Design leadership: what makes a great design leader?

By Alexander Baxevanis

Design finally has a seat at the leadership table, but what does it take to become an effective design leader?

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to design leadership. A design leader in a large business who's helping to steer the company into an emerging market requires a very different approach from the design leader of a startup who's developing a new range of apps or products.

But whichever type of business they're in, all great design leaders share some common qualities and skill sets – in particular, collaboration, strategic thinking, and being able to understand the different pressures on business leaders.

Achieving this unique blend and being able to champion design at a strategic level is a very real challenge for design leaders. That's why we offer design leadership training here at Inviqa.

Whether you're booked onto our training or not, here are a few thoughts to kickstart your leadership journey...

Soft skills for design leaders

Design leaders need to master people skills – also known as interpersonal skills or 'soft skills'. Leaders need to be able to communicate the benefits of their design decisions to stakeholders, users, project teams, and so on. If they can't communicate properly at all levels of an organisation, then they are going to struggle to get things done.

The qualities of a great design leader

You understand the organisation

What need is driving decision-making at your business? Great design leaders know that they need to be able to explain how design solves that need. The driving force behind decisions at companies depends on their size and industry. What keeps your leadership team up at night?

You collaborate beyond the design team

Identify which teams have a shared interest in the problem you're trying to solve and how could you connect them. Design leaders should be able to navigate and connect the dots between people and teams. At companies of all sizes, it's easy for silos to form and similar streams of work to run in parallel.

Look for opportunities to showcase what you work on and invite others to share as well. If this type of forum doesn't exist then take the initiative, set one up.

You can communicate up, down, and sideways

Design leaders need to be able to communicate with their bosses and clients to educate, understand business goals and challenges, and manage expectations. They also need to communicate effectively with other creatives at their level, as well as peers in other departments such as project management, client service, IT, and so on.

Leave the design-centric language – pixels, UX journeys, and the like – behind. Speak the language of business. If you understand what is driving the decision making in the organisation you are working at, then you can better pack-up the idea you want to share. The more designers do this, the more we drive home the message that a strategy conversation without design present is incomplete.

You're not shy about giving constructive feedback

As a leader, you're invested in outcomes for everyone in your organisation. You must be willing to tell people when the work you're critiquing isn't good enough, or if the project needs to go back to the drawing board. At the same time, you need to recognising and rewarding success.

You're not just a manager

Work on design projects because they will keep you grounded and invested in the ever-changing trends. Becoming a hands-off design leader might just create gaps in your knowledge and eventually you become part of the problem!

You're a mentor

Successful leaders never stop teaching and sharing because they are self-motivated to learn themselves. They use teaching to keep their colleagues informed, share their knowledge by staying on top of trends, and share the news that matters with the rest of their team.

Some take if further by becoming mentors. What are you great at that others can benefit from? Whether you mentor other people on your own team or beyond, there are always opportunities to help others develop.

You definitely don't have to be good at everything to be an effective mentor. But a good starting point is to share what you can and can't help with. This will help set expectations.

So you want to be a design leader?

We hope that this quick overview has helped your understanding of what makes a great design leader.