Building software is complicated, so most companies use a product manager to coordinate developers and designers. But at Behance, the creative portfolio platform owned by Adobe, typical product managers don’t exist.
"We don’t have the traditional role of product manager," says Scott Belsky, head and cofounder of Behance, which helps artists showcase their client-fetching work. The site drafts its own creative types to serve as that liaison between devs and designers.
At Behance, product managers are people with design and UX backgrounds who are making key decisions in how Behance looks and how it’s used, giving the service a sort of "for creatives, by creatives" approach.
Zach McCullough is a senior designer at Behance. He’s one of the people who wears both hats of designer and product manager.
"I have the advantage of being the audience I’m designing for," he says. "I’m involved in the entire process. It becomes a more iterative, flexible exchange."
But the roles of designer and product manager require different skills, so conflating them can get complicated. However, once you find those people who can easily bounce between the two, it significantly improves your company’s design process. For tech companies, that's become more crucial than ever.
"Design demonstrates the way you approach your product," Belsky says. "Even without having built anything yet."
He believes design has become a competitive advantage, so he warns against putting design on the periphery, or having it outsourced. Having an external team working on your product’s design slows everything down, which hinders your company’s ability to innovate at a quick clip.
And since having talented, in-house designers is so important, it can pay off to put them at the head of the table. How’d Behance arrive at this conclusion? At first, it just sort of happened out of circumstance.
McCullough says that it’s hard to justify the formal role of product manager when you’re just starting out and you’ve got a room of five people. As a company grows, a product manager becomes necessary. But as more people are introduced into the equation, McCullough says the higher the likelihood of miscommunication, and the greater the chance of the designer being sidelined as a product’s getting pushed out the door.
So when Belsky started to bring in fresh blood, he wanted to scale the model by hiring designers with a solid sense of product, strategy, management, and diplomacy. Then, those folks brought those skills—as well as that design-centric perspective—into their product manager jobs.
"Designers who ‘just want to design’ won’t succeed on our team," Belsky says.
In McCullough’s case, he worked on Behance’s activity feed, its notification system, and its redesigned job list. He acted as the creative force (as a designer) and the organizational force (as a product manager), seeing those projects from inception to completion. Splitting his efforts gave him greater perspective and control over his projects. He was one person doing what could be a two-person (or more) job.
"If you have a designer through every step of the process, considering every detail that comes up—of which there will literally be thousands," McCullough says, "the end result is much tighter, and makes more sense."
Belsky points out that, at many tech companies, designers have risen to leadership roles across the board: Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia are both designers, for instance, as is Pinterest’s Evan Sharp. (Belsky cofounded Behance with graphic designer Matias Corea.)
Why does Belsky think this trend is happening? It’s because he believes "design is about a lot more than product." Design can be a key factor in a company’s success, from "illuminating the importance of typography in brand identity" to "creating an office space conducive for collaboration."
"Quite simply, design is the DNA of everything," Belsky says.
This appreciation made Behance a natural pair with Adobe, which bought Behance in late 2012.
"If you look back at Adobe’s history, you’ll see it was backed by engineers who wanted to make something," says Russell Brady, communications director at Adobe. "That made it easy for Adobe to acquire [design-focused] companies like Behance and give those kind of companies empowerment."
For McCullough, who used to design ads for luxury liquor brands, having such influence in a project he's designed can be especially fulfilling.
"You’re like, why am I working on JohnnieWalker.com?" he says. "But the prospect of designing something for an audience of designers, and also helping other designers, is really attractive."
It’s even more attractive to the company as a whole. Putting innovative designers—who are flexible and are good at coordinating with non-designers—in control can maximize a product’s potential.
"In the early days, when you’re selling the vision to investors and, more importantly, to early employees, great design helps people visualize the possibilities," Belsky says. "You can give them a glimpse of the future."
Behance’s hybrid role helps the company make sure that its future is as promising as possible.