What design leaders need to understand about their new role

How designers become design leaders

Just like new engineering managers, new design leaders agonize over their new leadership position too. Some regret that they won’t be practicing their craft as much as they used to do earlier, while others worry about leading the team the right way. 

The transition is indeed hard. But one needs to understand that a new role brings opportunities to set things right. As a design leader, you can create a new vision for your team. You can be the agent of change to old practices of design that added little or no value. You can be a beacon of hope to the fragile design review process that led to mediocre design passed off as great designs. 

A design leader is like the leader of a wolf pack. You’re no longer just hunting, barking, and howling. Now, you have got the additional responsibility of guiding, teaching, and caring for your pack members.

So how does one make a smooth transition from a designer to a design leader?

Understand what has changed

Understand what has changed

A lot of designers think that leadership is a miserable place to be and design leaders can never be happy in a leadership position. This faulty reasoning emerges from the thought that designers are creative people. And leadership puts creativity in a box because it prioritizes results and delivery over research and innovation. 

There is indeed some truth in that because as a leader you have to make sure that things keep moving and you aren’t forever stuck on improving. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to put your creative hat. 

Your new role is not just about finding creative solutions but also about helping others do it in the most optimal way. As a design leader, you now have an additional responsibility to see that everyone is aligned with the vision of the product. In addition to creating pixel-perfect designs, you now have to think about usability and performance as well. 

Design leaders need just one thing to be successful in their new role- passion to design solutions that solve users’ problems. Just like any other leadership role, you need to be empathetic and build good listening skills. 

Keep designing and learning new things

Keep designing and learning new things

A good design leader is a great designer first. Becoming a design leader doesn’t mean that you stop designing the day after you get promoted. 

So block a few hours every day to satisfy your maker-itch. Keep learning and stay updated with new tools. Give yourself a few years in a hybrid role where you are a designer as well as a leader. 

In this time period, reflect on your work, look at the mistakes you commit and how you can improve them. At the same time, think of new ways to make your team more effective. Understand their problems- what stops them from delivering their best work? What design processes impede their creativity? Interact with developers and product teams to understand their expectations. And then work with them to build a design-led engineering team that delivers delightful solutions.

Amplify your influence

Amplify your influence

Becoming a design leader is not enough. You have to emerge as a leader by showing what you truly value. And for that to happen you have to amplify your influence. You have to show, not tell. You have to be a practitioner of all those things that you want your team to imbibe. 

For instance- if you value user experience over and above everything, you have to engage in design discussions that go very deep on why experience is everything. You have to invest time in detailed critique sessions so that people understand the value of experience. You have to formulate a vision of what great design looks like for your organization. 

Once people understand your vision and see the outcomes, they adopt and follow. And that’s how you amplify your influence. 

The learning curve from being an individual contributor to a design leader can be intimidating at first. But, just like solving a design challenge is immensely gratifying and exciting, this one too is an interesting opportunity to learn and grow. All you need is a lot of empathy and a little bit of emotional intelligence to lead with the intent of solving problems.

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