What does a design manager do?

Christopher Azar on why modernization is a superpower, finding the source of your energy, and his many roles as a design manager

A digital illustration of a white man with short, curly, dark hair and a big smile wearing a black T-shirt. He's against a gridded backdrop of objects (a party hat, speech bubbles, musical notes, a whistle, a clock, a gluestick, a pencil, a medal, an envelope) drawn in mint green, navy blue, tangerine, and sky blue.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

We design and refine the Adobe tools and experiences that millions of creative people use every day. In this series, we introduce the bright and brilliant people behind the products: Meet the members of Adobe Design.

What do you do?

As a Senior Design Manager, I look across the design of video editing applications at Adobe including Premiere Pro, artificial intelligence, and next generation products. I create an environment where great design can happen, and that takes the form of whatever my team needs:

What’s your team working on?

Right now, there are 27 of us across design, program management, prototyping and design research for Adobe’s video, motion and audio apps. We modernize the apps and build new workflows with the latest breakthroughs in technology. Something we're psyched about is text-based editing, a new way of editing video for anyone who’s comfortable with a word processor. It uses Machine Learning to generate the text, identify different speakers, and tag the metadata appropriately across multiple languages. We meet with customers, understand what's tedious about the process (like going through three-hour interview to find the single outtake you were looking for) and then design and test an experience around it.

What essential tool, product, platform helps you do your best work?

I write a lot… papers, talks, presentations. The commonality is the preparation and drafting ideas and for that a simple text editor works for me. I love applications that don’t have lots of bells and whistles and allow me to focus on the ideas.

I also constantly use Apple Notes. I journal in it every day. I also use it for task management (my to do list) and as a kudos board (for anyone saying anything nice about me). What you surround yourself with is what you become, so staying aware of and surrounding yourself with nice things increases the odds that you'll always notice them.

What skill do you consider a superpower?

Modernization. More specifically, modernizing products and processes to make them faster, easier to use, more capable, more pleasant, less stressful. It’s a superpower because it requires a different mindset and different muscles than making new things. You must be both reverent and irreverent to modernize something. More importantly though you must see the value of keeping it in the world.

What’s on your heads-down, time-to-focus playlist?

I love music and it gives me lots of energy and inspiration, but I need quiet for deep work. I’ve been experimenting with listening to one song or half a song when I’m getting started with a task. It gives me the dopamine hit so I can get rolling, but once the music’s off I can use that energy to focus and stay connected during deeper work. That said, I’m obvious in my choices and love listening (and dancing) to a lot of Obama-era indie bops: Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Yeasayer, Dirty Projectors, St Vincent, HAIM.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

I've been working with a career coach whose most recent advice was to “connect with my flow state more.” In other words, she asked me to figure out what gives me energy and to use that to design the course of my career, and actively do more of whatever gives me energy.

Growth looks different to everyone. But a natural inclination can be to follow a career ladder to more responsibility. I think the inclination, once you’re a manager, is to continue along a “management” path, which for many people means becoming more and more senior—the downside of advancing in management can be becoming more removed from the work you love. Regularly taking the time to reflect, even when things are going well, helps people understand where they should take the next step, especially when their goal is to connect with their passions and your purpose.

This advice and reflection led to my decision to start mentoring and coaching because of the energy I get from it—which is more than I put into it. I often go into coaching sessions tired but always exit them fired up. Tapping into that energy is why I coach folks (video creators and UX designers in Adobe’s Creative Residency and in the creative community) as often as I can.

What excites you most about the work you’re doing?

Moments that allow me to better understand and empathize with people—whether that person is a customer or a colleague—are what I find most exciting and challenging about my work.

I’m a misfit and don’t fit neatly into a label, I have a design title, but I’m interested in business, design, art, science, philosophy, and music (and its effect on creativity and culture). The ability to mix and combine these to understand and contribute to work and the world is important to me. I’ve been at Adobe for six years and not only do they seem very cool with my approach to work but I’ve met many similarly-minded folks here.

I also use my work to learn how to be a better person. I care about my team deeply as individuals, before I care about them as employees. I’m often the “first line of defense” or a “first responder” for individuals and their connection to the company and I’ve had the honor to be the first work call for many folks as life happens. Births, deaths, moves, crises, transitions—all the trials, sufferings, and joys of life—all cross my desk and I filter them into processes and programs that support and connect to the company (like moving folks fully remote, processing leave requests, and backfill training).

What’s a dream project you’re currently involved with, or want to take on?

I can’t say a lot about it, but two years ago I started a project working on the future of video, audio, and motion design.... There should be some cool stuff to share later this year.

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