Design Leadership — How does one get there & What does it entail

Design Leadership — How does one get there & What does it entail

This week one of my friends, James Maddox, reached out to me with a suggestion. He stated I should write an article on the topic of Leadership in Design, including in the article specific aspects pertaining to interviews, and how Designers should communicate the evolution of their careers. This is actually a topic that has surfaced a few times through the Linkedin career advice program as well, and also with a few Designers I personally know and who are part of my network. Quite a few professionals in the Design field are at times astounded at the career progression of their peers, while others simply want to have a better understanding of how to communicate their expertise, experiences and point of view with Senior Stakeholders of the organization where they are. Hopefully this article compliments a few of the previous ones I wrote on the topic of Portfolios (which you can read here and here), and also the articles on How Designers Measure Success (which you can read here and here).

Flourishing Design. In order for a Design culture to flourish, an Organization has to forcibly understand its value and what Design and their practitioners can add in terms of innovation, brand recognition/value, client retention and of course, revenue. My previous statement is self-evident, but in my years of experience, working across companies of different sizes, and observing my peers working in companies of different dimensions & maturity, it has become quite discernible that just because an Organization, and their senior stakeholders profess an appreciation for Design, it does not necessarily translate into a culture and to teams who know what to do with professionals from that field. Apple and its iconic stalwart Steve Jobs, have become the paradigm and poster child for the Organization who revitalized itself, by believing in Design, by solving problems, commandeering innovation, and providing products that satiated a need from users, while in the process becoming the most valued company in the world. As the staggering success of this Organization has continued, a variety of others in Technology and in an array of other fields, have sought out to replicate that formula, bringing Design teams to their processes, and hoping that it miraculously produces results. Another obvious statement I’m going to impart: bringing a Design practice to an Organization, doesn’t produce results instantaneously. In order for results to flourish, that discipline and its professionals, need to understand and be embedded within the culture of the Organization and its teams. Designers can be effective catalysts within an Organization, but can only do so by partnering with other team members or their peers, in what amounts to a collective effort. Design is a discipline that isn’t solely in the hands of its formally trained professionals — it’s a discipline that lives from the aggregation of a variety of domains, from a triage of data from different sources, all with the goal of producing solutions that are indeed innovative, useful, usable, findable, desirable, credible and accessible. These solutions are however, the convergence of teams efforts, of harnessing different points of view, which are aligned and go through the tutelage of a method and process driven by Design professionals. The concept of Design as an insular discipline is nonsensical, as is the concept of Design as a production facility, where its professionals exist solely to render or deliver what other stakeholders tell them to do. None of those scenarios can be considered effective Design cultures, Design Thinking or even in the vicinity of Design. And this is where the topic of Design Maturity in Organizations manifests itself: at times it’s as much of a puzzle for an Organization to figure out what and how to implement a Design culture, as it is for Design professionals to start the process of educating teams on how to deploy a Design Thinking process, and in doing so, adopting a Design Centered mentality. As I mentioned at the beginning of this block, in order for Design to flourish, Organizations have to allow it to happen, by immersing professionals in their teams and within their processes, but also by holding these same professionals accountable for their efforts, which can be assessed across a variety of outputs. Either way, only by creating the ground, and allowing for this cross-team collaboration to happen, will Design successfully become part of the Organization, and produce results that are quantifiable, and more so, discernible and differentiating.

Leadership in Design. This topic is always slightly more controversial, and I should preface this by stating that in the past I wrote an article on the topic of Ego in Design, which has some tangents with what I’ll tackle in this block. With that in mind, here’s a few considerations on the topic of Leadership in Design. Leadership in itself, is a concept and a topic which countless authors have written about, from a variety of perspectives, with numerous case studies outlined to substantiate their points of view (for instance, read the book from Kim Scott “Radical Candor” to understand, not only her philosophy, but her experiences in leadership positions). I have had quite a few professionals reaching out to me with the same question: “how do I move into leadership”, and “how do I make my opinions heard with senior stakeholders”. Typically leadership as a quality can be an innate personality trait, where people are just naturally charismatic, and therefore able to rally others behind their efforts and actions, whereas for others, it’s just a natural progression of their efforts, of becoming recognizable experts in their fields. Leadership in Design requires quite a bit more than just words and larger than life strategies that at times may amount to castles built in the sand. It walks hand in hand with credibility, which for practical purposes means, Designers have to be able to successfully communicate their strategies, their processes and their outcomes to any team member. ANY team member. For a Designer, the ability to communicate is of the utmost importance, because in essence, the work of a Designer is to interpret and discern multiple sources of information, and create a narrative that is understood by a variety of users/clients. In the process of creating this narrative, the language that is established amongst the teams producing these product narratives, has to be crystal clear. Therefore Leadership in this field, requires a thorough understanding of the process itself, the tasks needed to accomplish results, across a variety of sub-topics (UI Copy, Interaction, Research, Usability Testing, Design System Implementation, Localization, Accessibility, Inclusivity, Motion, among others), all of these tied with accountability and assessment of results, again across a variety of variables. This discernment, this ability to not only articulate a process, but also be able to implement it, is one of the most visible demonstrations of leadership in Design, something that is further evidenced by past experiences and measured results.

This last statement brings back a very important subject within Design and how to assess, not only leadership aspects, but also the quality of a professional itself: Portfolios. I won’t go into great lengths on this topic, since I already discussed it in previous articles, but I’ll summarize my impression on this topic in a few sentences. Professionals in this field, need to remember that a Portfolio isn’t solely an index of past projects and product experiences. It’s a demonstration of their brand, of who they are, their point of view, of how they achieve solutions when embedded in teams. Professionals at times focus on technical virtuosity on their portfolio, because they want to demonstrate their proficiency with a certain technical skill, or their understanding of a trend. However, always remember the following. If a portfolio is indeed an introductory card, a first impression is critical. It’s THE opportunity to showcase the story of who you are, the thought process, the chronology, the attention devoted to one’s narrative. It should therefore be done in a way that is clear, understandable, sensical, credible, viewable and hopefully, without friction. Remember that individuals (hiring managers) & Organizations are assessing your brand, and how you showcase yourself speaks volumes. Over-complicating web products, hyperbolic statements, erroneous information, among many other fallacies, in the end sabotage all the efforts, tarnish a brand, and in the long run, have paltry/meager returns.

Another aspect to leadership in Design is Interviewing and demonstrating the effectiveness of that leadership quality. If a good Portfolio does allow for a Designer to get a conversation started, once that engagement begins, it’s important that a professional is able to explain succinctly, specifically, substantially and sincerely what they have done, how they envision their role, solving problems, and how they expect to be held accountable. When interviewing for Leadership positions, or any Design positions for that matter, it’s important that Designers not only understand the context behind the interviewer, but also that they are able to translate into viewable and measurable outcomes, what they have done in the past. What I mean about this last statement, is the insufficiency of simply stating “I designed this, which was well received by Senior Stakeholders”. The statements have to encompass, teams, investment made, quantitative outcomes, and being able to swiftly dive into the details of whatever product was created. Therefore the statement should be more “the team designed this application, during 6 months, which was comprised of these team participants, which in turn, when released was adopted by these clients/downloaded a series of times, producing this type of feedback/revenue”. Empty statements, claiming credit over other people’s work, among other considerations, is never a good practice. Designers, and particularly those vying for Leadership positions, firstly should address their own ambition, what they’ve done to cement it, while also being cognizant of their shortcomings in certain fields or what was less successful in certain projects. Being self aware, principled, deliberate, focused and adaptive, goes a long way, and again, paints a much better picture for hiring managers within Organizations. Brief addendum on this topic. I’ve had a few Designers ask me, how certain professionals in the field, with nothing but a few years of experience, are suddenly in leadership positions. I typically respond that we all have diverse and unique careers. The fact that someone works for 20 years on a certain field, doesn’t necessarily make them experts of that field, it makes them possibly experts in their tasks. Leadership advents not only from experience, but from the ability to deliver solutions, from going through processes that at times are less successful, but that shape and inform someone’s insight, and the ability to leverage it for other experiences. Leadership is also an opportunity to guide, mentor others (another article I’ve written on the topic), while simultaneously learning, since nothing is ever the same, and we can all collectively benefit from learning from new situations. Hollowed leadership in Design can indeed be a problem — without maturity, without insight, a lot of issues can easily occur, but hopefully those are professionals who understand that only by relying further on their peers and team members, can only then their roles and their impact become richer and more substantial.

Reality Check. We’re in the midst of a troublesome reality, one where the frailty of our human condition is brought forth on a daily basis. Only through a true collective effort will we ever be able to overcome this challenge, and this same analogy applies to Design, their professionals, and their leaders. Hollow statements come and go, countless articles on Design Thinking will continue to be written, but it’s important that professionals who continue to persevere in this field, realize that their narrative is their own, that their brand is continuously being written, and that how they communicate it, is entirely in their hands. Honesty, compassion, incessant curiosity, communication, are a few aspects to cultivate and hopefully something that Designers are able to perpetuate, as they go through their careers, in whatever level they find themselves in.

I’ll conclude this article with one of the authors I read quite a lot in college, Peter Drucker:

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”


Design Leadership — How does one get there & What does it entail was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.