Slides from "The Language of Interaction"
"The Creativity Killer: Group Discussions" in

How Should a Design Leader Behave?

There is no subtext to anything I have said over the past four years on this blog. None whatsoever. Except for the secret access codes for an offshore bank account, hidden cleverly in blog post images.

Here's a question for you: How should a design leader behave?

My hypothesis is that any effective design leader must know how to coax, push, cajole, and conjure awesome work out of their team (and themselves).

Leaders coax stellar work out of their teams by creating space for creativity to flourish. This space is protected from harm, so incursions such as rogue client feedback or organizational politics will not derail ongoing effort.

Leaders push their teams towards a vision, no matter who suggested or informed that vision. It can come from anyone on the team, then be harnessed collectively. However, the leader must motivate the team to realize that vision. The best leaders know how suss out internal motivations and encourage them, rather than enforce a motivation from an external pressure, such as deadline, quality bar, fear of failure, and so forth. The leader can also choose to allow others to lead, trusting their direction and encouraging ownership in the process.

Leaders cajole through critique, by asking the right open-ended questions—at the correct time—to encourage the flourishing of great ideas. To quote Pelle Sjonell, Executive Creative Director of BBH LA: "If creative direction is done right, you should never have to select. You never need to resort to the role of a bouncer. Or simply giving things thumbs up or thumbs down."

Leaders must also conjure compelling design work in their own right, when pressed into service. Otherwise, they may just be serving in a managerial capacity.

Design leaders that employ these modes effectively, in concert with design teams jamming on well-considered design work for engaged clients, is what can make working at a design business transcend being mere work and become delightful.

What do you think? What would you add, remove, or change? I'd love to share your perspectives at next week's Design Business for Breakfast on Design Leadership.


Brian LaRossa

I definitely agree that creating a "space protected from harm" should be a priority for a design leader. Or as my Creative Director says, "a space where it is safe to fail".

"The leader can also choose to allow others to lead" This is also key. I think ideally the design leader should strive to replicate him/her self by empowering his team members, rather defending his/her leadership position from them. This way he/she can actually be in more than one place at one time when the schedule becomes overwhelming.

I'm not sure if I agree with Pelle Sjonell completely, though "cajoling through critique, by asking the right open-ended questions" is definitely spot on. Editing will always be a part of the design leader's day.

Design Leader's must absolutely "conjure compelling design work in their own right" both in order to lead by example, and so that they can continue to empathize with their teams.

The only thing I would add is that they must also "inspire", through their own enthusiasm and engagement, both with the larger design community, their clients/co-workers, and the projects at hand. Earnest interest and excitement can be a contagious remedy for low morale :)


Love this post. I bailed on my entrepreneurial venture to take my current design job because I felt I needed some creative leadership to develop further. However sometimes it seems like my art director has been so whipped by the corporate mistress that he struggles to do more than motivate by expressing disappointment/approval and exhibits fear that keeps our best ideas from getting past him to influence the vision of company leaders. It's tough some days even though I love and respect him like a brother. The best I can do is set a positive example by trying to lead my peers and direct report differently. This post is a great tool to self-evaluate my progress.


Nice! Completely agree, maybe because I come from craft but I especially feel compelled to agree with the comment "Leaders must also conjure compelling design work in their own right, when pressed into service" Two more qualities to add... Emotional intelligence and smart forecasting...

David Sherwin

Aaron and Brian, thanks for the comments!

Prarthana, Could you explain more about "smart forecasting?"

Devin Henkel-Legare

I like this framework, but find that the most important skill when leading design efforts is the ability to translate between business and design. Helping clients frame their requirements as a design challenge, then explaining the designers' solution to the design challenge in terms that allow clients to understand the business value of the result can reduce mistakes and revisions, result in higher quality work, and keep everyone involved happier. So, I would add "communicate" to your list.

Oh, and if you change "push" to "coerce" or "charge" you can keep them all C's.

Thanks for the great post.

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