3 Ways To Be A Better Design Leader

This is the second article in our four-part series on design leadership. Join our email newsletter to stay up to date on the full series and other Designer Fund news.

There are countless books, seminars, conferences, and programs to teach you about business leadership, but design leadership requires an entirely different skill set and is not nearly as well documented. It can take years to master the management complexities at the intersection of business and creativity, but many design leaders are forced to learn on the job. To shorten the learning curve, we’ve gathered some unique insights from top managers and design leads to help you become a better design leader.


Build A Culture Of Design Through Transparency & Advocacy

Design touches all aspects of a company—marketing, product, operations, even customer service—but because it’s harder to quantify success for a design team than, say, the sales department, demonstrating the value of design can often prove difficult. Woo Jin Park, Head of Design at Helix, says his team is all about informal transparency. “At Helix, the design team is trying to find simpler ways to champion design by building transparency around what we do. By doing little things like printing and displaying all of our prototypes in an open gallery, inviting others for design reviews outside of conference rooms and in the open, and pinning up a big calendar of what’s next for us, anyone from any team can walk by and see what we’re working on. That way, every time someone passes by, it’s an ongoing education, and people feel invited to engage with design. Transparency just makes communication easier, and showing what your team is doing to advance the company’s goals adds another layer to the value of design.”   

But even in the most transparent design teams, sometimes you need to be your own best advocate to get buy-in from the C-suite. Stephanie Hornung, Design Manager at Mixpanel, once had a challenging time at a previous company getting senior management to understand the value of hiring a UX researcher. “There was a giant roadblock in selling the role because management had a million (seemingly) larger priorities.” So Stephanie decided to make her case by bringing in researchers from a variety of successful startups to present the impact their work had at their own companies—not only on the product but also on the company’s bottom line. “When you can show the process, the outcome, the impact,” Stephanie says, “a light goes off for people. They get it, and they get excited.” After months of hamster wheel conversations, Stephanie had her first UX researcher hired and onboarded in short order.

To build a culture of design and elevate the quality of design across a company, design leaders must be transparent about the process, educate people internally about its value, and advocate for its use across the organization by helping other teams get the design resources they need.


Empathize With Your Colleagues, Not Just The End User

Design touches many aspects of a company, so design leaders must go beyond empathizing with the end user, and try to understand the perspectives of internal stakeholders, too. Luke Woods, Head of Product Design at Facebook, says, “The most important thing for me as a design leader is to deeply understand Facebook’s mission and strategy. If you can internalize those things, you can identify the opportunities where design can make a difference and foresee challenges that might arise along the way.” This requires a broad perspective, the ability to see all sides of an issue, and empathy for people up and down the organizational ladder.

“When I was a first-time manager, learning how to manage up was the hardest thing,” Stephanie Hornung says. “When an executive without any design training gives you a directive to make changes you don’t agree with—sometimes after you put in months of late nights—it can be very hard to deal with in constructive ways.” But it’s important to remember that if your senior executive is also the founder, there is likely a well-considered rationale to every big decision. Empathizing with that position will keep you sane. Stephanie added, “What I learned over time is that while design and management have the same goals, it’s the executive who has to make decisions based on what they think is the best path forward for the entire company.”

David Dat Nguyen, Head of Design at Gusto, adds, “It’s important to empathize with senior leadership, but if you can extend that to other departments like marketing, sales, and customer support, you can do a lot to help your organization internally, even as you’re designing products for end users.”

One method David uses to imbue his design team with that kind of cross-company empathy has become a weekly ritual. He says, “I like to bring in people from different departments for our design meetings and ask them about areas where we can help. When the payroll operations team came in, our designers were shocked at how painful their workflow was for tax filings and had a lot of ideas that could help. Within a couple of weeks, our design team had improved the quality of work life for payroll operations, all while continually building a habit around proactive problem solving.”

Because design has multiple touch points across every company, design leaders should consider their colleagues to be another group of end users. By empathizing with their problems and partnering to find solutions, design leaders can establish their own teams as critical to a company’s success.


Help Your Team Do Great Work

An essential part of being a good leader is putting your team in a position to succeed, both personally and in a way that positively impacts the business. There are many ways to do this, but our experts share 3 of them here.

Set Context

The pace at startups can often be feverish, and design must advance in conjunction with product, platforms, and players that may shift on a daily basis. As a result, it’s essential for design leaders to provide their teams with the context they need to execute on priorities and make grounded decisions. As Tom Censani, Director of Product Design at Eventbrite, says, “Being in tune with cross-departmental leaders around what direction their teams are moving in allows me to better inform my team and adjust any design work currently in flight. This helps further connect the dots across the organization and keep the team focused on what they do best.” Facebook’s Luke Woods works to instill his team with the knowledge they need to charge forward even in his absence. He adds, “After all, you aren’t going to be present for every single design decision that gets made. Given that, it is important to equip those around you with the context and tools to better do their job and make a positive impact.” Whether you are a design leader or a member of the team, being an active participant in your organization, talking with people across departments, and surfacing relevant information is key.

Design a Career Like a Product

Gusto’s David Dat Nguyen suggests that each designer view their professional journey like they are designing a product. “You yourself are the product,” he says. “You need to be willing to iterate, be willing to fail, and be willing to take feedback from your customers—who are your teammates and peers in the organization. The first iteration is not always going to be correct, but as with any great product, you should have an opinion about how you will be received.” As a design leader, giving your team the encouragement to grow is the ultimate gift—and by nourishing their creativity, you’re ultimately adding value to the business as a whole.

Mentor Others to Lead

A hallmark of great creative leaders is that they encourage others to lead, not only by producing great work, but also by finding opportunities to solve big problem and grab the reins. This is intrinsic to the culture at Facebook; Luke Woods says that when one of his reports asks him for advice about how to be a better leader, he starts by reinforcing the ways in which they’re already leading. “I like to leave them with ideas to reflect on including areas where they’re already strong, difficult questions facing their team, and how these might come together to form new opportunities for the individual to lead and drive.”

Design leaders live at the precarious intersection of business and creativity. By developing a skill set that centers on transparency, empathy, communication, and context, leaders can raise the quality of design across an organization, help their teams do great work, and propel a company toward success.