How Designers Turn Into Design Leaders

by Jared M. Spool

It often starts the way it did for LaiYee Ho and Nick Stamas.

LaiYee, a UX designer, and others on her team at the home automation company Wink were frustrated by what they didn’t know about their users. She put together a guerrilla effort, with no budget, to visit people’s homes. She brought engineers with her.

“When we brought engineers into the home with us,” LaiYee told us, “it was the first time we were able to see firsthand how the customer was really using it in the environmental context. What did the homes look like of the people that were using our product? Who were the other people that were interacting with it?”

From these trips, LaiYee and her team discovered users of their products the team never knew existed. Those newly revealed users became the focus of new product development, and the Wink team saw substantially increased product adoption as a result.

By taking the engineers into their customer’s homes in a no-budget guerrilla effort, LaiYee became a design leader at Wink. She’s now Wink’s Head of Research.

Nick’s story is a little different from LaiYee’s. When Nick arrived at WeWork as a Creative Lead for their internal tools group, he found there had been little UX design on the products he was looking to support. (This wasn’t a surprise, as the Head of Digital Design had given him a heads up on this problem.)

Nick’s team wasn’t happy with the quality of work they were shipping. He told his team, “Hey, we need to do something about this. I have some ideas on how we can start to tackle this as a team.” From that, WeWork’s Plasma design system was born.

By seeing a problem and pushing for a solution to fix it with no budget, like LaiYee, Nick became a design leader at WeWork. He’s now overseeing Plasma and heading up future work on the team’s design systems.

Design Leadership Isn’t Design Management

While LaiYee now heads up the research efforts at Wink, she wasn’t a manager when she became a design leader there. Neither was Nick when he proposed what became Plasma.

Management and leadership are not the same thing. Management is about making the team effective at their jobs. Good managers ensure the team has everything they need to get their jobs done. They shield the team from the distractions that might come from others, while ensuring that each team member is given a chance to do their best work.

Management is essential for a design team to succeed. But it’s not design leadership.

Design leaders are stewards of a design effort. In LaiYee’s case, she stewarded the efforts to learn more about Wink’s users. Nick stewarded the definition and creation of the Plasma design system. LaiYee and Nick weren’t managing, but they were definitely leading.

The only requirement for being a leader is to have followers. Managers need to be promoted, but leaders emerge.

Managers walk around with a sign on their forehead that says, “I can fire you.” They get action from the people who work for them through their role power.

Leaders don’t have role power to get people to act. They have to use persuasion to make it happen. For design leaders, they often do that by riding the waves of important priorities inside the organization.

Some organizations try to appoint design leaders with titles like Creative Director or Chief Design Officer. For these individuals to be true design leaders, they need to gain followers just like they would if they didn’t have the appointment. Their efforts to lead won’t take hold if their ideas and how they express them aren’t compelling enough for others in the organization to want to join in.

Where Design Leaders Find Their Support

Permission isn’t necessary. While some design leaders emerge after asking for permission from their management, many take the Grace Hopper approach of asking for forgiveness later.

Almost always, the new design activity has to happen in addition to the design leader’s regular (and not leadership) workload. This keeps the leadership activity small and economical. If it garners good outcomes, people see the results, and they encourage more of it. That’s where the followers come from.

The followers are responding to the leader’s passion for taking them in this new direction. The most effective design leaders bring an effusive passion to every discussion of making design better. People on the team want to follow them because they’ve caught the bug and want to see better designs emerge.

Leadership Is Easier With Air Cover

It also helps to have some executive support. When an executive gives public support to a leader’s project, they are providing that leader valuable air cover. This is where finding the organization’s priorities help.

In most organizations, there are really only five types of high-level priorities. The organization is either interested in increasing revenues, reducing costs, increasing new customer business (also known as market share), increasing existing customer business, or increasing shareholder value. (Shareholder value is essentially the long term sustainability of the organization. If the market conditions change, will the organization still be viable and grow?)

Knowing which priorities are currently at the top-of-mind for executives can help a design leader gain support for their leadership initiatives. Wink was focused on growing their market. LaiYee’s initiative to learn more about their customers was right in line with where they were trying to get to. WeWork wanted to speed development, thereby reducing costs for each application. Nick’s push for a design system reduced development time and costs.

Smart design leaders are always paying attention to the business, so they know how to frame their initiatives to meet the needs of the business. They find hidden champions by identifying who in the organization feels the most pain from the current poor design. (See A Proven Method For Showing The Value of Good UX for one method for locating hidden champions.)

Organizations Don’t Get Great Designs Without Design Leaders

Just having a person appointed as design manager won’t get the organization great designs. Design leaders have to emerge for that to happen. Those leaders have to formulate a vision of what great design could be for that organization. And they have to gain followers among their peers throughout the organization, and support from the executive team.

A design manager can be a design leader, but it’s not common because growing a design department is a big effort in and of itself. (This is why someone appointed as Creative Director position may not be a successful design leader.)

Design managers can use their role power to give support to the design leaders on their team. When a design manager tells their team, for example, to use a design system like Plasma, they are lending their role power to the design leader’s efforts. However, in the end, if the system isn’t well implemented or designed, it will not take hold, and any efforts to push it forward will fail.

An organization can have more than one design leader. In that case, the leaders need to work together for a common vision. Good leaders know how to express their vision to get everyone on board. They coordinate to ensure that everyone is pulling on the oars in the same direction.

If the design team is to have a lasting effect on the organization, it needs to develop and support design leaders. These individuals must be identified and nurtured. LaiYee’s and Nick’s managers, whether they knew it or not, were doing just that.

Smart design managers will make this one of their primary missions. They’ll identity the individuals in their team who have an inkling of a vision, and grow them into a solid design leader. Design leadership works best when it’s an intentional act of the design team’s management.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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