Some tips on leading designers

I don’t manage a team of direct reports. Yet as a Principal Designer on a strategic in-house design team, I do serve in a valued leadership capacity of influence, role modeling behaviors and approaches, for peers and junior staff alike. Having worked over 10+ years in Silicon Valley, I have observed what works (and more importantly, what doesn’t) amid a range of contexts, including startups, studios, global innovation agency, and major software companies. I have continuously tried to reflect such observations on how I perform as a design leader. It’s not easy, but definitely an eye-opening journey ;-)

So, below is my summary on how to guide the creative, innovative power of designers within an organization, leading them towards inspired excellence, not just managing the minutia of process adherence.

** Trust and respect are paramount: These concepts form the basic fabric of an elastic working relationship of partnership, that can weather many a storm of disagreement and disappointment, which will be inevitable when guiding the creation of something profoundly novel, and even scary, to others. They also serve as the bedrock of positive collaboration, where ideas can scaffold towards what is desired and needed. Without trust and respect, your designers will disappear and any hope of a design culture will be utterly lost…possibly forever.

** Transparently engage collaboration: No black boxes! See-through glass walls & open doors are the key to success, where everyone feels like a real contributor and partner in the design process. I realize Apple and some others don’t function this way. I’m mainly speaking about corporate settings where “design” is a very novel, perhaps feared or distrusted species in the company ecosystems, to alleviate any suspicion or doubt. Everyone must feel welcome and respected, to smoothly collaborate. (Related: don’t mandate collaboration as a “police action”…It has to be a cultivated desire that is sought after. Non-designers in particularly should feel “enrolled” into the dialogue, joining it, not coerced.)

** Challenge designers with relevant, meaningful problems: Designers of nearly all stripes and patterns and temperaments crave juicy, hearty, interesting problems of real impact–from conceptual next-gen studies to fixing the anachronistic “save” icon for today’s Millenials. Designers want to prove themselves and take their skills/experience to the next level through new domains, user types, tools, and styles, not just serving as a “service group” chopping up icons for tomorrow’s PPT review. This is part of respecting designers for their value, inspiring them to tackle what’s real.

** Replenish and reward, generously: Design is hard work. Really fracking hard, for all the various reasons of politics, team dynamics, tech constraints, market whimsies, etc. You need to recognize the tremendous effort put forth, with public acclaim and valuable rewards, from a cool t-shirt to movie outing to pay raises. (or all of above!) Some may like a simple gesture, others may need more (I’m still waiting for my boss to give me a Porsche ;-) But this is clear: Nobody likes to be taken for granted, especially those who struggle to invent solutions yearning to burst forth from their minds and hands, facing critical skepticism every step of the way until users smile in delight.

Also a big part of this is factoring “reflection time” for designers to stand back, absorb, and process, not mechanically forcing “death marches” to get a design spat out. This helps replenish the mind, eyes, and hands– the essential elements in coherently creating the best solution. A burned out designer with Photoshop (or wielding a Sharpie) is not a happy situation, trust me!

** Support learning and cross-pollination: Most designers by their very nature are naturally curious and want to know how something works, how to make their designs better, how to gain stronger skills and advanced tools. There’s something special I think about the design community and their consummate obsession for conferences ;-) From the social exchange of unique ideas, to the inspirational fodder of bold visions, to the enrichment of practical skills via workshops…it all helps foster a learning culture and progressive mindset necessary for a thriving design culture. Relatedly is cross-pollination, something that’s again inherent to how most designers operate, to help target the best ideas for a problem.

** Create a space that inspires & enables: Designers need both physical and cognitive spaces to explore ideas, shape out concepts, collaboratively AND individually, as needed. It’s a balance of work styles and personalities that evolves in the course of a design project. Movable furniture, lively imagery, natural light, writeable surfaces, tackable walls, fodder for inspiration (magazines, games, movies, posters, etc.), and even radical departures from the norm like a “secret room” with atmospheric mood…all of that can help spark novel thinking. Also needed are structured spaces for serious discussion with non-design stakeholders. It’s not an “either/or” but a “yes, and” flavor of thinking when it comes to space design to enable design success to repeatedly happen.

And one more thing… Don’t ever call designers the “creatives”. Creative is an adjective, not a noun. You’ve hired professionals who are designing the future of your company, delivering products, services, and experiences that will engage with your upcoming markets. They are PARTNERS in delivering excellence, not some “wacky creative” who snickers every time they hear “420” (although that’s often true too, sigh). Check the useless stereotypes at the door, and embrace the collective wisdom of multiple, conflicting, empowering perspectives about what’s useful, desirable, and valuable towards making the best decisions for the team, company, and customer. Because at the end of the day, the company exists for one reason: to create and deliver value to customers. Designers rightfully have a place in that collaborative endeavor, so make the most of it!

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