Design Leadership

What are the essential qualities of a good design leader? Part 2

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Editor’s note: We’ve asked a handful of design leaders to respond to prompts each week. This week’s prompt was “What do you believe are the essential qualities of a good design leader?” Below, Libby Bawcombe and Chris Thelwell share their thoughts.

And don’t miss responses from Peter Merholz and Uday Gajendar.

031816_libby_bawcombe

Generosity as an essential skill

How many times have you been called a “creative type”? While it’s true that we designers are creative people, we’re individuals who show our creativity in distinctive ways.

This means that good leaders in design can be as different as night and day. Yet there’s one common quality I see as essential to a good design leader: generosity.

Designers collaborate with many different roles in the workplace: with other designers, with colleagues in other departments within our organizations, with vendors, and with external clients.

As we create relationships with our collaborators, the best thing we can do for one another is to be generous with ideas, generous with time, and generous with praise.

Be generous with ideas

Let’s give our ideas away. The more we talk through our ideas with one another, the more ideas we’ll spark together. Talk about the bad ideas and get them out of the way. Draw out the good ideas and build upon them with others’ perspectives.

I can’t think of a single instance where I had a good idea all by myself that wasn’t made better by hashing it out with a teammate. It’s tempting for designers to feel that we should know all the answers or have the most creative idea in the room. But sometimes, we just don’t, and the best thing we can do is to put out the beginnings of an idea and ask a colleague to help build upon it. Ideas multiply when we share them.

“Designers are individuals who show their creativity in distinctive ways.”

Be generous with time

We collaborate most successfully when we make time for one another. Let’s make it a priority to be there for our teams, not just reactively address needs as they arise. Our time is just as valuable as our expertise, but if we don’t share it, who benefits? I’m not suggesting we schedule more meetings, but how can we can create more opportunities to make time for one another informally? We can check in with remote teammates over video chat, hold team standups in person, and quickly suggest conversations in real life when an issue over group chat or email becomes unwieldy. If we give our time to one another, our collaboration is smarter and more efficient.

Designers at Envato.

Designers at Envato.

Be generous with praise

One of the best things we can do is to openly lift up one another to show how much we notice and appreciate what our teammates do. The goal here is not simply to give our teammates the warm-and-fuzzies. Openly praising one another shows that we notice when people work hard, that they are going beyond their job description, or that they’ve done something particularly well.

“Being an effective design leader is tied directly to what we give away.”

We can email our team or someone’s boss, to say, “Did you guys know Ana did this thing? She did! It turned out amazing and really helped our project. Thanks, Ana!”

Or, we can give awesome teammates shout-outs on social media or during the next cross-departmental meeting. The neat thing about praising one another is that it seems to be contagious. When we’re generous with our own praise, the culture of appreciation spreads outward.

Being an effective design leader is tied directly to what we give away. When we’re generous with ideas, time, and praise, we’re crafting thoughtful, collaborative relationships with one another. That’s how the best work gets done.

After all, collaboration is generosity in disguise.

031816_thelwell

The resilient leader

Design’s role in modern organizations is largely misunderstood. Executives now know they need design, but they don’t know what that means, how to manage it as a department, and how to integrate it with the rest of the organization. I think one of the most important qualities for a design leader in this environment is resilience.

“Good design leaders are resilient.”

I asked the design team at Envato what would make a good design leader. One of the answers really stood out:

Someone who can build and support a strong design team while promoting the importance of design within the company so designers have the influence and autonomy to do their jobs effectively.

–Paul Moran, Senior UX Designer at Envato

This statement really sums up the main goals of a design leader. While it doesn’t directly mention resilience, I think that it’s a core ingredient to making all of this work.

Let me break it down:

Someone who can build and support a strong design team

Building a design team is hard, and it takes a long time. As the design leader, you have to fight for the budget to grow the team.

But it’s much harder to convince senior management of the need for more designers compared to engineers. Who can be directly associated with shipping more of your product into the hands of the customer? You need a clear idea of how you want the future design team to look. Don’t give up or compromise on the team you want to create.

“Don’t give up or compromise on the team you want to create.”

Then there’s recruitment, perhaps the hardest part of growing a team. It takes a lot of effort to find the best talent—you take them through a long process to ensure they fit your team, and then they take an offer elsewhere. When you finally do fill all your open roles, somebody decides to leave. Then you have to start the whole process over again.

Supporting a team is also hard, but don’t forget you’ve hired talented designers. Talented designers aren’t easy to manage—just like you used to be. Remember what it was like to be in their shoes. Avoid micromanagement and hovering over people’s screens, and remember the bad managers you had in your early career.

Promote the importance of design within the company

Design should have a seat at the top table. As designers, we all know that, but it’s rarely the reality in most organizations. If you’re a design leader, you need to fight for the importance of design within your company.

It takes time and effort to spread the word about design—and it often falls on deaf ears.

You’ll get used to executives talking about design as just the visual part that’s hard to measure with business metrics, but we know different. You have to find away to talk design in business language in order to get them to listen.

Then there’s research. I once heard an executive at another organization announce, “We don’t need to talk to customers—we know what they want.” It’s your job to change this, but you’ll find other parts of the business don’t want to talk to customers, as that’s your team’s role.

You have to keep on going and spreading these messages until people start listening.

So designers have the influence and autonomy to do their jobs effectively

You hired really talented designers, right? You’ve given them the influence they need in your organization.

Now you need to give them autonomy.

“Your team must believe you support them.”

But this means letting them make the mistakes that they need to make in order to learn. And picking up the pieces with the rest of the organization when things don’t turn out well. Often they’ll come up with better designs than you could have, but that’s what you hired them for.

Your job has changed from being a designer to being a leader. You have to build the best team and then provide them with the environment to do their best work. This is never easy, but your team must believe you support them, and you must earn their respect by meeting all the challenges head on, again and again.

If you have no resilience, you’ll struggle to overcome each of these challenges. Then your team will lose confidence in your ability to provide them with the environment they need. They won’t trust you, and you’ll cease to be their leader.

Join the conversation

Write your own response to the prompt “What do you believe are the essential qualities of a good design leader?” on Medium, and submit it to our publication.

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Authors

Chris Thelwell
Chris Thelwell has been a digital product designer in both the UK and Australia for many years, juggling award-winning F1 projects, cool Google Chrome apps and the occasional European football championship. An outcome focused design leader, Chris specializes in disrupting markets, creating innovative new digital products, and building high-performing design teams in Agile software delivery environments within large enterprises, startups, and agencies.

Libby Bawcombe
Libby Bawcombe is a senior visual product designer with the NPR digital media team. She collaborates with designers, developers and editorial teams to bring NPR’s unique storytelling to readers and listeners across different platforms. Libby was formerly digital design director at The Atlantic, where she led user experience, art direction and responsive design of the digital experiences for TheAtlantic.com and its iOS apps, and CityLab.com. Prior to this, Libby designed interactive touch experiences at the Newseum, the museum of news in Washington, D.C.

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