Business thinking for designers

Evolving from Designer to Product Manager

The business world is convinced of the competitive advantage in bringing “design thinking” into various development processes.  So why don’t more organizations select and help transition design professionals into key roles beyond traditional “design” functions?

Architects, graphic designers, industrial designers, etc. often find themselves pushed and pulled by various constituents and forced to play a mediating role to see a project through to fruition. That fundamental experience provides a natural segue into product management — the “glue” that holds together various internal groups (sales, engineering, management, finance, etc.) and external groups (customers and business partners).

A typical product management job description lists mostly analytical, dry tasks: Setting a product development roadmap to meet corporate goals, writing product specifications, overseeing new product launches, lifecycle management, etc. In my experience, there are three key functions beyond the typical job description that are required of a successful product manager: Listening, Synthesizing, and Advocating. Designers need to make some critical transitions in their thought processes, but for the most part are inherently well-equipped to perform each of these three functions:


One of the major adjustments an individual designer must make is evolving from a lone-wolf creator mindset to a collaborative, multi-input mindset. The ability to listen becomes just as important as the ability to fill the proverbial tabula rasa.

Keep your ears open

Listen to your customers, your sales team, your management, popular culture, your head and your heart. Designers must learn to tune out superfluous or erroneous noise, and to discern the truly critical issues from the fire drills.

Get your head out of the sand

Listen to industries outside your own—these are often the driver for your industry’s radical advances. Certain types of designers take a broad view of the world, while others have a very narrow specialty. Product management roles favor the generalists, the ones who can imagine the relevance of unrelated advances.

History is cool

It is important to the long-term “emotional health” of an organization to make sure everyone is heard… and remembered. Designers must move from a content-generating role to a content-collecting role. In a healthy organization, an endless stream of ideas is constantly flowing; it is product management’s role to build a systematic institutional memory (ideally, one that everyone can openly access) in order to capture that stream and record even the smallest idea, such as a low priority accessory or derivative feature. This is often called a “concept funnel.”


This is where designers’ training and practice really comes into play in product management roles. On a routine basis, designers consider vast, complex, and often ambiguous pools of data in order to see a future that no one else has yet recognized.

Cartography of the unknown

Once a concept funnel is in place, you have to recognize the white space market opportunities that lie outside of existing product offerings, by plotting where each existing or proposed idea sits. Similar to looking at early European maps that simply ended in the middle of the Atlantic, the untouched market opportunities should be readily apparent if you pick the critical aspect to plot (e.g. market categories, product features, competitive offerings, historical timelines, etc.).

Kill your darlings

One of the most difficult responsibilities of product management is to say NO often, early, and consistently. Focus is the ability to NOT do the other 101 good or even great ideas in the concept funnel… just the most important one. Many people simply cannot find the tenacity to kill mediocre but acceptable ideas that constantly creep into product roadmaps. In product management, you must do so on a continual basis.

Embrace your inner Wall Street

Designers must move beyond the enchanting magic of the product design itself to vet and blend innovation risks of the overall product portfolio. Just like a good financial investment portfolio, you should include in your organization’s product development slate a mixture of risks, such as project complexity (minor feature or entire new product line), market potential (existing market or untapped new market) and a host of other considerations.

Pushing the edge of the envelop

Even if an amazing concept has been proposed, you must be able to recognize incomplete information. Product managers must design experiments to the limitations of strategies that might have been drawn arbitrarily during “group think.” If you set a key variable a little bit positive or negative of your perceived solution, what happens to your assumption? You need to know if the concept is situated precariously near its doom or at the threshold of a huge opportunity.  Designers predilection for iterative testing really helps identify issues or open up possibilities.


In product management, you must espouse your reasoning, beliefs, and intuition to all of the various organizational groups. Designers don’t have to trade in their creative passion for a management role; they just have to redirect that passion toward more multifaceted issues.

Give ’em the old razzle dazzle

To launch new concepts, product managers must first instill pride of product in the team members. This is where designers can employ their excellent presentation skills to promote novel ideas and get stakeholders to buy in.

Root for the little guy

It is human nature to place the immediate needs of the present over the sustainability of the future. Routinely you will see long-term ideas trumped by the petty, mundane, “I need this now to meet my quarterly quota.” As a product management leader, you must support the fragile ideas along with the obvious winners. It is your job to make the future better than the present, while still making everyone happy along the journey.

Win buy-in, not lip service

Via a highly collaborative approach, you must implant your beliefs into the minds of key stakeholders, so the idea appears to have grown organically within them. This process wins development buy-in and greatly reduces the risk that the initial product concept goes astray during the engineering and manufacturing process. They must have a vested interest in the idea in order to truly support a product from initial concept to end of life, to survive the many hand-off points in a typical product development process.

Hot for teacher

Become a good teacher. Help your sales team, customers and industry become savvy about the products. Education is the best form of marketing, and often product management is the best-equipped group within a company to translate very technical concepts into easily understandable promotional and educational materials. Designers are great at promoting novel concepts.

Make the Leap, Bring the Passion

Designers are fundamentally well-equipped to take on product management roles. The tenets of design thinking will indeed get you far, but you must also learn to balance between generative front-end exploration and the deductive, process-driven rigor of product engineering and manufacturing—all the while maintaining your passion. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget that your product lines ultimately have to be profitable, too.


Brad Koerner is an entrepreneurial project leader with a range of design, marketing and product management experience. Brad has spent 20+ years in the architectural lighting and construction industries, spanning global matrix organizations, design consultancies and startups. Brad currently lives in Amsterdam.

This post originally appeared in Design Management Institute’s September 2011 “News and Views” as “Business Thinking for Designers”