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What advice design leaders would give their younger selves

“Balance the immediate with the far off” and other great advice for design leadership
What advice design leaders would give their younger selves

Increasingly, we’re seeing that Design is held accountable for not just influencing, but driving measurable impact within their organization. The skills needed to not just land a leadership role, but to translate design into business haven’t traditionally been taught in design school. So what does it take to not only grow into a design leadership role, but to thrive in it?

We talked to five design leaders about what advice they’d give designers who are looking to forge a path to leadership. 

Overwhelmingly, they all suggest that the transition from IC to lead entails expanding the scope of your lens and shifting from a me and mine to a we and us view. 

John Ferguson

Design Director, Goods & Service

Treat design as a long game

James Baldwin said, “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.” 

Although talent is important, I’ve found that endurance is one of the most common denominators among successful design leaders, and leaders in general. Designers should always be pushing and continuously perfecting their craft. “You're only as good as your last project,” is a phrase you might have heard. I tell younger designers to not back down when things get rough. Take on a side hustle to help you continuously innovate. 

Learn how to tell and sell your story

A mentor of mine one told me, "If you don't sell the great idea, a lesser one will win." As design continues to be an integral part of businesses and company culture, designers need to articulate a clear rationale for their design decisions. One of the ways to do this is to create a narrative around your creative choices. 

As a younger designer, I used to talk about the nuances of typography, color, grids, etc. But when you’re in a C-suite, the things we geek out on as designers aren’t that important. Tell a story about how design connects to users, your business, and a broader system. You have to always sell your work.

Embrace versatility 

A design leader is a well-rounded designer. You have to understand the lifecycle of a project from strategy to launch, and how other disciplines work. Build relationships with product managers, project managers, and get a deeper understanding of how other disciplines work. 

A design leader can navigate between making, managing, and mentoring.

Get uncomfortable

Growth comes from getting uncomfortable. As a designer, you should always be learning and finding opportunities that allow you to develop and grow. Find a mentor that will be brutally honest with you and sharpen you with solid critique. A friend will make you feel good, but a mentor will help you grow. 

Tanner Christensen

Head of Design, Gem

First, be unapologetically yourself. When designers try to mimic those they admire too closely they lose much of what makes them so valuable to organizations. That is: they lose their unique perspective and understanding of the world around them and their work. But what we need more of is the value you as an individual can provide, the perspectives and thinking only you can offer your team or community. We should each strive to learn from others, to not make the same mistakes as those who came before, and to adapt ourselves appropriately to situations, but you should find a way to be your unique, weird self while doing all of the above.

Second, learn to balance the immediate with the far off. What great leaders often do is work with others to envision some version of the future while at the same time balancing what needs to get done here-and-now. The two are immensely impactful only in relation to one another. You have to be able to make effective work right now, at a small scale, to keep the engine moving, but also ensure that the work is helping build toward a larger vision of what's to come. If you can learn how to think of your work as a system of elements and see how they all play a part in a larger machine, you'll have the advantage of never wasting effort because you'll always be working toward that larger vision. Better is to create that vision of the future with others in your team, and consistently bring it up as a way of orienting and prioritizing the work you're all doing.

Harrison Wheeler

UX Design Manager, LinkedIn Marketing Solutions

Turn aspirations into action

Early in my career, there weren't many mentors or peers that could help give some guidance as I walked into the world of UX. It was daunting and downright discouraging at times. Still, it was necessary to set my aspirations high and check-in with my intentions along the way. 

If you have a goal of being a designer at X company or manager at Y Company — set a benchmark. Start by browsing portfolios, designers, or companies you admire or aspire to be at. Take note of the things they do well and if they align with your values. Now that you have those benchmarks, create an action plan on what to do in the next week, three months, and year to help you get there. 

Your action plan may include workshops, books, classes, and maybe even the consideration of a new role. It may take more effort than you initially thought, but that's just a part of the process. 

Practice active listening

Active listening will be one of your greatest super-powers. It will allow you to avoid misunderstandings, show your directs and partners that you care, and help you engage in asking the right questions whether you're in a coaching session or in an interview with a research participant. 

Melissa Cullens

Chief Design Officer, Ellevest

My advice to designers and design managers who are working their way up toward a leadership role is: 

  • Don’t be precious about your work
  • Learn how the business works. 
  • Learn the language of your peers on other teams. 
  • Turn your ability to communicate and create excellence for your customers into creating communication and excellence for your teams and peers. 

There is nothing more important for people than knowing they are heard — great designers also tend to be great listeners, so take the skills you’ve honed as a great listener and explore how to use them to help your colleagues feel great, too.

Chris Novak

Partner, Head of Xbox Design Studio at Microsoft

My pragmatic advice for those coming into new design responsibilities is:

Ask to be judged by overall org effectiveness rather than design efficiency

What you want to be judged on is the way the discipline can accelerate everyone’s contributions to the experience and business – and that means being measured as a cross-functional team rather than as a discipline. If the business’ top measurement of design is around its efficiency (e.g. “today we can make two of these, tomorrow we can make three”), the end game here is “can this be done with zero designers?” That line of thinking sets up the team to be judged on speed of a small set of tasks. Be the wormhole across galaxies, not the booster rocket to the nearby small moon.

Leverage the power of the unexpected

What your team does is different than what it’s remembered for doing. Every business is constrained, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of grinding through a backlog or simply trying to meet the demands of what users are requesting; it is impossible to outrun expectations. Delivering something that makes someone take notice because it’s unexpected is exceptionally valuable, and it makes all of the other experiences around it better by association. Of course, unexpected does not mean random, and you’re probably losing if it’s unexpected but has to be explained. 100 perfectly satisfied expectations pale in comparison to a single unexpected delight – that’s what people love and remember. 

What advice would you give your less experienced self? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter and LinkedIn.