Design Leadership versus Design Management

A design team is a standalone department within a company that is responsible for the structure and appearance of products and services. Its hierarchy involves different professionals in the sphere of design depending on the company’s nature and niche. However, there are some core roles in every design team – these are design lead and design manager. These are correlated and often considered the same thing, even if they differ a lot. Whereas design management handles everything that relates to ‘how and when’, design leadership is focused on ‘why and what.’ The roles of a principal designer and a design manager can vary depending on the specific organization and project, but there are some basics to know.

A principal designer leads the design process of a project, overseeing the work of other designers and ensuring that the final product meets the needs and goals of the customer. A design manager, on the other hand, handles the design team as a whole, setting strategies and directions and coordinating resources. Thus, a design lead has more hands-on design responsibilities, while a design manager may focus more on strategic planning and team management. The edges may seem somewhat blurry, so let’s explore these two roles a bit deeper.

What is design leadership?

Leadership is focused upwards and outside. It means communication with clients. In simple terms, a design leader represents what their team has to offer to others. Design leads manage projects and not people. They are responsible for guiding the project from the idea to delivery. In other words, this is about mentorship – design leaders inspire their teams, encouraging each designer within it to express themselves to the fullest. At its core, design leadership is all about setting the direction, vision, and strategic goals for design initiatives. Design leaders are the architects of innovation, responsible for shaping the design narrative within an organization.

Skills of a great design lead

What characteristics outline a talented design leader?

  • Innovation and creativity. They know how to build and cultivate a culture of creativity, encouraging others to disrupt the limits and unleash their potential.

  • Effective communication. Only strong communicators can build relationships and advocate for design within the organization and beyond it. Fortunately, today’s software market is full of business communication tools that meet all your team communication requirements and enhance collaboration.

  • Strategic vision. A design leader is capable of solving difficult design problems and crafting frameworks for these solutions.

  • Analytical thinking. A design lead must be able to see a project as the big picture and, at the same time, to dive into the slightest details of it.

  • Team support. Design leaders empower their teams by providing a clear vision and encouraging creativity. They build strong teams.

Design leaders often have an extensive design background and a degree in a design field. However, they often are far from being experts in a particular specialization. With a deep understanding of their sphere, they may lack some technical expertise. They are mainly dealing with leading projects, mentoring the team and advocating design solutions beyond the organization.

What is design management?

Design management deals with the operational aspects of design. Design managers are professionals in design, however, their primary focus is on the performance of a design team. They are tasked with the responsibility of building a bridge between a design idea and its practical implementation. Design managers allocate resources, set project timelines, and monitor progress to guarantee that they are completed on time, within budget, and to the highest quality. Beyond operational aspects, design management often deals with human resources. They balance skills and talents within the team, supporting collaboration and translating design concepts into effective outcomes. In essence, design management is the orchestrating force that transforms creative ideas into practical solutions.

Skills of a design manager

Here are the main qualities a design manager should possess to effectively cope with their work.

  • Operation control. Design managers deal with planning, organizing, and coordinating various aspects of design projects. They are responsible for meeting deadlines.

  • Resource management. Allocating resources, including human resources, time, and budget, is a key task of design managers. Thus, design managers must be able to make sound decisions to optimize the team performance based on the available resources.

  • Quality control. A design manager should have a keen eye for detail and a commitment to maintaining quality standards at each stage of work. A mockup generator can be used at this stage to preview and approve the designs.

  • Project management. Expertise in project management is vital for overseeing the timely and successful delivery of design projects.

Design managers are accountable for delivering projects on time and within budget. They coordinate project schedules, monitor progress, and address any issues that may arise during the design process. So, they need not only to have a design or engineering background but also strong marketing skills and experience working with project management applications to successfully cope with this role.

Design lead vs. design manager

To better understand these two design roles, here is a short comparison of the main parameters they involve.


Design managers interact with design teams with the aim of monitoring each project and ensuring it is completed on time and according to the requirements. They communicate with different departments within a company to provide smooth work for the design team and get the desired outcome. Sometimes, they also stay in touch with the customers and deliver their needs directly to the team. It is not rare that a design manager oversees several projects at once.

Design leads are concentrated on the general idea of the project. Their task is to ensure the customer’s idea will get the expected design and meet the quality standards. A design leader works closely with a design manager to keep track of the project status and reports to the client. It is a design leader who delivers the final result to the customer.

Job requirements

Design leads and design managers usually have a bachelor’s or a master’s degree in a relevant field, such as graphic design, web design, or a related discipline. In addition, many design leads and design managers opt to enhance their qualifications by obtaining certifications from esteemed professional organizations like the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Such institutions provide certification programs that instruct professionals on the utilization of design software and other essential tools pertinent to their roles.


Design leads and design managers have a lot in common. Both positions demand exceptional communication skills, enabling them to convey their project vision effectively to their teams and customers. Besides, they must be well-versed in management to monitor project deadlines, budgets, and overall progress.

Still, there are vital discrepancies between design leads and design managers. The former typically rely on their creativity to come up with innovative solutions. They need to have a clear understanding of contemporary design trends and technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and more. Conversely, the latter must have strong project management skills involving project planning and supervision.


Design leadership and design management are integral components of the world of design. While their primary focus and responsibilities differ, both are indispensable for successful design solutions. Design leaders set the strategic vision and inspire innovation, while design managers ensure operational efficiency and project delivery. Design leads work not only in the office. They attend conferences or travel to meet with customers. Design managers work in a studio environment, participating in all the stages of the project. Their synergy allows for reaching a balance between creativity and efficiency for each design solution.

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