Design Leadership

What are the essential qualities of a good design leader?

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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, Peter Merholz and Uday Gajendar answer.


Coach, diplomat, and salesman

Regardless of size, every design team benefits from a single point of authority and leadership, an individual with vision and high standards who can get the most out of their team. This is the most important role on the team—and it’s the hardest job to do well.

Team leads must be able to:

  • Manage down. Leads are responsible for overall team performance. They need to create a space (whether physical or conceptual) where great design work can happen. They must coach, guide, mentor, and prod. They address collaboration challenges, personality conflicts, unclear mandates, and people’s emotions.
  • Manage across. Design leads coordinate with product leads, business leads, technology leads, and people in other functions in order to make sure their teams’ work is appropriately integrated with the larger whole. They must also be able to credibly push back on unreasonable requirements, and speak up when others claim that the design team’s work is too difficult to be delivered.
  • Manage up. It’s crucial that these leads are comfortable talking to executives, whether it’s to explain the rationale behind design decisions or to make the case for spending money, whether on people or facilities. Design leads must present clear arguments, delivered without anger or frustration, that demonstrate how their work ties into the larger goals and objectives of the business.
“The best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman.”

In short, the best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman. And they’re folks who, through experience, find they can span the conceptual scale from 1,000 feet all the way down to one foot. They oversee the end-to-end experience, ensuring that user needs are understood, business objectives are clear, design solutions are appropriate, and the final quality is high.

To achieve coherence, they must integrate efforts across product design, communication design, user experience research, and content strategy. They’re responsible for articulating a design vision shared not just by their immediate team, but their cross-functional partners as well.

No wonder it’s so hard to find such people.


Being a design leader

From working more than 10 years in Silicon Valley, I’ve learned what works (and, more importantly, what doesn’t) amid a range of contexts—including startups, studios, a global innovation agency, and major software companies.

I’ve continuously tried to reflect such observations on how I perform as a design leader.

So, here’s my summary on how to guide the creative, innovative power of designers within an organization in order to lead them towards inspired excellence—without just managing the minutia of process adherence.

Trust and respect are paramount

These concepts form the basic fabric of an elastic working relationship that can weather many storms of disagreement and disappointment—an inevitable situation when you’re guiding the creation of something profoundly novel, and even scary, to others.

“Without trust and respect, your designers will disappear.”

They also serve as the bedrock of positive collaboration, where ideas can scaffold towards what’s desired and needed. Without trust and respect, your designers will disappear and any hope of a design culture will be utterly lost—possibly forever.

Transparently engage collaboration

Glass walls and open doors enable collaboration. Everybody should feel like a valuable contributor and partner in the design process.

Everyone must feel welcome and respected, otherwise they’ll feel too afraid to collaborate.

Challenge designers with relevant, meaningful problems

Nearly all designers are drawn to solving interesting problems where their design can make a real impact, from conceptual next-gen studies to fixing the anachronistic “save” icon.

Designers want to prove themselves and take their skills/experience to the next level through new domains, user types, tools, and styles—they don’t just want to be treated as a “service group,” chopping up icons for tomorrow’s PPT review. This is part of respecting designers for their value, and it inspires them to tackle what’s valuable.

“Respecting designers for their value inspires them to tackle what’s valuable.”

Replenish and reward—generously

Design is hard work. Really hard, for all the various reasons of politics, team dynamics, tech constraints, market whimsies, etc.

Ways to recognize the tremendous effort put forth by a designer:

Some may like a simple gesture, while others may need more. But one thing’s clear: nobody likes to be taken for granted.

A big part of all this: factoring in “reflection time” for designers to stand back, absorb, and process what they’re working on.

Support learning

Give designers an education budget for buying books, taking courses, and attending conferences.

Create a space that inspires

Designers need both physical and cognitive spaces to explore ideas collaboratively and individually, as needed. It’s a balance of work styles and personalities that evolves in the course of a design project. Movable furniture, lively imagery, natural light, writeable surfaces, tackable walls, and fodder for inspiration (magazines, games, movies, posters, etc.) can help spark novel thinking.

Also needed: structured spaces for serious discussion with non-design stakeholders.

Lastly: don’t ever call designers ‘creatives.’ Creative is an adjective, not a noun. You’ve hired professionals who are designing the future of your company, delivering products, services, and experiences that will engage with your upcoming markets.

Designers are partners in delivering excellence. Embrace the collective wisdom of multiple, conflicting, empowering perspectives about what’s useful, desirable, and valuable towards making the best decisions for the team, company, and customer.

“Designers are partners in delivering excellence.”

Because at the end of the day, the company exists for one reason: to create and deliver value to customers. Designers rightfully have a place in that collaborative endeavor, so make the most of it by leading them effectively.

This piece is edited from an article first published on Uday’s blog.

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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Uday Gajendar
Uday Gajendar is a catalyst for design-driven innovation, defining next-generation concepts & coaching start-ups on UX fundamentals. Uday’s specialities include creating visionary concepts for new business/revenue models, leading "3-in-a-box" design collaborations with engineering & product, and shaping a progressive design culture.

Peter Merholz
Peter Merholz co-founded Adaptive Path in 2001, perhaps the world’s premier firm dedicated to user experience. He was instrumental in AP’s growth from a small boutique firm to a renowned international consultancy. More recently, he led the global design team at Groupon, including product/UX, marketing, and brand design where he doubled the team from 30 to 60, and was instrumental in the first redesign of since the company launched. He's also worked with OpenTable and Jawbone. He is currently co-authoring a book on building in-house design organizations. Peter is also perhaps most (in)famous for coining the word “blog” in 1999. Really. In the OED and everything. Since then, he’s been blogging continuously at

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