As design 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.

Mia Blume, 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.

“The design 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.

Within six 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 inspiring leaders.

The three pillars of design leadership

Being a 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:

  1. Vision. Leading by example. Inspiring their team. Helping their team see the bigger picture and the role the design/product plays in the world.
  2. Team. Motivating, supporting, and aligning their team. Helping their team succeed, work through challenges, and feel empowered throughout the process.
  3. 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).

“For most 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

What kind 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.

“If you have those two ways of looking at the world, you’re going to be more likely to be set up for success,” Mia said.

“If you 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 adapting.”

Mia Blume, founder of Design Dept
Mia Blume, founder of Design Dept.

A design leader’s responsibility is to be inspired

Many 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.

“I believe 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 inspired.”

She 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.

“When 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.

One of 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.

“That 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.

Understand 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 today.