Are You Directing, Managing or Both?
by Jeff Henderson·
As a design director at Nike I fully understood my role. There were shoes to design, branding to maintain, expense reports to sign and marketing briefs to ignore.
Not all directors embraced all of these responsibilities. Granted, there were a lot of plates to keep spinning, but whatever plates you choose not to prioritize will eventually fall and break unless someone else keeps them spinning.
In NSW I focused my efforts on building up the team. I hardly drew anything and if I did it was the least amount of effort for the maximum result. First, we built a line of existing product through color and material connections. I let our veteran color design team drive the conversation with enough input to keep leadership happy. Then we built ‘new’ product by mixing heritage product with modern cushioning platforms. Industry speak for these types of projects is ‘potato head’ — as in Mr. Potato Head.
For the growth of the business we focused on seasonal product. For the growth of the company I focused on individual growth for everyone on the team. We developed projects that fed the business and as well as their personal portfolios. I focused on helping them build their skills — as designers, as leaders, as employees and, sometimes, as people.
Navigating Nike was ten times more difficult than navigating life. I worked to get our CGM (color, graphic & materials) team the room they needed to build a cohesive line that connected with apparel and accessories without sacrificing business. I made sure senior designer Ben Yun had room to reengineer Shox while the recently hired Dylan Raasch had room to create whatever he wanted. I didn’t plan for Ben to modernize all of the classics in our line, but our conversations told me that he would embrace the task. I didn’t plan for Dylan to design the Roshe Run, but our structure allowed for the opportunity to put something fresh on the table. There was no brief. I gave them room to create. They did the rest.
We kept the business growing with compelling, directional and stylish product while built skills & confidence to already flourishing careers.
At Cole Haan there was a mix of everything. I had a talented, but young team that no one trusted so it was my job to give them enough work to grow their skills without sacrificing the business at hand. I couldn’t have known that they would be passing me with their product in five short years.
So it should have come as no surprise when I started my temporary, three month consulting role with Yeezy that I’d spend the next three+ years working with Kanye’s startup in Calabasas and beyond. While I only signed up to work on a couple of sneakers, I found myself assisting in the growth of more than one creative.
At one point I hadn’t been to the LA office for a couple of months. I returned to a few unhappy faces. I wasn’t quite sure why.
“Because you’re my manager!” Lauren Devine barked at me.
I was far from being her manager. But I understood.
What I did was give her and others ways to budget their travel and freelance work. I offered ways to communicate with factories that gave them enough flexibility to get what they wanted and more. I shared how to navigate corporate email with corporate entities like Adidas.
Essentially I managed.
Most of the time I’m offering unsolicited advice and meaningless anecdotes that ramble on and on.
Much like these articles.
However, stories of years-gone-by can be more helpful to new creatives that haven’t experienced what it’s like to have a Creative Director spread a false narrative about you because you applied for a job he didn’t approve of. ‘Work Hard’ and ‘Get that Bag’ don’t offer much more than a pat on the back when it comes to developing as a person and as a creative.
Luckily at Nike, the roles of design manager and director were clearly separated so you could understand who offered which type of support. When you had small teams you were often left with one person doing both jobs which meant that they had to fulfill both responsibilities. Sometimes that didn’t work out so well, but at least you could explain why.
As a freelancer I loved the freedom of executing from project to project, but I clearly missed the teamwork and collaboration that you get with a long term group. I appreciate working on Chef for Higher with Hawaii Mike Salman because of the partnership and ongoing narrative we’ve been able to share — whether it’s about packaging or family.
Today, I work with a virtual team that spans the globe and I get the opportunity to do more than build shoes. We do other soft goods, packaging, branding and strategy. We’re experimenting with new business models and exploring the world of community engagement and social impact through retail. With the team, sometimes it’s managing and sometimes it’s directing. But it’s always positive.
I love shoes. I love drawing them and I love receiving them in Men’s 13.0 in all white.
But I smile longer when I see the success of designers that I helped in some way — the same way Tinker and Kilgore and Aveni and Butts and Janet and Doxey and E Scott did for me when they thought I might not have been paying attention.