Using an Aging Summary
Bingo for Social Innovation

Becoming a Design Leader

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.


What traits does a design leader need to succeed?

There is no one single flavor of design leader. They come in different shapes and sizes, and have very unique skill sets. But there are a series of traits that define every design leader. How these traits manifest in the day-to-day workflow of a design organization govern the ways in which it develops over time. And if a design leader isn't self-aware of these traits, they can wreak havoc in how an organization functions smoothly.

Ideally, a design leader has the following traits:

A great design leader possesses an unquantifiable, creative "secret sauce."
There's something that, for lack of a better term, is any design leader's "secret sauce." It starts with vision as the first and most important attribute of their work, but there is a delicious mixture of innate character, education, talent, hobbies, passions, and loves, which oozes from your every interaction with them. This "secret sauce" can often be powerful enough to to drive the direction not only of the daily creative work, but also of the organizations they work within. It's also most evident in what you might call the "artistic impulse," which is the way that a design leader can, within a few seconds at a whiteboard or on their computer, articulate powerful raw ideas.

Enjoys working with designers and clients—as people.
This should go without saying, but first and foremost a design leader must love working with people. If you don't like people and would rather spend time amongst X-acto blades and Adobe CS5, then it's okay to defer to others when it comes to being a design leader or manager. The tough thing is, the longer you spend as a designer and the more successful that you become, the more likely it is that you'll be prodded into being one.

Functions daily as a behavioral psychologist.
As part of working with people, you need to have a strong "emotional quotient," meaning that you are able to glean the emotions of yourself and others around you and react to them accordingly to help shape project outcomes. This isn't about reading others to simply be manipulative—rather, it's understanding what motivates the people around you and using that information to be a better guide. A true design leader helps everyone around them care about the current task at hand and their reason for being there.

If you don't have a strong emotional quotient and take emotions into account, it's very hard to survive over a long period of time as a design leader. Great creative direction isn't possible without an innate delight in working with people—and an innate understanding of their needs, wants, and desires—to design and produce that work.

Understands their own creative disposition—and those of their teammates.
Every designer is different in their own way—and the most fundamental way they differ is in how their creativity is manifested. Does it emerge from the right lobe of the brain, where lightning continually strikes (almost randomly) to create an inspired design solution, or does it plod methodically from the left lobe of the brain, where beautiful design solutions are crafted and honed step by step until they achieve an polished sheen?

When moving from creating designs to running a design organization, these left-brain/right-brain dispositions rear their heads: in how the work is art directed, in how designers with different dispositions are handled in critique, in how clients are managed, and so forth. Being self-aware of this disposition is often a good first step towards learning how to interact with people whose mindsets are dramatically different. This is married to having the strong emotional quotient that I'd just mentioned—being able to read emotions and relate them back to disposition allows you to redesign how you speak with a designer or a client in language that they'll understand. This is always the fastest way to force traction on subjects that seem stuck.

Sees from miles to microns.
I love the movie "Powers of Ten" by Charles and Ray Eames, and the way it lets us zoom from someone sunning themselves on a beach towel all the way to a view of our entire galaxy. A great design leader can move from the macro-view—future-focused, with a full understanding of where each project in total (and her organization as a whole) should be traveling—all the way into the tactical nuances such as poorly kerned type or a missed detail in a comp in the daily present. Ideally, this leader will also possess the ability to describe what they see as they zoom inward and outward, in language that their clients and fellow employees can understand and act upon swiftly. The most powerful design leaders can also look into the past and make historical connections, which makes both their daily work and their storytelling prowess more potent.

Always able to answer the question "Why?" (Or tries.)
Design leaders function not just as visionaries when it comes to the creative product. They need to be able to speak to a client's business strategy, help in clarifying the proper corporate and marketing strategies that aid that strategy, understand and define for their clients the people they should be reaching, and finally the design direction that aligns with all of that data to guide design that can create meaningful change in the market, in all senses of the word.

If a design leader can't articulate how their decisions are contributing more meaning to the end product, then they've checked out, or they're dealing with problems that may dilute the quality of their organization's end product. Designers can smell a cop-out from a thousand miles away, so a design leader should be honest in trade-offs, compromises, and other elements of a given design direction that seem illogical or sub-optimal.

Communicates up, down, and sideways.
With the appropriate amount of delegation and proper art direction, design leaders do not need to be present through every iteration of every design deliverable. However, they need to communicate upwards, to their bosses and their clients; they need to communicate sideways to other creatives on their level and to their peers in project management, client service, development, and other areas; and they need to clearly communicate down to the designers and other creative resources they manage.

Justin Maguire, my creative director at frog, has some critical points here to share:

  • Because what we do is subjective and uses some very subjective/descriptive language and metaphors, clarity of communication is critical. You should always double back and make sure your assumptions after any meeting are accurate.
  • Everyone needs to know how they're moving the project forward. Everyone needs to understand what the high level goal is, what their role in helping to achieve that goal is, and where they and the project are in relation to achieving that goal.
  • Junior people need more frequent communication. Always.
  • As your responsibilities grow, so does the need to communicate…logarithmically! And as there's less of you to go around, you'll have less time to leave a "personal touch" on project work.
  • Issues can crop up due to absence of input—or if your designers don't quite trust you yet. Through experience and communication, these issues will resolve themselves. Without input, your staff will always assume the worst.
  • "Swooping and pooping" is a symptom of people above you being out of the communication loop just long enough that it's causing problems.

Fosters project ownership among peers and clients.
You can't be present for every second of a design project, from kickoff to final handoff of completed files. If a design leader doesn't give enough space to their team, they won't grow. A strong design leader will calculate ways in which their staff can own key pieces of projects without heavy oversight. They'll also be cautious in how they deliver feedback, ensuring that they aren't training a generation of order-takers.

Applies steady, constant pressure.
A good design leader is invested in outcomes for everyone in their organization. They apply steady, constant pressure at the right key points in a project, from high-level problem framing to concepting to fulfillment to identifying new areas to start a future project. It also requires the willingness to tell everyone that the work you're critiquing isn't good enough, and needs to be rethought from the ground up. If you aren't direct about these issues, they will take down a team.

Is brave and always willing to take risks.
One of my favorite quotes of recent memory is from the designer Andy Rutledge: "Risktakers get first choice. All others can pick through the scraps." In our lightning-fast Internet culture, any good idea can be snapped up in what seems like a matter of microseconds. So taking risks is the only way to assure that you're going to end up with awesome design work from your team and that it'll be fresh in the market.

Risk should be rewarded. My boss, Justin Maguire, says on this subject:

"When you are junior, the ability to take on heroic efforts and work yourself silly should be rewarded… it shows commitment, follow through, and is often the only real way to completely learn the depths of a problem.
That said…as a senior person, looking to be even more senior, you should view any time you have to step into this mode as a failure. Sometimes that is your boss’s failure, sometimes that is a project manager's failure… and regardless of whether each of those two people played a part, you are always responsible to some degree. You must learn to delegate and guard your time and mental faculties closely. The most precious thing you have as the creative lead on a program is your ability to make good, cogent, timely decisions. To do this requires the ability to have some part of your brain not be clouded by the “fog of war”. When you aren’t able to do this—when you are mentally, emotionally, and physically fatigued—then your ability to lead goes out the window. Striving to maintain a calm demeanor, keep the big picture in view, forecast outcomes, keep patient, effectively prioritize, are critical, even when you're buried. Otherwise, the net result is a team without a leader and a leader who feels totally under water."

That is not a desired outcome by any means.


What does it take to become a design leader?

Much like a kung fu disciple, who must climb the tall mountain peaks in order to find the secret dojo in which to learn a particularly rare fighting style, many design leaders do not mature until they have spent a great deal of time working in a range of design studios, in-house design groups, or as a freelancer out in the wild.

There are primary skills that a design leader must acquire, such as holding a strong sense of storytelling. However, there are also behaviors that a design leader must have ingrained as part of their daily work habits. And much like a teacher who needs to lead a student by example, a design leader must be aware of the very same skills they're trying to grow in the creatives that they manage, as well as the behaviors that her delegates are exhibiting that are keeping them from their own goals.

As I was trying to distill some of our thinking here into key skills that you'd need to demonstrate as a design leader, I was reminded of something from a previous life. A former creative director I'd worked with, Carrie Byrne, had drawn a simple version of this on a whiteboard when talking about how to encourage growth for designers over time. The pyramid represents the apprenticeship model, which is the way in which people who practice trades, such as carpentry, progress from a student of a master practicioner. Design is absolutely a trade, as opposed to art, and I don't think you can be a designer without having been an apprentice for a good period of time, whether working under a skilled designer in an organization or being educated by your clients. (The latter counts!) See slide 31-32 of the presentation for the framework.

When I was younger and a bit naive about how the design business worked, I imagined that working my way through as an apprentice to a master craftsperson would be the end of the journey. I was wrong, however. There are a major set of skills, a kind of bonus round tacked onto my previous ten years of focused effort. They will probably take many more years to thoroughly internalize and understand.

Based on this simple framework I've set up, I have some important questions to ask yourself:

What “hard skills” do I still need to learn?
Is my growth path being hobbled because I haven't mastered a key skill that makes me better communicate my ideas with others? If I can't draw a sketch on a whiteboard when trying to articulate a crucial point while in a client meeting, then this is a skill that needs to be in my arsenal.

Who will help me acquire those skills?
Do you work with people that have the skills that you need? Can they teach them to you? If you can't teach yourself, don't be afraid to reach out to those around you to help.

What domains of design do I want to add to my portfolio?
What domains are adjacent to what I enjoy, that would help me have a more holistic understanding of design? While it's important to have a deep competency in at least one domain of design—whether it be brand, website design, industrial design, or advertising—design leaders need a generalist's view of a wide range of domains.

What “soft skills” do I need to acquire to progress towards a leadership role?
Soft skills are what differentiate designers from design leaders. Business writing, public speaking, reading a room, storytelling—you can't just read a book and start doing it well.

What ingrained behaviors might stand in my way?
If you hate standing up in front of people and speaking, you can't just go to Toastmasters and immediately impact the quality of your client presentations. Behaviors are very slow to change, and it requires focused attention and effort to adapt them for more productive ones. Another example is the important habit of writing down or drawing what's being discussed in meetings publicly. While it may seem like an easy skill to pick up, if you're afraid of sharing your thinking in process, you'll have to conquer that fear to feel comfortable with the action. Over time, you'll just automatically pop up to the whiteboard and start sketching, because words spoken aloud are a fairly poor vehicle for coming to a common understanding of a difficult concept or idea.


I hope that over the course of this talk, I've made it clear that there isn't one "true path" to becoming a design leader, no clear checklist that I can provide to you to be one right away. (And if there was one, I'd be flinging copies of it off rooftops.) Design leadership will always be a work in progress, for every one of us.

What I can say is, encouraging yourself to dream big and project yourself more frequently in the future—spending more time staring at the clouds and seeing what shapes emerge—is probably the most crucial skill we need to foster if we're going to become better leaders. And, at the same time, we need to make sure that we're focusing on nurturing the people that help take those dreams and turn them from raw ideas in their cotton-candy-like state into real products, services, and experiences that meaningfully contribute to people's lives.

So start today, and begin by designing the journey.



The comments to this entry are closed.