’ll probably take less time than delegating it. Not that delegating is a bad thing, far from it. Just make sure you’re not just delegating the tasks you don’t want to do, instead of the ones that other people are better suited to, or have more time for.

In fact, if you can find the time for it, I’d encourage you to occasionally pick up a piece of work that would usually go to a junior in the team. Either they’ll learn something, or you will.

Good management is environmentally friendly

In the wise words of philosopher Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Equally, with a little bit of power, comes a little bit of responsibility. If you’re in a position to make changes within your company that would be good for the planet, you should. Go paperless. Recycle. There’s no excuse not to try.

This doesn’t just apply to the natural environment, it also applies to the environment of your industry. Encourage your senior staff members to teach and train interns and junior staff. Work in a web design agency? Try to release what you can as open source.

See if you can leave the world a little better than when you found it.

Good management is as little management as possible.

Less but better

If you only take one thing, make it this. Your job as a manager is not to fill your own time, it’s to make the team better. Don’t invent a new process just because you believe that everyone would have capacity for it. Make sure it will make you all better. Try to remove as many unnecessary processes as you create new, necessary ones.

Time is your only truly non renewable resource, use it wisely. Put aside a little bit of time each week to look up and see the bigger picture and see where you can make the biggest difference. Not where your actions will be seen the most.

Next time someone brings up the 10 principles of good design, take a minute to see which one you should look at applying to your management.

Now leadership. That needs a whole different list.

Matthew Delprado