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8 critical skills of effective design leaders

In an increasingly collaborative design world, hard and fast rules don't necessarily apply. But traits like emotional intelligence, future-obsession, and ability to trust rise to the top.
8 critical skills of effective design leaders

Inspiring, confident, and creative are all traits you’d likely expect of strong design leaders, and these qualities are absolutely necessary. But how do they inspire with confidence and creativity? With experience, hard work, and talent, for sure — but it goes beyond that. 

As Jared Spool of Center Centre-UIE points out, design leadership is not design management. “Management is essential for a design team to succeed,” he writes. “But it’s not design leadership. Design leaders are stewards of a design effort.”

We’re hearing a lot lately about how some of the best design leaders don’t necessarily have a traditional top-down leadership style. It’s a more collaborative approach, explains Anthony Armendariz, Head of Design at Funsize, the company he runs with his wife Natalie Armendariz. “My most important function is serving and growing designers,” he says of leading his Austin design studio for clients ranging from Adobe to Volvo. “I feel strongly that it’s our job as design leaders to be obsessed with developing and creating the next generation of amazing designers and design leaders.” 

My most important function is serving and growing designers.

Anthony Armendariz | Head of Design at Funsize

Linda Eliasen, Head of Design at Help Scout, echoes Anthony’s sentiment. “There’s always room to improve our collaboration, documentation, and communication — not only as individuals but as a team,” she says. 

After tapping quite a few brains in the design community, we’ve summarized eight critical skills and abilities of design leaders. Do you agree? Designers and principal designers, what's your take? Share your thoughts by tagging @goabstract on Twitter.

1. Ability to trust

Trust is easier said than done when it comes to scaling a design team, but it is possible if you trust your ability to hire good people and clearly define problems. Because design leaders cannot afford to micro-manage, they must establish smooth processes, which include providing your team with tools, resources, problem-solving techniques, and support they need to do their best work.

We should never prescribe solutions, unless the thing you want is a very specific illustration of a cat holding a wrench.

Linda Eliasen | Head of Design at HelpScout

“Designers are smart — we hire them because they solve problems,” Linda says. “We should never prescribe solutions to them, unless the thing you want is a very specific illustration of a cat holding a wrench, but aside from that, trust them to solve the brief.” 

Once Linda briefs her team, she stands back as much as possible, allowing designers to breathe. She says she’s usually amazed at designers’ work and how much better it is than what was “inside her head.” Linda suggests getting to a place where you can say this honestly to your team: “I appreciate your brain and your craft. I’m getting you involved with this problem early, before I’ve figured out all of the details myself, because I trust that you are the one who is going to solve it.”

2. Asker of big questions

Abstract Co-Founders Kevin Smith and Josh Brewer are open about sharing the company’s startup story and pointing out that Abstract began with big ideas and some really big questions. They also welcome team members of all levels to help solve big problems — and then listen to their ideas. During a weekly All Hands meeting, Kevin asked, “What happens if we connect the dots of our product in new ways?" He followed up with an email to say more about the “invitation to dream,” which resulted in a number of creative ideas.

Kevin Smith Abstract
Kevin Smith, Abstract Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer

“Big ideas or questions are strong motivators when we hold them in our minds. They are the beginning of a lot of work to make them real and a lot of questions about how to make them real,” Kevin wrote to the Abstract team. “Any big idea you see in the world was the result of lots and lots of small things adding up and combining. But it almost always starts with an idea.”

3. Humility

Design leaders aren’t necessarily born as such — they’re made over time. In Anthony’s case, he spent many years in other roles trying on management for size and failing “miserably” (his words, not ours). 

“This job comes with insecurity and impostor syndrome. I’ve been in the design industry for 20 years but I’ve never worked in a large company, and this is the largest design team I’ve ever worked with,” he says of leading 21 designers at Funsize. “Most of the time, I doubt all of my abilities. What keeps me going are the wise words my teammate Tony Sanchez often says: ‘Progress over perfection.’”

At the end of the day, leadership is about recognizing that everyone has to start somewhere and that many people have unrealized potential that needs to be developed. A strong design leader is able to bring out individuals’ talents and steer the team in the right direction.

4. Empathetic emotional intelligence

Linda says “empathy” is one of the most popular words in product design because it’s core to the work of understanding why you’re creating products for people in the first place. Empathy — the ability to visualize the world from someone else's perspective and understand their feelings — is just as important in leading a team.

“Try to regularly remember what it’s like to be a designer making things, feeling vulnerable, and hitting deadlines all at the same time,” she says. “It’s really hard work! Don’t treat your reports like they’re machines. They’re a lot squishier than that.” 

Linda Eliasen Help Scout
Linda Eliasen, Head of Design at Help Scout

Taking this point one step further, Abstract Product Design Manager Sarah McIlwain advocates for encouraging your team to develop their own empathic emotional intelligence. “For each other, for their stakeholders, and most importantly for the customer,” she says.

5. Transparent communication

Linda is adamant about getting to the point. Give people real feedback, but don’t be a dick about it,” she says. Let people know when you’re having a bad day, set clear expectations, tell people directly when they’ve let you down. Transparency should be offered with a willingness to be changed.”

Transparency goes hand in hand with clearly defining the problem at hand because, as Linda explains, the clearer you make the problem, the more confident the designer will be in solving it. “As leaders, we could always spend more time defining problems, helping to identify blockers, and making the collaboration process with other teams run more smoothly,” she says. 

Whether you’re scheduling kickoff meetings or ensuring that processes are in place with researchers and stakeholders, there are always ways to free up space for designers and provide more clarity while they wrap their heads around something tricky. 

Modeling transparent communication for your team can have a broader, organization-wide impact, says Sarah McIlwain. “Setting the stage for open communication between designers and their development partners, their stakeholders, and their peers is critical to producing high-quality work,” she says, adding that her team relies on Abstract to accomplish all of the above.

6. Future-focused

In order to innovate, you have to think about what’s missing from the present and what’s likely to happen in the years ahead — in technology, business, and how people will live their lives. “I believe that a good design leader is obsessed with and effective in predicting the future of design,” Anthony says. 

Anthony Armendariz Funsize
Anthony Armendariz, Head of Design at Funsize

In fact, he ranks future prediction as one of the most significant responsibilities on his plate, alongside creating and refining design services, designing and optimizing our design team, defining roles and responsibilities, and working closely with each designer to help them accomplish their very different career goals.

7. Willingness to learn from everywhere

Anthony relies on peers, groups like the Bureau of Digital Affairs, conferences, and building meaningful relationships with people he respects. “I’m still learning design leadership skills. You always have to learn and evolve because our industry changes so rapidly,” he says. “I continue to learn from our design leader clients, and most importantly, I learn something almost every day from the amazing people at Funsize — from our leadership team all the way down to our apprentices.” 

We’re all just doing our best, and a growth mindset is crucial to evolve with your team, your business, and the industry in general.

Linda Eliasen | Head of Design at HelpScout

Linda takes a similar approach and admits that she doesn’t have it all figured out. “I’m constantly growing, making mistakes, letting people down, learning, and adapting. Nobody knows exactly what they’re doing — not even CEOs or VPs. We’re all just doing our best, and a growth mindset is crucial to evolve with your team, your business, and the industry in general.”

8. Visionary thinking

Design leaders are good at details — many begin their careers as detail-oriented designers themselves — but they’ve matured to see the forest for the trees. 

Linda recalls starting at the first step of the ladder as a design intern for a Boston ad agency, when her instincts to think bigger kicked in. That summer internship allowed her to decide that someday she wanted to be in the watchtower, as opposed to the forest of creative projects. 

“I wanted to think in 10 directions at once, juggling the many constraints that come with creative problems,” Linda recalls, before moving up ranks for various organizations as a junior designer, then an illustrator/designer, a product designer, and art director, and now design leader. “I wanted to help people see a greater vision while doing what they do best.”