Illustration by Bhavya Minocha

As a creative leader, it’s important to ask yourself several crucial questions. What kind of people do you want on your team? Those team members, do you want them to have their own ideas? Or do you want people that take your ideas and develop them, instead? These are difficult questions to tackle in the best of times; to build and thrive as a design team amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to focus on a few core leadership principles and be flexible and adaptable with others.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received and which I’ve carried with me throughout my entire career, is to hire the best people you can; hire people that are smarter than you. This has become a cornerstone of my team-building process: look for great people that are very talented, and never let yourself feel threatened by them.

The key principles of effective design leadership

Once you have those exceptional people in place, working for you and with you, your work as a leader is far from done. Below are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years (sometimes the hard way), and how they can help you be an effective design leader, even during these challenging times.

Lead by example

My top rule is one that sounds simpler than it is. It’s easy to talk the talk, but you also have to walk the walk as much as possible. This applies to your own actions as a designer and covers everything from aesthetics to ethics. I don’t always live up to this (I’m human), but I continually try.

Establish and build trust

Have trust in people, and invest in trust, so your team trusts you as well. It makes leading people much easier. They may not agree with you, but they know that you’re experienced and will be more open to listening to what you’re saying. It’s an incredibly important part of being a design leader.

Explore broadly and discuss openly

I’ve always had a need to feel very good about the ideas I’m putting forward, so I explore many different directions. A lot of the time I come back to the first or second thought, but in order to feel I’m doing the right thing, I have to look at 20 other things and discuss them openly. I’ve always fostered that in my teams.

Provide clear direction to people, but give them autonomy, too

At our studio, Ammunition, we have really benefited from having independent people who work well together, take direction, but also feel they have ownership and responsibility. It’s a very tricky but important balance. Give people direction and let them figure out how to get there. Give them enough rope, so they can learn and grow. A lot of creative leaders find that difficult, but I always marvel at the fact that we have about 40 people that sometimes behave like 80 people. This is because they work together very well and feel responsible for creating something great.

Protect the creative environment

In most corporations with internal design teams there is a lot of chatter and noise, with many people trying to influence your decisions or make demands. It ends up being extremely hard to be creative and take creative risks in these circumstances. You need to protect creative time and space for designers as much as possible, so they can explore and try things and maybe even fail at some of them. If you’re trying to push something new, chances are that the engineering and operational teams of the organization you’re working with will not like it because it means more work, time, and expense for them. But it’s really important designers feel encouraged and confident in taking risks. It’s absolutely critical you give them that protected environment and allow it to flourish, and only you, as the design leader, can ensure that happens.

Have high standards

Make sure your team knows you have high standards and understands your expectations. You have to find the line between high standards and unreasonable expectations, but always be very clear that the work has to be good, right, and done well. I like to be challenged, and I like to challenge people. I’ve been told, time and time again, by leaders of the organizations we work with that “we can do better.” Over time I began to learn that this wasn’t necessarily a criticism of the work we were presenting. Remind people that they, and you, can do better. Don’t rest on your laurels; always be better.

The importance of being design driven

Ensuring that everyone in your organization is aligned with the product strategy and overall goal, not just your designers, is also crucial. This is challenging, and requires leadership and contextualization. Not everyone immediately trusts that the design professionals they work with are concerned about their needs as well, so you constantly have to make sure you listen, understand, and contextualize the work you’re doing.

People also need to understand that being design driven doesn’t mean designers are running the show. It’s also not just about hiring designers and having a design process in place. It’s a soup-to-nuts approach of really thinking about what you’re doing and how it impacts the design of what you create.

When you’re design driven, everyone along the chain of events producing something contributes to the design that’s going out. It takes incredible leadership, constant vigilance, and an understanding of what good design actually means to build across an enormous chain of events and become truly design driven. It’s ultimately why there are so few truly design-driven companies in the world because it’s not completely understood what you need to do, how to do it, and how difficult it is to get there.

Leading a team through COVID-19

Sticking to the above principles during the current pandemic poses a challenge, of course. For us, the most difficult part of the new working from home culture, which COVID-19 has forced upon us, is how to review work, brainstorm, and truly collaborate.

My management style follows a drive-by approach, where I’ll just sit down with someone at their desk and talk through what they’re working on. It’s very difficult to replace that kind of face-to-face interaction.

Reviewing prototypes of the three-dimensional objects we create is also a lot harder. We tend to use 3D printing to develop, refine, and communicate our designs. Instead of producing just one model, we had to produce seven sets for a design review recently. We had to ship them out, coordinate things to ensure everyone had them in time, and also have security protocols in place that we have to follow because we let our prototypes out into the world. It’s created an incredible overhead for our program managers just to get to the point, so we can sit down in front of a model with a small group of people and talk about it. We’re still figuring out how to do that better.

It’s also challenging to provide the level of support designers need to be able to think creatively and explore new angles. There are questions that are hard to save up for a daily 10am call. Sometimes people need help right now, and so you need to make sure they feel empowered at any time to just send you a text and ask if they can discuss something right away. So it’s a challenge to foster the idea of not waiting to get feedback but seeking it whenever they need it. We’re currently exploring how to very quickly do a deep dive and encourage risk taking that’s necessary for people to create something interesting.

The future of design leadership

The current situation, during COVID-19, is training us to be better communicators. The windows of communication and visibility are fewer and far between, which means you really have to know what’s going on and communicate what needs to be done. This can actually be a huge benefit. As a leader, you also have to understand what’s going on in a lot of channels concurrently, instead of following a very linear process from task to task.

As far as the future of design leadership is concerned, there’s a lot of emphasis on designers becoming business leaders. You have to build that into your practice but also maintain a balance. Learn how to be business critical, but at the same time hold onto the values that got you here — creativity, passion, empathy, and the inherent desire to progress. That last one doesn’t always jive well with a broader corporate community that’s tasked with the process of executing consistently. For me, as a designer and business leader, that balance and that understanding of my roots is very important.