On becoming a design leader…

This is based on a talk I gave at IDSA a few years ago, which I re-delivered to my class recently.

As the fields of “web design” and “UI design” speed forward into a complex world of integrated, convergent digital products (see iPhone, TurboChef, Tivo, TomTom, etc.) with arrays of “cloud services” and “suites of functionality” (like enterprise e-business software or even consumer suites: iLife, Creative Suite, etc.), designers need to offer more than just pixel-pushing and spec-writing skills. Indeed, more than ever, design leaders are needed who can assert a strategic view of designing compelling digital solutions. What does this mean?

1. Designers must be adaptive humanist leaders.

Let’s break this apart:

Adaptive means being nimble, flexible, amenable to constantly changing biz & tech requirements (and seeking out user requirements from the field), yet preserving the integrity of the original design vision (ie, the value proposition).

Humanist refers to the empathetic nature of a designer, to be totally aware of the human condition of designing a total experience, from start to finish. This refers of course to empathy for the user, but also for the engineers, marketers, and other members of complex teams with competing goals/values.

This rolls into then next keyword, leader. A designer has to make decisions, and lead with confidence about their vision for a great solution to often difficult problems. To be a leader often requires compromise, negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasive communication skills…as well as a powerful vision embodied in your sketches, designs, prototypes.

2. Designers should be like ecologists, conscious of the integrated system of invisible consequences.

Every product/service needs to be viewed as part of a system of platforms, hierarchies, and families. This includes the brand, features, and related offerings in the company portfolio—even those outside one’s immediate design responsibility. Legendary designer Charles Eames presented a simple yet brilliant sketch that illustrated the zone of an optimal solution, addressing the ideal fusion of competing requirements, much like a Venn diagram with a “sweet spot” of intersections.

Ecological thinking takes a bit more, recognizing the deep social and technical connections supporting a design’s value, implying a comment by architect Eliel Saarinen: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

Thus, the designer’s decision-making should be informed by a “global generalist” outlook, which is a systemic perspective on design issues: how does changing X impact Y? What level of change? What severity of impact? Who else is involved across the company? Becoming comfortable with integrative thinking, and sensing problems from multiple dimensions will guide a designer in selecting the proper battles, and gauge the proper level of priority for a design activity amid tightening constraints.

3. Asking critical questions driven by a set of conceptual frameworks is necessary in identifying the right problems.

Knowing the domain is central towards making sensible design decisions. Designers regularly confront varieties of constraints and goals; thus, knowing how to interpret the domain sufficiently can help resolve conflicts. Thus, developing a capacity for critical questioning has become a survival skill to keep the designer focused on what is necessary to solve a given problem. Other advantages include improved relations with remote team members, and identified knowledge gaps.

More importantly, such questions about the primary motivations, purposes and assumptions of a project enable a designer to properly scope a problem, extract relevant data, and prioritize high-risk features for resource negotiation later. This showcases the designer acting as a leader shaping the project direction and pacing, rather than struggling against unforeseen difficulties.

4. Influence and persuasive communication is vital!

Navigating the arcane levels of organizational structure and social networks implicit in a company is a valuable skill for every designer who intends to lead complex problem solving.

In any practical design situation, solving the specifics of a problem can be quite demanding. However, securing the necessary agreement from key decision-makers for implementation of the chosen design is a different matter, and often more difficult. Recall that design is merely one player in a complex game, and often with less political clout. Given the deeply social, collaborative nature of conducting business, influencing stakeholders becomes the path towards success. Rooted in Classical traditions of rhetoric, influence is the art of persuasive communication, a “subtle maneuvering of ideas” towards achieving specific outcomes. Accordingly, influence requires a nuanced balance among skillful argument, negotiation of conflicts, tactful compromise, and all around decisive leadership, with conviction and purpose.

In order to convey a direction amid chaotic situations, the design leader should learn to delegate, identify insufficient data, balance risks with benefits, and know who to contact for further support. In fact, one may argue that the true sign of design leadership is skillful dialogue towards satisfying the ultimate business function and delivery of a fulfilling user experience.

5. Design leadership has hidden dependencies–learn how to tap them effectively.

While someone needs to be “in charge” for a design, collaborative ties can ensure better handling of inevitable conflicts (e.g., scheduling, budgets, resources) and improved design decision-making. Part of that challenge of leadership is transposing the chaos of daily ambiguity into a meaningful and actionable order. To facilitate this, the designer should tap into valuable “connectors” that constitute the hidden infrastructure of product development: customer service agents, professional services teams, quality assurance engineers, even interns and contractors, with their fresh outsider insights.

Peer designers working on related projects and supervising managers will offer the supporting confidence and authority to proceed with designs. This ecosystem of collective knowledge and interest can reinforce tough calls, by providing information that fuels the designer’s read on the pulse of a situation.

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