becomes an increasingly important priority in the business world (at numerous
organizations for the first time), there is a growing demand for people who
understand its significance and have the leadership skills to make change
happen at an organizational level. For many designers, this may mean taking on
a design leadership role for the first time.
founder of design leadership coaching and development company Design Dept.
says, “These executive roles for designers are relatively new. When I say new
in our field, I’m talking about digital product design, so there’s a lot of
people figuring it out together.”
Mia has spent the bulk of her design career holding leadership
positions at companies including Pinterest, Square, and IDEO. It was never her
intention to get into design leadership coaching, but when she took time off to
travel, people started seeking her out for advice. They wanted to know how to
unite their teams, how to be more efficient, how to lead by design, and most
importantly, how to be a great leader.
industry needs design leaders — good design leaders. I get contacted
consistently. Almost every single company is looking for design managers and
design leaders right now, which is a good sign for design as a community, but
what it also signals is this gap in development for our community,” Mia said.
months, her design leadership consulting and coaching had grown into a
full-fledged business. She founded Design Dept. in 2016 and has since expanded
her offerings to include women’s retreats and coaching to help foster
supportive leadership development in women and balance the gender divide. The
bulk of her work is with individuals, helping them become more effective and
The three pillars of design leadership
good design leader means something different to everyone. It varies depending
on the type of leadership role a person is in, and whether it’s creative or
more executive. What Mia has noticed for her clients is there tends to be three
buckets that design leadership focuses on:
- Vision. Leading by example. Inspiring their team. Helping their team see the bigger picture and the role the design/product plays in the world.
- Team. Motivating, supporting, and aligning their team. Helping their team succeed, work through challenges, and feel empowered throughout the process.
- Execution. Includes creativity, implementing design systems, and ensuring the team is on track. It involves understanding that design leadership starts with designing their organization (or team) and helping design as a function to be successful within that organization (or team).
design leaders, they are expected to cover two of those areas, if not three, in
their particular role,” Mia said.
The two qualities of great design leaders: curiosity and a desire to grow
of person does it take to deliver on vision, team, and execution? According to
Mia, the buckets can be learned, but the two most important things she looks
for in design leaders and designers looking to improve their leadership skills
are curiosity, and a willingness and desire to grow.
have those two ways of looking at the world, you’re going to be more likely to
be set up for success,” Mia said.
approach problems with curiosity, you’re more likely to get to the root of a
problem, to be open-minded, and to lead with empathy, which means that it’s
going to be far easier for you to problem-solve and guide people through
challenges. With growth it’s just inevitable, not only because of the industry
and the field that we’re in, but as a leader you’re constantly growing and
A design leader’s responsibility is to be inspired
designers transitioning into leadership roles for the first time can find the
new responsibilities taxing on their creativity. There can be more meetings to
attend, more emails to send, more managing to do, and far less hands-on design
work to be done. Inspiration can slip, and this can have a ripple effect on the
entire team’s inspiration, creativity, and output.
inspired leaders are inspiring leaders,” Mia said. “If the individual does not
feel inspired, the team is going to see that, feel that, and inherently not be
encourages leaders experiencing a lack of inspiration to take a step back. In
the design leadership process, first and foremost, take a look at where you are
in your role and how you’re showing up for it. Are you acting sustainably? Do
you feel creative and connected? If you’re feeling creative and connected,
chances are you’re going to be inspired and you’re going to see the world in a
light that is so essential for today’s design leaders to radiate out.
people transition into management, they forget that often the number-one thing
they need to do is assign that inspiration for themselves,” Mia said.
She has a
solution, and it applies equally to overwhelmed new leaders as it does to more
seasoned leaders who may be experiencing a case of creative burnout.
It’s a call
to arms asking you to find what inspires you now — knowing it might be
different than what inspired you when you first stepped into a leadership role.
You might have to do some experimentation to figure out what gives you energy,
and then it’s your responsibility to integrate that back into your life and
into your work — even if you only focus on it for five minutes a day.
Mia’s clients, for example, used to do a lot of cartooning. She was working in
a design leadership role for a hyper growth start-up and was finding herself
extremely worn down by the end of each day. She decided to start sketching
again each morning for five minutes.
allowed her to feel more creative from the start of the day. It doesn’t have to
be major. It’s just whatever works for that individual,” Mia said.
that many people find themselves in leadership roles before they feel ready,
especially as new design leadership roles are developed in the design field. Remain inspired, curious, and open to growth,
and you’ll be well on your way to being the leader the design community needs