The following are the notes I'd written for my presentation with Justin Maguire, "Work in Progress: Some Thoughts on Design Leadership" that we'd delivered on April 14 for AIGA Seattle's "Design Business for Breakfast" Series.
I'd like to pose a question to you: What does it mean to be a design leader?
My provisional definition is: Design leaders guide organizations in planning and fulfilling desired outcomes for their clients—and growing their designers in the process. We could pile a lot of other things onto this definition, such as organizational development, contributing to the profession through sharing expertise publicly, and so forth. But that wouldn't be very effective, would it?
The real definition of design leadership, however, is a bit more blunt:
Design leaders make awesome shit happen.
You can see the work of a great design leader in the work, first and foremost. On a gut level. Hartmut Esslinger of frog put it, "When we have a 'concept' and people smile, we take the next step. When there are questions, we go back and try harder." A leader knows how to push, coax, cajole, and otherwise conjure that level of work out of themselves and their team.
Note I'm not using the term "design management" here, and I want to be sure not to confuse that specifically as "design leadership." I see the two primary attributes of a design leader as being a combination of strategic planning (left brain) and creative vision (right brain). The left side of the continuum is often where design managers play.
If you're not familiar with what design management is, here's a definition off Wikipedia:
"Design management is the effective deployment by line managers of the design resources available to an organization in the pursuance of its corporate objectives." —Peter Gorb
That's MBA-speak for squeezing the most out of designers, like they're some sort of oranges to be squeezed into a delicious smoothie. While managing people is the most important thing that any design leader does—after all, a leader can't be on the ground, executing work through every single day—it isn't the only thing that a leader needs to worry about.
When I first started working as a graphic designer, I thought that I wanted to be a design manager. And I worked at a number of design firms where that's whom I worked for—design managers. It wasn't until I'd been exposed to working with a really broad range of creative talents before I realized that there was a difference between being a design manager and providing vision. That is, until I had contact with a few with real creative vision.
There's always a tension between focusing on the creative work and focusing on people that are creating the work. And depending on the kind of company that you work for (or run yourself), there's a fine line between being a creative leader (focusing on the work) versus a managerial leader (focusing on the people creating the work). Both of these types of leadership, however, require our talents as designers.
What further complicates this is that we're tasked as part of our daily work, in the words of designer Brian Collins, to "make hope visible." We're futurists. As Brigitte Borja de Mozota says, "Designers have a prescriptive job. They suggest how the world might be; they are all futurists to some extent."
Design leaders are charged with understanding what desired outcomes should be independent of the artifacts that the designer will create—and then driving towards making that possible future real. Planning is often considered a management activity, while fulfillment for a designer is often thought to be when you're "creative." But both planning and fulfillment are the sandbox that a design leader must play in, while both flexing their creative and their managerial chops.
When talking about desired outcomes—these vary, from discipline to discipline. You may be planning and fulfilling the creation of beautiful logos for your clients, or multi-national ad campaigns, or web applications, or a more flexible straw made of corn plastic. And of course, they've got to be awesome. That's the desired end goal for your organization as a whole, embodied in some kind of tangible things. It's almost like drawing a forest, and suddenly real butterflies start flying out of the drawing.
Now, beyond the work, it's not just about creating desired outcomes for clients. You've got to help fulfill desired outcomes for your designers too, as part of how you organize your team. If the people creating the work don't get something out of it in the process, then it isn't likely they'll stick around.
This is the big mistake that most design firms make. They make awesome work, at the expense of sustaining the people making it. This rarely happens the other way around, because if you don't do great work for your clients, you won't have employees. You could argue that great creative direction can happen without consideration to other people's emotions... but this is usually why design firms churn and burn. And as you hire and grow an organization, you need the full range of people, from planner to visionary, to force the necessary friction that leads to great work without rampant overtime.