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Managers, Programmers, and Designers

~ By Louis Marshall

Busy design studio

Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.

Dale Carnegie

Depending on the structure of your organisation, the project manager is most likely the person who interacts with the broadest range of stakeholders. Sure the managing director will intermingle with project managers, business development, maybe even the client at early stages. But a project manager will interact with all these people and more; most notably, technical staff such as programmers and graphic designers. And let's not forget the client; a project manager will probably spend the largest amount of time with them compared to anyone else.

Every now-and-then someone comes along with a ground breaking theory or universal law that's so simple its mind-blowing; Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and of course the three business personalities described in Michael Gerber's classic book The E-Myth (i.e. entrepreneur, manager, and technician).

For those not familiar with the book, what follows is a brief summary of the personality types:

  • The entrepreneur's work is strategic in nature, involves focusing on the future and developing a vision of where they want to take the business.
  • The manager's work is both strategic and tactical. The manager's focus is on the present and achieving results through others. They are concept to reality facilitators.
  • The technician follows the guidance of the manager to get the work done. They focus on the present and are hands-on.

The E-Myth is about much more then just these personality types. It's about the pitfalls of starting your own business, and how to build a business which allows you to live the kind of lifestyle you want.

We are all combinations of these characters to different degrees. Some of us are half manager half technician, others are very entrepreneurial, and so on. Understanding these archetypes can be very helpful when working in a team environment.

I am about to make some generalisations, and as with most generalisations they should be taken with a grain of salt since there are always exceptions. Programmers and designers commonly fit squarely into the role of technician, perhaps with a splash of manager (by designer, I mean graphic designer).

There are a number of contrasts between programmers and designers, even though both are fundamentally creative disciplines. Perhaps this is because the work of a designer is visual and more apparent to users, whilst a programmer's output is functional and more 'under the hood'.

I interviewed a professional graphic designer to find out her thoughts on the interaction between managers and technical staff, here is what I found:

Q. How do designers differ from programmers?

A. Programming is objective, design is subjective. Designers work with imagination [whilst programmers are more academic].

Q. How should a manager go about asking a designer to make changes to their work?

A. [Managers should refrain from] involving themselves in the design process. Changes need to make sense and be based on solid reasoning. [Berating comments should be avoided].

Q. How can a manager's input be counter-productive to the design process?

A. There is nothing more frustrating then a manager trying to be a designer. [There needs to be] concrete reasoning behind the suggested correction.

Q. What are the most common issues between designers and managers?

A. When a manager shuts down creative flow by being too overbearing. [Micro-managing or meddling] is a common problem.

Q. Should a manager's opinion on visual design hold less weight than a designer's?

A. Unless working in a small business, [managers don't] need to involve themselves in design. Opinions and feedback are always welcome, [but emotive recommendations should be kept to a minimum].

Q. Would it bother you if someone changed your work without asking you first?

A. [I would] not be happy. [Managers wouldn't like their processes being bypassed without being consulted first].

- Vera Babenko, Lead Web Designer, ANZ Bank.

I have shortened or paraphrased the interviewee's answers. The changes have been checked by the interviewee to ensure the original message has not been lost.

A pattern I have noticed with graphic designers, which does not seem as prevalent in programmers is that it can be quite an upheaval to suggest a change, or even worse, to go ahead and make a change without their prior knowledge, a move rarely conducive to harmony within a team. Perhaps the reason this phenomenon is more prominent in designers is because artistic endeavour is so subjective; what looks good to one person may look uninspiring to another. When a programmer is asked to make a change in functionality, it generally has a tangible and visible affect, something people can agree on.

When working directly with designers, I will often make suggestions based on my strong usability background. Even though I have seen graphic designers violate well established best-practice usability guidelines (e.g. using '|' as a breadcrumb hierarchy separator instead of '->'), I never insist on a change. What I generally say is something along these lines: have you thought about changing this to this because…? If they don't want to change it, I don't push the issue.

To me it's beside the point whether I think I know better, the designer's work is their dominion and their responsibility. The only time I would revisit the topic is if the client wasn't happy with it, then I would come back to the designer and say well, regardless of whether the change is right or wrong, the client wants it the way they want it;.


Louis Marshall blogs about his experiences as a project manager developing web-based software at Project Management for the Web


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