It starts to irritate me, the more and more I’m confronted with it: the job-title ‘design manager’.

And the longer I spin my head around it, the more this title ends up being an oxymoron (Greek for ‘oxy’ = sharp and ‘moron’ = foolish) – next to this it’s also not clear to me, which part in the title is the ‘sharp’ one, which the ‘foolish’!

Design is the drive within people, to device the course of action, in order to change it for the better. (Quote of Herbert Simon.)

This drive is rooted deep inside the human, it’s an intrinsic drive. That’s why designers are people, who just ‘feel’ that something has to be improved, and then they want to get going: the ‘designing’ is their tool to articulate this feeling into the tangible, visible.

That’s also why designers generally create a strange impression on hard-core managers, one of being ‘artistic’ and free-spirited, always equipped with pen and paper to sketch up ideas. On top of that, designers are difficult to ‘manage’ by applying the usual measures, like bonuses, targets and time writing – on the contrary!

Management is also an intervention into course of action: though here the driver is an external one, it is of an extrinsic nature. Managing comes from ‘taking by the hand’ and therefore it wants to securely lead the ‘course’ towards a clearly defined goal. Mostly this driver – which makes those who are managed reach the goal – is based on a reward or punishment. It’s considered the only way to move those ‘managed’ further.

This is the reason why managers generally create a strange impression on designers; one of being power-driven and forcing employees to work towards goals that nobody really wants to reach (or can comprehend). On top of that, managers seem to thrive on incentives, bonuses and targets.

For both approaches, design and management, you’ll find occasions where they are working in an optimal fashion. For instance, if you want to pursue a goal on short notice, and therefore you need the support of thirds, you’re best off with management. It serves like a tool or technology, by which you can secure that something happens exactly as planned: if you need to assemble a plane within a given time frame, that’s what you want.
The basic notion in management lies in control, and therefore it’s best used then when there is something to control.

But what if there’s no plan if it’s not clear what should be? That’s when you need design, which deals with ‘what could be’: design is like building a bridge whilst walking over it, without even knowing the other bank.

To act like this is nothing for sceptics and control freaks, but for the self-confident and self-determined. And here management doesn’t work unless it supports. The basic notion of design lies in self-determination and builds on inner motivation, and therefore it’s best used if you are shaping a vision and still need to ‘build the bridge’ to get there.

Because of this, design is the tool for the future (designation) – management the one of the past (control).

How on earth should then design management work? Controlling self-determination? Taking the inner motivation by the hand and guide it towards set goals? Difficult – it would put both approaches in checkmate…

But in a time where the dominating system in economy and society still uses extrinsic motivation and control, rather than self-determination and trust to get going, it needs a compromise. We still do not let our inner motivation – which is truly natural –  dominate our actions: we still want security and control, we prefer to have order and security.

That’s why we need management to embed design in companies and society until all involved finally feel secure with what design can do for them, and then to trust their inner motivation to have design drive their actions. Ultimately, when we have arrived at the top of the Maslow Pyramid – and we are truly self-determined – we can eliminate management from the job-title, and we have only design left!

Until then design management remains an ‘exception to the rule’, which is another great oxymoron!

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