What makes a great design leader?

by Alex Baxevanis on 10 April 2018

Design finally has a seat at the leadership table, but like many of us, you probably didn't study business management at school. There's no common template, a 'one true path' to becoming a design leader. A design leader in a large business helping steer the company into an emerging market requires a very different approach from the design leader of a startup developing a new range of apps or products.

However, regardless of what type of business they are in, all great design leaders have some common qualities and skill set; collaboration, strategic thinking, understanding the different pressures on business leaders, to name a few.

Having the right skillset to give design the voice it deserves is a very real challenge for design leaders today. So much so we've built a Design Leadership course around it but here are a few initial thoughts...

Soft skills

Design leaders need to master people skills – also known as interpersonal skills or 'soft skills'. Leaders need to be able to communicate the benefits of their design decisions to stakeholders, users, project teams, etc. If they can't communicate properly at all levels of an organization, then they are going to struggle to get things done.

Take the next step in your design career - sign up for our design leadership training.

A great design leader...

... understands the organisation
What need is driving decision-making at your business? Great design leaders know that they need to be able to explain how design solves that need. The driving force behind decisions at companies depends on their size and industry. Try asking them, "What keeps you up at night?".

... collaborates beyond the design team
Identify which teams have a shared interest in the problem you're trying to solve and how could you connect them? Design leaders should be able to navigate and connect the dots between people and teams. At companies of all sizes, it's easy for silos to form and similar streams of work to run in parallel.

Look for opportunities to showcase what you work on and invite others to share as well. If this type of forum doesn't exist then take the initiative, set one up.

... can communicate up, down and sideways
Design leaders need to be able to communicate with their bosses and clients to educate, understand business goals & challenges and manage expectations. Sideways, to other creatives on their level and their peers in other departments such as project management, client service, IT etc.

Leave the design-centric language – pixels, UX journeys etc. – behind. Speak the language of business. If you understand what is driving the decision making in the organisation you are working at then you can better pack up the idea you want to share. The more designers do this, the more we drive home the message that a strategy conversation without design present is incomplete.

... is not shy at giving constructive feedback
As a leader, you are invested in outcomes for everyone in your organisation. You must be willing to tell people when the work you're critiquing isn't good enough or if the project needs to go back to the drawing board while at the same time recognising and rewarding success.

... is not just a manager
Work on design projects because they will keep you grounded and invested in the ever-changing trends. Becoming a hands-off design leader might just create gaps in your knowledge and eventually you become part of the problem!

... is a mentor
Successful leaders never stop teaching and sharing because they are self-motivated to learn themselves. They use teaching to keep their colleagues informed, share their knowledge by staying on top of trends and sharing the news that matter with the rest of their team.

Some take if further by becoming mentors. What are you great at that others can benefit from? Whether you mentor people on your own team or beyond, there's always opportunities to help others develop.

You definitely don't have to be good at everything to be a good mentor. But a good starting point is to share what you are not good at. This will help set expectations.

So, do you want to be a leader?

We hope that this summary is helpful in understanding what makes a great design leader. If you want to shift your game to the next level or it's your job to implement and drive innovation in your organisation, then our Design Leadership Training will help. As an aspiring design leader, you will come away transformed.

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