It’s been seven years since I was a design leader for the very first time. Like most first time managers, I wanted it really badly. I wanted to grow the importance of design in the organization. I wanted to build a super star team. I wanted to serve our users.
And I wanted the prestige and power.
The last one is by far the worst reason to become a design leader. Ego is the worst reason to hold a management position. If everything is about ‘you’, then nothing is about your team and users. That’s not the way to lead the team to deliver great user experiences. That’s a recipe for UX disaster.
Don’t become a designer leader for the prestige and power. This energy burns quickly, leaving only egotistical habits.
It took me awhile to grew into the role and understand, even if slightly, what it really takes to be a successful designer leader. And just when I started to settle as a UX manager, I co-founded UXPin and had to quickly turn from a design leader to a business leader. Instead of being a design leader, I started to serve thousands of design leaders – UXPin customers.
This experience gave me a broader perspective on design leadership and. Now, 7 years later, I’m ready to share all the lessons and mistakes.
Who are the great designer leaders?
Design leadership greatness comes in many flavors, but at the core lies a common set of experiences and skills.
Great design leaders help teams and users meet their goals.
We might work in a completely different organizations and on completely different products, but some aspects of being a design leader remain the same:
1. Great design leaders are seasoned practitioners, ready to give up the craft.
I could imagine a great design leader who is not a designer at all. A person who can lead with a love for design and designers, understanding of the process, and determination to build up the vision to help users. However, leading designers without experience seems like an enormous challenge in building trust and respect and might make part of the job very hard (giving tactical feedback, helping designers grow their skills). So while I can imagine a great non-practitioner design leader, I’ve yet to meet one. Typically great design leaders are experienced practitioners, who discovered they can do their job better by scaling through a team. Instead of designing directly the experiences of users, they do it indirectly, through shaping amazing teams. Growing their own design skills becomes secondary to the help they can offer to their teams. They gradually give up the design craft to grow the design efficiency of an organization.
Design leaders design indirectly – through the work of their teams.
Having said that – most design leaders, including yours truly, continue to tinker in small weekend side projects. Why? Because we absolutely love it.
2. Great design leaders are empathetic and generous with their time
The main task of a design leader is firing herself from a design job. The best design leader must become the worst designer on the team.
The key task of a design leader is to become the worst designer on the team.
Growing the abilities of the team is the shortest way to scaling design in an organization. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy task. It requires time and a saintly amount of empathy. You have to be there for your team and help them become much better than you are.
3. Great design leaders are preachers and listeners
In my experience, designers are typically more preachers than listeners. Even when we listen, we listen to make a comment. And when we make a comment, we want to be right. Being a successful design leader requires much more. In a way, we have to apply the practice of user research to our teams so we can truly understand the problem. We have to listen. And our preaching becomes something completely different. Yes, to make the voice of design heard loud and clear in an organization, we have to be more outspoken. But it’s not our voice which should be heard. It’s the voice of our team.
Great design leaders listen to preach and preach to listen.
Design leaders should serve as loudspeakers for the team to amplify their message. At the same time, design leaders should coach the team to listen to others and be empathetic.
4. Great design leaders are goal-oriented fighters
Great design leaders are fighters who tirelessly fight for the team and users. Both groups need strong advocates in an organization. Both groups want a superb experience. It’s the job of the leader to remove all the obstacles.
When I realized that there’s so much that design leaders have in common, I decided to use a very familiar concept to illustrate it. I created a design leader persona.
Feel free to use it to shape your design leadership program, promote and hire design leaders, or simply use it as a conversation starter about design leadership.
Putting It All Together
An African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. Maintaining unity without disrupting efficiency is the pinnacle of work for a design leader.
The end game for a great leader is a successful team. A team that then consistently delivers valuable user experiences to the market.