What makes a design leader great?
Is it necessary to be a good designer in order to be a great design leader?
“Not really. How does it matter if a person is a good designer or not? If you want to be a great design leader, then managerial and process skills are most crucial for successful execution; everything else is secondary.
This is the most common answer that I get to hear whenever I pose this question to designers. I guess it’s because most of the design-led organizations grapple with planning, execution, and zillion other management related crapola. And maybe, just maybe, creative people find it a little difficult to brainstorm execution strategies. So a leader with such skills brings that missing piece of the puzzle with them.
No doubt, there is a certain element of truth in that answer but I’m not fully sold on it.
Of course, one has to have great managerial skills to lead anything. But, shouldn’t a leader have authority on the underlying nature of the business — in this case, design?
I’ve been wrestling with this thought for a while. No matter how much I think and the number of people that I talk to, it all gravitates back to a few central themes.
I don’t have an exhaustive list of traits of a design leader – Ah! that would require an exhaustive research at an epic scale.
But, the below list has recurring opinions that I heard from the fellow designer when I asked them “what kind of qualities are non-negotiable in a design leader?”
Putting down everything I heard and introspected-on as below-
Great design leaders are analytical
“It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” ― Alfred North Whitehead
Being a creative genius is one thing but with great power comes great responsibility, so design leaders spend more time in the discovery mode. They listen more than they talk. They scout for problems, dive into the dark realms of data, sweat the details and find out what’s been overlooked.
It doesn’t mean they are a nerd who just swim in the ocean of data or they are some sort of Sherlock Holmes. Okay, maybe, they are. Fine — a little bit. But, it just means they connect the dots really fast and help find the holy grail.
For example, great design leaders can hear a problem and dissect it on the spot. It doesn’t mean they have all the answers but they have the mental prowess to discuss the topic from multiple perspectives and ask intriguing questions, which eventually channels the design solution in the right direction.
Great design leaders think holistically
“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology- not the other way around” – Steve Jobs
As much as they fret about building creative solutions to the problems, design leaders also invest their time in shaping how their design intersects with every aspect of the brand.
So, if a designer worries about pixel perfect design, then design leaders look if all the individual design pieces fit coherently to create a great customer experience. They find the balance between creativity and business needs and reduce the gap so that designers are empowered to do what they do best.
They have the expertise to visualize the entire roadmap and gauge if the team is walking down the right path by thinking about things like – which functionality shall be designed first? Can we do something to simplify the design? How does the product merge into the services offered? How do we get qualitative and quantitative user feedback? What kind of users should be sampled to get a pulse of the customer experience? What kind of tools should be used to collect and present the feedback?
They leverage this feedback to drive an even better experience for the customers.
Great design leaders practice curiosity over complacency
“I’ve no special talent. I’m only passionately curious” –– Albert Einstein
Show me a design leader who isn’t curious (read: doesn’t learn proactively) and I would show you a leader who isn’t well respected.
Great design leaders are a lean-mean learning machine. They are curious about the world around them and constantly run top speed on the learning-treadmill.
They aren’t merely hungry to learn more design trends, tools, and practices but are constantly shooting holes through their own understanding of the world. Like, they are wearing the glasses with the dark self-criticism tint.
And, then they dish out this pandora box of new learnings generously to the team, thus making them a part of their growth.
Great design leaders are gifted storytellers
“Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity” –– Nat Turner
Most of the design leaders that I’ve interacted with are amazing storytellers. They have exemplary communication skills and they use them to articulate their thoughts well.
They can take anything complex and break it down for you like a child. They use storytelling to have their team members empathize with the users, understand the bigger picture and visualize the impact of their design.
Great design leaders do not manage people, they help them grow
“Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” – John Maxwell
Design leadership is not merely about good management skills — it’s about guiding every designer to realize their potential and become a design leader in future.
A great design leader constantly puts the emphasis on their team member’s personal growth and guides them to improve further. They constantly coach their team members, listen to their aspirations, accomplishments, and impediments. A great way they do this is through holding regular 1:1s and peer feedback loops.
Great design leaders are passionate about design
“I just want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares” –– Saul Bass
Doh! Who would have thought!
There are multiple disciplines within design – graphic design, interaction design, user experience design, visual design and unbelievably more. And it takes forever to attain mastery in any/all of the disciplines. I’ve been at it since the last 10 years and feel that I’m just getting started.
Now obviously, we don’t expect the design leader to be a master-of-all-trades. But a design leader is passionate about solving the underlying user problem the right way through design and knows the process to achieve it.
Design leaders lead with clarity and determination to build the vision and align designers with it. A design leader might not know every tool, every process and every niche of the design process, but he/she knows how to help teams build a great user experience for end users.
For example- what adds cognitive load on the user, how color theory affects designs, why the law of proximity holds importance or any other underlying philosophy of user experience to help build compelling designs.
I’m sure there are a hundred other qualities that truly make an admirable design leader but the above came up as must-haves for any design leader. I hope they act as some reference point if you are on the journey to become a design leader.