Smashing Podcast Episode 62 With Slava Shestopalov: What Is Design Management? Articles on Smashing Magazine — For Web Designers And Developers (Drew McLellan)

In this episode of The Smashing Podcast, we ask what is a design manager? What does it take and how does it relate to the role of Designer? Vitaly talks to Slava Shestopalov to find out.

Show Notes

Connect with Slava on LinkedIn
Read Slava’s posts on Medium

Weekly Update

How To Enable Collaboration In A Multiparty Setting written by Hannah Kühne & Madlaina Kalunder
Primitive Objects In JavaScript: When To Use Them written by Kirill Myshkin
Exploring Universal And Cognitive-Friendly UX Design Through Pivot Tables And Grids written by Yuliia Nikitina
Testing Sites And Apps With Blind Users: A Cheat Sheet written by Slava Shestopalov & Eugene Shykiriavyi
Design Under Constraints: Challenges, Opportunities, And Practical Strategies written by Paul Boag


Vitaly: He’s a design leader, lecturer and design educator. He has seen it all working as a graphic designer in his early years and then, moving to digital products, UX, accessibility and design management. Most recently, he has worked as a lead designer and design manager in a software development company, Alex, and then, later, Bolt, the all-in-one mobility app. Now, he’s very keen on building bridges between various areas of knowledge rather than specializing in one single thing, and we’ll talk about that as well. He also loves to write, he has a passion for medieval style UX design myths. Who doesn’t? And is passionate about street and architecture photos. Originally from Cherkasy, Ukraine, he now lives in Berlin with his wonderful wife, Aksano. So we know that he’s an experienced designer and design manager, but did you know that he also loves biking, waking up at 5:00 AM to explore cities and can probably talk for hours about every single water tower in your city. My Smashing friends, please welcome Slava Shestopalov. Hello Slava. How are you doing today?

Slava: I am Smashing.

Vitaly: Oh yes, always.

Slava: Or at least I was told to say that.

Vitaly: Okay, so that’s a fair assessment in this case. It’s always a pleasure to meet you and to see you. I know so many things about you. I know that you’re very pragmatic. I know that you always stay true to your words. I know that you care about the quality of your work. But it’s always a pleasure to hear a personal story from somebody who’s kind of explaining where they’re coming from, how they ended up where they are today. So maybe I could ask you first to kind of share your story. How did you arrive kind of where you are today? Where you coming from or where you’re going? That’s very philosophical, but let’s start there.

Slava: That’s quite weird. I mean, my story is quite weird because I’m a journalist by education and I never thought of being a designer at school or the university. During my study years, I dreamt about something else. Maybe I didn’t really have a good idea of my future profession rather about the feeling that it should bring, that it should be something interesting, adventurous, something connected with helping other people. I dreamt about being a historian, geographer, maybe traveling in the pursuit of new adventures or inventions, but ended up being a journalist.

Slava: My parents recommended me choose this path because they thought I was quite talkative person and it would’ve been a great application for such a skill. And since I didn’t have any better ideas, I started studying at the university, studying journalism. And then, on the third year studying, during our practice, and by the way, I met my wife there, under the university, we are together since the first day of studying, we were in the same academic group, not only on the same faculty, and we were passing our journalistic practice at the Press Department of the local section of the Ministry of Emergencies, meaning that we were writing articles about various accidents happening in the Cherkasy region, taking photos of, sometimes, not very funny things. And accidentally, there I tried CorelDRAW, there is the whole generation of designers who don’t even know what those words mean.

Vitaly: Well, you don’t use CorelDRAW anymore, do you?

Slava: Not anymore. I don’t even know whether this software is still available. So I accidentally tried that in our editorial office where, as our practices, was not even real work. And somehow, it was more or less okay. I created the first layout. Of course, now I am scared to look at it. I don’t even have it saved somewhere on my computer. That’s an abomination, not design. But back then, it worked out and I started developing this skill as a secondary skill. I’m a self-taught designer, so never had any systematic way of learning design, rather learning based on my own mistakes, trying something new, producing a lot of work that I’m not proud of.

Vitaly: But also, I’m sure work that you are proud of.

Slava: Yeah. But then, later, I joined first small design studios and I’m forever thankful to my, back then, art director who once came to my desk, looked at the layout on my screen and told me, “Slava, please don’t get offense, but there is a book that you have to read.” And he hand me handed me the book Design for Non-Designers. That’s an amazing book, I learned a lot from it, the basics of composition, contrast, alignment, the visual basics. And I started applying it to my work, it got better. Then of course, I read many more books for designers, but also, books on design, on business and management and other topics. And gradually, by participating in more and more complex projects, I got to the position where I am right now.

Vitaly: So it’s interesting for me because actually I remember my days coming also without any formal education as a designer, I actually ended up just playing with boxes on page. And I actually came to design through the lens of HTML, CSS back in the day, really, through frontend development. And then, this is why I exclusive design accessibility lies way, it’s close to my heart. And it’s the thing that many people actually really like that kind of moving into design and then, starting just getting better at design.

Vitaly: But you decided to go even further than that. I think in 2019, you transitioned from the role of a lead designer, if I’m not mistaken, to design manager. Was it something that you envisioned, that you just felt like this is a time to do that? Because again, there are two kinds of people that I encounter. Some people really go into management thinking that this is just a natural progression of their career, you cannot be just a designer, and this is in quotation marks, “forever,” so you’re going to go into the managerial role. And some people feel like, let me try that and see if it’s for me and if not, I can always go back to design or maybe to another company product team and whatnot. What was it like for you? Why did you decide to take this route?

Slava: The reason was curiosity. I wouldn’t say that I was the real manager because design management is slightly different, probably even other types of management like product management and your engineering management, it’s not completely management because what is required there, if you look at the [inaudible 00:07:01], you will notice that the domain knowledge, the hard skills are essential and you’ll be checked whether you have those skills as well apart from the managerial competence. So I wouldn’t say that this kind of management is 100% true, complete management as we can imagine it in the classical meaning, it’s the combination of what you’ve been doing before with management and the higher the percentage of management is, the higher in the hierarchy you go.

Slava: In my situation, switching from the lead designer to design manager was not that crucial. I would say more critical thing that I experienced was switching from a senior designer to lead designer because this is the point where I got my first team whom I had to lead. And that was the turning point when you realize that the area of your responsibility is not only yourself and your project, but also someone else. And in modern world, we don’t have feudalism and we cannot directly tell people what to do, we are not influencing their choices directly. That’s why it’s getting harder to manage without having the real power. And we are in the civilized world, authoritarian style is not working anymore, and that’s great, but we should get inventive to work with people using gentle, mild methods, taking into account what they want as personalities, but at the same time reaching the business goals of the company and KPIs of the team.

Vitaly: Right. But then also, speaking about the gentle way of managing, I remember the talk that you have given about the thing that you have learned and some of the important things that you consider to be important in a design manager position. So I’m curious if you could share some bits of knowledge of things that you discovered maybe the hard way, which were a little bit surprising to you as you were in that role, for example, also in Bolt. What were some things that you feel many designers maybe who might be listening at this point and thinking, “Oh, actually, I was always thinking about design manager, maybe I should go there,” what was some things that were surprising to you and something that were really difficult?

Slava: Something that was surprising both for me and for other people with whom I talk about design management is that we perceive management in the wrong way. We have expectations pretty far from reality. There are some managerial activities that are quite typical for designers, for the design community in general, something that we encounter so often that we tend to think that this is actually management. Maybe there is something else but not much else that we don’t see at the moment, not much is hidden of that management. And that’s why when we jump into management, we discover a lot of unknown things that this type of work includes.

Slava: For example, as a Ukrainian, I know that, in our country, many designers are self-taught designers because the profession develops much faster than the higher education. And that’s why people organize themselves into communities and pass knowledge to each other much faster and easier. And there are so many private schools and private initiatives that spread the knowledge and do that more efficiently so that after couple of months of studying, you get something. Of course, there might be many complaints about the quality of that education, but the sooner you get to the first project, the sooner you make your first mistakes, the better you learn the profession and then, you won’t repeat them again. That’s why I know the power of this community. And mentorship, knowledge-sharing is something extremely familiar to Ukrainian designers.

Slava: And then, generally, I observe the same tendency in the Western Europe that knowledge-sharing, mentorship is the usual thing that many designers do, that many designers practice. And we think that when we switch to management, we will simply scale this kind of activity. In reality, it’s just not even the largest part of management. And when people are officially promoted to managers, to leaders, they discover a lot of other areas like hiring people then being responsible for the hires because it’s not enough just to participate in a technical interview and check the hard skills of a candidate, but also then live with this decision because you cannot easily fire a person, and sometimes, it’s even wrong because as a manager you are supposed to work with this person and develop them and help them grow or help them onboard better and pass this period of adaptation. By the way, adaptation and onboarding, another thing than retention cases, resolving problems when your employees are not satisfied with what they have right now, including you as a manager and many other things like salary, compensation, bonuses, team building trust and relationship in the team, performance management, knowledge assessments.

Vitaly: Right. But then, is there even at all any time then to be designing as you’re a design manager? I know that in some teams, in some companies you have this kind of roles where, well, you’re a design manager, sometimes it would be called just… Yeah, well, [inaudible 00:12:54]. Sometimes design leads are actually also managers, depending if it’s like a small company or a larger company. And then, would you say that given the scope that is really changing when you’re kind of moving to management, should you have hopes that you will still have time to play with designs in Figma?

Slava: It depends on how far you go and on the org structure of the particular company. In some cases, you still have plenty of time to design because management doesn’t occupy that much time, you don’t have many subordinates or the company so small that the processes are not very formalized. In that case, yep, you can still design maybe 50% of your time, maybe even 70% of your time and manage during the rest of the time. But there are large companies where management occupies more and more time and then, yeah, probably you won’t be designing or at least designing the same way as it used to be before.

Slava: There are multiple levels of design, multiple levels of obstruction. For example, when you’re moving pixels in Figma in order to create a well-balanced button, that’s design. But when you’re creating a customer journey map or mapping a service blueprint together with stakeholders from other departments of your company, that’s design as well, but on the higher level of obstruction. You are building a bit larger picture of the product service or the whole experience throughout products and multiple services of the company. So I would say that there is always space for design, but this design might get less digital and more connected with organizational design, interaction between different departments and other stuff like that.

Vitaly: Right. So maybe if we go back a little bit into team building or specifically the culture and the way teams are built, obviously, we kind of moved, I don’t know when it was, but we kind of moved to this idea that T-shaped employees is a good thing. So you basically specialize in one thing and then, you have a pretty general understanding about what’s going on in the rest of the organization, the rest of the product and so on. It’s quite shallow, but then, in one thing, you specialize. At the same time, you see a lot of people who call themselves generalists, they kind of know a lot about different things but never really specialized deeply into one thing. And so, you also have this, this is probably considered to be not necessarily just the I shape, where you kind of get very deep in one thing, but really, this is it, you just specialized so deep that you have pretty much no solid understanding about what’s happening around.

Vitaly: And then, one thing that has been kind of discussed recently, I’ve seen at least a few articles about that is a V-shape, where you kind of have a lot of depth in one thing. You also have a pretty okay, solid, general understanding about what’s going on. But then, you also have enough skills or enough information about the adjacent knowledge within the product that you’re working on. So I’m wondering at this point, let’s say if you build a team of designers, what kind of skills or what kind of shape if you like, do we need to still remain quite, I would say, interesting to companies small and large? What kind of shape would that be? If that makes sense.

Slava: Yeah, so you want me to give you a silver bullet, right, for-

Vitaly: Yes.

Slava: … a company?

Vitaly: Ideally, yes.

Slava: Doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. On the one hand, I think that’s a good discussion, discussions about the skill sets of designers, but on the other hand, we are talking a lot about ourselves, maybe, more than representatives of all the other professions about what we should call our profession, what shapes, skillset should we have, what frameworks and tools should we use? It’s extremely designer-centered. And here, of course, I can talk for hours and participate in holy wars about what’s the best name for this, all that, but essentially, at the end of the day, I realize that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t make sense at all. Okay, whatever we decide, if you are whatever shape designer, but you are not useful in this world, you cannot reach the goal and you cannot find your niche and make users happy and business happy, then it doesn’t matter what’s written on your resume.

Vitaly: Right. So-

Slava: But then, the one hand, yeah, of course, logically, when I think about it, I do support the T-shaped concept. But again, depends on how you understand it, whether those horizontal bar of the T is about shallow knowledge or good enough knowledge or decent knowledge. You see how thick it is? And that’s why we have another concept with this We shape designer, which is essentially another representation of the T-shaped format. The idea is the same that as a human being, of course, you want to specialize in something that’s passion, that you maybe love design for and maybe that’s why you came into the profession. But at the same time, you are obliged to know to a certain minimally required extent, the whole entirety of your profession.

Slava: Ask any other professional, a surgeon, police person, whoever, financial expert, of course, they have their favorite topics, but at the same time, there is a certain requirement to you as a specialist to obtain certain amount of knowledge and skills.

Slava: The same about designers, I don’t see how we are different from other professions. It’s why it’s quite fair to have this expectation that the person would know something about UX research. They are not obliged to be as professional and advanced as specialized UX researchers, but that’s fine for a designer to know about UX research, to do some UX research. The same about UX researchers, it never hurts to know the basics of design in order to understand what your colleagues are doing and then, you collaborate better together.

Vitaly: Which brings me, of course, to the question that I think you brought up in an article, I think maybe five or six years ago. You had a lot of comments on that article. I remember that article very vividly because you argued about all the different ways of how we define design, UX, CX and all the different wordings and abbreviations, service designer, CX designer, UX designer, and so many other things.

Vitaly: I mean, it’s really interesting to me because when I look back, I realize now that we’ve been working very professionally in this industry, in whatever you want to call design industry, UX industry, digital design industry for like… What? … three decades now, maybe even more than that, really trying to be very professional. But when we look around, actually, and this is just a funny story because just as we started trying to record this session, we spent 14 minutes trying to figure out how to do that in the application here. So what went wrong, Slava? I mean, 30 years is a long time to get some things right and I think that we have done a lot of things. But frankly, too often, when you think about general experience that people would get, be it working with public services, working with insurance companies, working with something that’s maybe less exciting than the landing page or a fancy product or SaaS, very often it’s just not good. What went wrong, Slava? Tell us.

Slava: Nothing went wrong. Everything is fine. The world is getting more and more complex over time, but something never changed, and it’s people, or we didn’t change. Our brain is more or less the same as it was thousand years ago, maybe a couple of thousand years ago and that’s the reason. We are people, we are not perfect. Technology might be amazing, it even feels magical, but we are the same. We are not perfect. We’re not always driven by rational intention to do something well. There are many people who are not very excited about their jobs, that’s why they provide not so good service. There are periods when a good person does bad job and they will improve later, but the task that they deliver today because of many reasons will be at this lower quality.

Slava: Then decision making, we are emotional beings and even if you use a hundred of frameworks about decision making and prioritizing, it doesn’t deny our nature. There are even people who learned to manipulate all the modern techniques, who learned about design thinking and workshops and try to use it to their own advantage. Like, “Oh, okay, I cannot persuade my team, so let’s do this fancy exercise with colored sticky notes and try to-

Vitaly: Well, who doesn’t like colored sticky notes, Slava, come on.

Slava: Digital colored sticky note, they’re still colored and look like sticky notes, right? And those people just want to push their own ideas through workshops. But workshops were designed for something else. The same with business, there are unethical business models still flourishing, there are dark patterns just because some people don’t care. So the reason is that we are the same, we are not perfect.

Vitaly: Right. Well-

Slava: We create design for humans, but we are humans as well.

Vitaly: But sometimes I feel like we are designing for humans, but then, at the same time, I feel that we are spending more and more time designing with AI sometimes for AI, this is how it feels to me. I don’t know about you, every now and again I still get a feeling that, okay, this message that was written by somebody and sent to me, it has a little bit of sense or feel or I don’t know, taste of ChatGPT on it. Just I can tell sometimes that this is kind of for humans, but it’s in a way appears to me as if it was written for AI. So do you have this feeling sometimes that you get that email or you get that message, it’s a little bit too AI-ish? Do you have this experience?

Slava: Sometimes I have this experience, but the reason is that it’s a hot topic right now. You may have already forgotten about another trendy topic, NFT, blockchain, everything was in blockchain, everything was NFT. But over time, people realize where the use cases are really strong and deserve our efforts and where it just doesn’t fit. It’s like with every new technology, it passes the same stages. There is even a nice diagram, the cycle of adoption of any new technology when there is a peak of excitement first when we are trying to apply it everywhere. But then, there is this drop in excitement and disillusionment after which we finally get onto the plateau of enlightenment, finding the best application for this technology.

Slava: I remember the same in the area of design methodology when design sprint just appeared, people tried applying it everywhere, even in many places where it just didn’t fit or the problem was too large or the team culture wasn’t consistent with the trust and openness implied by such a methodology as a design sprint. But over time, it found its application and now, used not that often, but only by those people who need it.

Vitaly: Right. Talking actually about team culture, maybe just to switch the topic a little bit, maybe you could bring a few red flags that you always try to watch out for. Because of course, when you are working with a diverse team and you have people who have very different backgrounds and also have very different expectations and very different skill sets, inevitably, you will face situations where team culture clashes. So I’m wondering, what do you think would be the early warning signs that the manager needs to watch out for to prevent things from exploding down the line?

Slava: That’s a good question. I would turn it into slightly different direction because I think of that kind of paradigm. I would try to prevent this from happening. The best way to deal with it is not to deal with it, to avoid dealing with it. So embracing the culture, understanding it and building it is important because then you won’t need to face the consequence. I wouldn’t say that there are real red flags because culture is like user experience, it’s like gravity, like any other physical force, it just exists. And whether you want it or not, if it’s described in a fancy culture brand guideline or not, it exists anyway. The thing is to be sincere about culture, to embrace the existing culture and to broadcast it to the outside honestly.

Slava: The problem is when the communication about the culture is different from the actual culture. There are various cultures, there are even harsh cultures that someone would find extremely uncomfortable, but for example, for other people it can be a great environment for growth, for rapid growth. Maybe they will change their environment later, but during a certain period of life, it might be important.

Slava: I remember some of my previous companies with pretty harsh cultures, but they helped me to grow and to get where I am right now. Yeah, I wasn’t stressed, but I knew about it. I expected it to happen and I had my inner readiness to resist and to learn my lessons out of that. But the problem is when the company communicates its culture externally as the paradise of wellbeing and mindfulness, but in reality they have deadlines for tomorrow and never ending flow of tasks and crazy stakeholders who demand it from you immediately and give you contradicting requirements. So that’s the problem.

Slava: Of course, yeah, there are some extreme cases when the culture is really toxic, when these are insane, inhuman conditions, I don’t deny that. But in many cases, something that we simply perceive as uncomfortable for ourselves is not necessarily evil, sometimes it is, but not always. And my message is that cultures should be honest. And for that purpose, people should be honest with themselves.

Slava: Manager should look at their company and try to formulate in simple way what type of a community this is. For example, in, again, one of my previous jobs, we realized that our team is like a university for people come to us and are hired because they want to grow rapidly, they want to grow faster than anywhere else, that’s why they join our company. They don’t get many perks and bonuses, the office is not very fancy and we are not those hipster designers who are always using trendy things. But at the same time, you get a lot of practice and you can earn the trust of a client, you can take things you want to be responsible for yourself. You are not given task, but you can take the task you find important.

Slava: And when we realized that, we included it into our value proposition because as a company you’re not even interested in attracting people who will feel unsatisfied here. If you are working this way, but your external messaging is different and you attract those people who are searching for something different and then, when they come in they’re highly disappointed and you have to separate with them in a month or a year or they will bring the elements of this culture to your culture and there is a clash of cultures.

Slava: So the point here, I’m just trying to formulate the same idea but in different ways, it’s to be honest about the culture, it’s extremely important. But also, awareness about your culture. It’s not written, it exists. And sometimes, the company principles are quite misleading, they’re not often true because the real culture is seen at the office, it’s in the Slack chat, it’s in the way how people interact, what they discuss at the coffee machine.

Vitaly: Yeah. And there are, of course, also, I think I read this really nice article maybe a couple of years ago, the idea of different subcultures and how they evolve over time and how they can actually mingle and even merge with, as you might have very different teams working on different side of the world, which then find each other and bring and merge culture. So you kind of have this moving bits and moving parts.

Vitaly: Kind of on the way to one of the conference, I went to Iceland. And there was a really nice friendly guy there who was guiding us through Iceland. And he was telling all this story about nothing ever stops, everything is moving, everything is changing, glaciers are changing, the earth’s changing, everything is changing, everything is moving. And people are pretty much like that. People always find… I mean, maybe people don’t change that much, but they’re still finding ways of collaborating better and finding ways to create something that hopefully works better within the organization. How do you encourage that though?

Vitaly: Very often I encounter situations where it feels like there are people just looking at the clock to finish on time and then, go home. And then, there are people who just want to do everything and they’re very vocal and they will have this incredible amount of enthusiasm everywhere and they will have all the GIFs in Slack and so on and so forth. But then, sometimes I feel like, again, talking about culture, their enthusiasm is clashed against this coldness that is coming from some people. And then, you have camps building. How do you deal with situations like that?
You cannot just make people more similar, you just have to deal with very different people who just happen to have very different interests and priorities. How would you manage that?

Slava: That’s an amazing question, and you know why? Because there is no definite answer to it.

Vitaly: I like those kind of questions.

Slava: Yeah. It’s not easy and I struggled a lot with that. I know perfectly, based on my experience, what you’re asking about. One of the solutions might be to hire people who have similar culture or at least consistent with the existing culture. Because if your whole team or the core team, the majority in the team who set this spirit and this atmosphere, they are proactive, you shouldn’t hire people who are highly inconsistent with this kind of culture. Yeah, they might be more passive, more attentive to their schedule, but they should not be resisted at least. They can support it maybe in a more calm way, but you don’t need someone critically opposing that state of things, and vice the versa. Over time, I understood that.

Slava: Sometime ago, I thought that all designers should be proactive, rock stars, super skilled, taking responsibility about everything. But you know what? That’s quite one-sided point of view. Even if I belong to this kind of designers, it’s important to embrace other types of professionals because the downside of being such a designer is that you are driven forward by your passion, but only when you have this passion and motivation. But if it disappears, you can hardly make yourself do the simplest task. And that’s the problem because this fuel doesn’t feed you anymore.

Slava: On the other hand, those people who are more attentive to their balance between work and relaxation, people who are more attentive to their schedule and are less energetic at work and may be less passionate about what they do, they are more persistent and they can much easier survive such a situation when everything around is falling apart and many people lose motivation just because motivation is not such a strong driver for them.
So over time, I understood that there are multiple types of designers and they’re all fine. The thing is to find your niche and to be in the place where you belong.

Vitaly: Right. Interesting. Because on top of that, I do have to ask a question. We could do this forever, we could keep this conversation going forever. I want to be respectful of your time as well. Just from your experience… There are so many people, the people who I’ve been speaking to over this last couple of years, but also here on the podcast, everybody has different opinions about how teams should be led and how the culture should be defined in terms of how people are working, specifically all-remote, a hundred percent remote or all on site, a hundred percent on site or hybrid with one day overlap, two days overlap, three days overlap, four days overlap.

Vitaly: What do you think works? I mean, of course, it’s a matter of the company where people allocated. And obviously, if everybody is from different parts of the world, being on site all the time, moving from, let’s say, fully remote to fully on site is just really difficult. So what would you say is really critical in any of those environments? Can hybrid work really well? Can remote work really well? Can onsite work really well? And there’s truly no best option, but I’m just wondering what should we keep in mind for each of those?

Slava: The culture. So look, culture is everything and it influences the way how people work efficiently. If is networking is really active in the team, if people communicate a lot apart from their work and tasks and everything, and if it’s normal for the team, if it’s part of the reasons why people are here in this company, then offline work is preferable. If people are more autonomous and they like it and everyone works like that in the company, then there is nothing bad in being hybrid or remote. So you see, it depends on the attitude to work and general culture, the spirit, how people feel comfortable.

Vitaly: All right. But are you saying that if you have, let’s say, a mix of people who really prefer on site and then, really prefer remote, then you kind of get an issue because how do you merge both of those intentions?

Slava: But how do you get into that situation in the first place?

Vitaly: Well, good question.

Slava: Why have you attracted so different people to your company?

Vitaly: But for the rest [inaudible 00:37:39] with HR?

Slava: Yes, I read processes.

Vitaly: But there might be different teams and then, eventually those teams get merged and then, eventually, some people come, some people leave and people are rotating from one team to another. And then, eventually, before you know it, you end up in a situation where you’re working on a new product with a new team and then, part are remote, part are on site and part don’t even want to be there.

Slava: That’s why large companies have processes. The thing that you are describing is quite typical for huge companies because you cannot keep similar work culture forever. As you scale, it’s becoming more awake and hard to match all the time. There is an amazing diagram that I saw in LinkedIn, it was created by Julie Zhuo, who also wrote a great book on management. And this diagram shows how people are hiring, like this, A hires, B hires, C hires, D, and there is a slight difference in their cultures. And if you imagine it as the line of overlapping circles, when A hires B, B hires C, C hires D and so on, then you notice how far A is from let’s say H or G, they’re very far away because this line of hiring brought certain distortion, certain mutation into the culture understanding with each step.

Slava: It’s like evolution is working. With every century or thousands of years, certain species changes one tiny trait, but in a million of years, you won’t even recognize that. The same with huge companies, you cannot control everything and micromanage it. So naturally, they’re extremely diverse. And many companies even are proud of being diverse and inclusive, which is another aspect, which is great, but in order to manage it all, they have to introduce processes and be more strictly regulated just to keep it working.

Vitaly: Right. Right. Well, I mean, we could speak about this for hours, I think. But maybe just two more questions before we wrap up. One thing that’s really important to me and really dear to me is that I know that you’ve been mentoring and you’ve been participating in kind of educating about design also specifically for designers who are in Ukraine. And I mean, at this point, we probably have many more connections and many more insights about how design is actually working from Ukraine right now when the war is going on. I’m just wondering, do you see… Because we had a Smashing meet a couple of months ago now. And there was an incredible talk by one of the people from set up team in Ukraine, in Kyiv, and they were speaking about just incredible way of how they changed the way the company works, how they adapted in any way to accommodate for everything. Like some people working from bomb shelters. This is just incredible.

Vitaly: Those kind of stories really make me cry. So this is just unbelievable. And I always have this very, I don’t even know how to describe it, like incredible sense of the strength that everybody who I’m interacting with who is coming through [inaudible 00:41:00] keep after all this time. It’s been now, what? It’s like one and a half years, right, well, much more than that, actually looking at 2014.
So the question, I guess, that I’m trying to ask here is that strength and that kind of obsession with quality, with good work, with learning, with educating, how did it come to be and how is it now? I don’t know if it makes sense the question, but just maybe your general feelings about what designers are feeling and how are they working at this point in May 2023?

Slava: That’s a good question. Unfortunately, I might not be the best person to answer because I’ve been living in Berlin for three years and fortunately, I never experienced working from a bomb shelter, although, many of my friends and acquaintances did. But what I know for sure is that Ukrainian design community is quite peculiar and it’s an insurance trait. It’s not something that we are taught, but something that just our characteristic. I know that unlike many other people from other countries, Ukrainian designers are really hungry for knowledge and new skills. And the level of self-organization is quite high because we are not used to getting it off the shelf, we are not used to receiving it, I don’t know, from educational institutions, from the government, from whoever else.

Slava: In Ukraine, or at least definitely my generation, millennials, we understand that if we don’t do anything, we will fail in life, that’s why we try to build our career early, we think about our future work during the last years of school and at the university, already planning where we going to work, how much we going to earn and how to find your niche, your place in life.

Slava: And the same in design, we are not waiting until our universities update their programs in order to teach us digital design, we are doing it ourselves, partnering with universities, participating in different courses, contributing to those programs. And I think that this feature, this trait of Ukrainian designers is extremely helpful right now in crisis times. Maybe it didn’t get us that much by surprise, it was still unexpected. But Ukrainian designers and other professionals in other professions, they just try to always have plan B and plan C and maybe even plan D.

Vitaly: Yeah, that’s probably also explains… I mean, I have to ask this question, I really do. Why medieval themes in your UX memes? Oh, even rhymes, it must be true.

Slava: First of all, it’s beautiful and funny. The first time I used medieval art-based memes was several years ago when I worked at EPAM Systems and prepared an internal presentation for one of our internal team meetups. And it was hilarious, everyone was laughing. And since then, I just started doing it all the time. It’s not like-

Vitaly: And you have like 50 of them now or even more?

Slava: More. Many more. It’s just something original. I haven’t seen many medieval memes, especially in the educational and other materials about design and UX. So it’s just, I like to bring positive emotions to my audience. So if it’s hilarious and makes them laugh and if it’s something new that others are not doing or at least that intensively, then why not? And I simply enjoy medieval art, including architecture, gothic style, Romanesque architecture, it’s something from fairy tales or legends, but then, you realize, it was real.

Vitaly: Yeah, so I guess, dear friends listening to this, if you ever want to give or find a nice gift for Slava, lookout for medieval art and any books related to that, I think that Slava will sincerely appreciated.
Now, as we’re wrapping up, and I think that you mentioned already the future at this point, I’m curious, this is a question I like asking at the end of every episode. Slava, do you have a dream project that you’d love to work on one day, a magical brand or a particularly interesting project of any industry, of any scope of any sites with any team? Do you have something in mind, what you would love to do one day? Maybe somebody from that team, from that project, from that company, from that brand is now listening.

Slava: Great question, and maybe I don’t have an amazing answer to it because it doesn’t matter. I’m dreaming about bringing value, creating something significant, but I never limited myself to a particular area or a particular company or brand, it just doesn’t matter. If it’s valuable, then it’s a success.

Vitaly: All right, well, if you, dear listener would like to hear more from Slava, you can find him on LinkedIn where he’s… Guess what? … Slava Shestopalov, but also on Medium where he writes a lot of stuff around UX, and of course, don’t forget medieval-themed UX memes, and also, on his 5:00 AM travel blog. Slava will also be speaking in Freiburg at SmashingConf, I’m very looking forward to see you there, and maybe even tomorrow, we’ll see about that. So please, dear friends, if you have the time, please drop in at SmashingConf, Freiburg, September 2023.
All right, well, thank you so much for joining us today, Slava. Do you have any parting words of wisdom that you would like to send out to the people who might be listening to this 20 years from now? Who knows?

Slava: Oh, wisdom, I’m not that wise yet, but something that I discovered recently is that we should more care about people. Technology is advancing so fast, so the thing which is left is the human factor. Maybe AI will take part of our job and that’s great because there are many routine tasks no one is fond of doing, but people, we are extremely complex and understanding who we are and how we designers as humans can serve other humans is essential. So that’s where I personally put my effort into recently, and I think that’s a great direction of research for everyone working in design, UX and related areas.

​ In this episode of The Smashing Podcast, we ask what is a design manager? What does it take and how does it relate to the role of Designer? Vitaly talks to Slava Shestopalov to find out. 

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