June 12, 2019

Designer to Director: 6 Lessons Learned

It is hard to remember a time in my life that I didn’t want to be a graphic designer. From the moment I was introduced to the idea of graphic design (sometime early in my high school career) I knew that it was what I wanted to do. Designing logos, CD covers and screen-printed posters for a living sounded like an amazing career. Even after learning that most graphic design work consists of laying out white papers, designing banner ads, attending client meetings, setting up print files and versioning out webpages I still wanted to be a designer.

After I graduated college and fumbled my way through the first 5 years of my career, I finally found a job where I was creatively satisfied. I had empowering bosses, super talented co-workers and exciting client work that really pushed me as a designer. I had made it. I had finally achieved what 14-year-old Grant was looking for when I was originally introduced to graphic design, or as close as I was going to get while still making a decent living.

But what was next? I quit what I thought was my dream job and went off to pursue “my own thing”. Something or somewhere I could build a team of designers and help steer the overall direction of the company. I partnered with Van Horgen in 2016 and we grew Superhuman from 2 guys in a small room to an agency of 15+ people. Our design department now consists of the 5 most amazing, talented, humble, driven designers I have ever worked with and over the past few years we have built an amazing team. But going from being a designer, to a 1-man design team, to directing a design department over the span of 4-years didn’t come easy and I am still learning every day.

Here are 6 lessons I have learned from making the transition from designer to director:

1. Learn to let go

When I first started working with a design team it was very difficult to let anyone take the reins of a project. Not that I couldn’t delegate work or even let a designer take a direction on their own but letting someone take charge of all aspects of the job was extremely difficult. Jumping in to help on a project is so rewarding and valued as a younger designer at an agency. But as a director, taking over a project that isn’t going exactly as planned is extremely deflating to your team. You have to learn to help when people need it and step back to allow your team to problem solve.

2. Lead by example

This is a cliché in any sort of leadership discussion, but it is so important. Leading by example should go way beyond working hard, trying your best, etc. Your workplace is what you make it, and the way you present work, react to feedback from clients and address problems sets the standard for the whole team. I have found that when something is bothering me about an employee, I can usually trace it back to a bad example I have set.

3. Set your team up for success… and growth

Don’t pigeon hole your team. It is very easy to walk away from a kick off meeting with a client knowing who would be the best fit and just assign the project to them. Find ways to let people get out of their comfort zone. Give younger designers opportunity to think through design problems instead of just executing. This will create a more dynamic group that can accomplish more in the long run.

4. Think about the business, not your portfolio

This is one thing that I have noticed with designers making the move to a leadership role. As a director your number one priority should be solving problems for the client, not getting a design in an award show. The really great design directors that I have worked with can push a client to try something new or experiment by educating them on why it will help their business.

5. Get everyone on the same team

I have found it very common for designers and design teams to form an “us vs. them” attitude with any group outside of their own. When your team resents every comment or piece of feedback they receive you have created a combative environment and the work almost always suffers. Creating a work dynamic with the client that puts everyone on the same team helps to avoid the designer vs. the world pitfall that is so prevalent in our industry.

6. Expand your personal growth timelines

Seeing improvement in your design skills is something that is very easy to assess. Year-after-year you can see your work get better and your processes becoming more efficient. Seeing improvement in your leadership skills is something that is much harder to track. Becoming a good leader and developing a strong team takes time. You are no longer just accounting for one person, you need to create an environment that pushes everyone to grow but allows time and opportunity for different people to develop at their own pace.

-Grant Wilson

Illustration by Grant Wilson and Ashley Zimiga

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