How to be a design leader

Dear Reader,

I'm not sure who needs to hear this, but you are already a design leader.

If you're reading this, there's a good chance you're already leading in design.

Q: What's a design leader?

You don't have to know exactly what a design leader is to be one. Lots of design leaders don't know they're even doing it. They might just be trying to be good people.

Here's a definition:

Design leadership is about leading others through your design work. Design leaders use their vision, experience, and knowledge to increase the quality of design in their organization. A design leader should be a multiplier for the teams they work on.

Sound like somebody you know?

Today, I've got 3 things to learn about Design Leadership:

  1. Design management isn't the same as design leadership
  2. Design leaders and managers share 6 activities
  3. The best design leaders use vision, experience, and knowledge to lead

1.) Design management isn't the same as Design Leadership.

Quick Note: the practices of design management and design leadership are similar but different.

Some design managers are design leaders and vice versa. You don't have to be a manager to be a leader, and managers should also aspire to be leaders.

Here are some distinctions that can help you from my personal experience:

2.) Design leaders and design managers share 6 activities.

You already see that strategy is a shared activity for both managers and leaders. But they share more than strategy work.

Raymond Turner, author of Design Leadership, says that design leaders and design managers do the following 6 activities:

  1. Envisioning of the future
  2. Manifesting strategic intent
  3. Directing design investment
  4. Managing corporate reputation
  5. Creating and nurturing an environment of innovation
  6. Training for design leadership

3.) The best design leaders use vision, experience, and knowledge to lead.

Design leadership isn't something you get from an MBA or a Slack group. Leadership is about practice.

Like anything you practice, there are multiple dimensions to work on. You won't naturally be good at all of it. It's hard to know what style of design leadership you've already built, and which you should develop.

That's where Art (vision), Craft (experience) and Science (knowledge) can help!

This triangle comes from Henry Mintzberg, an author and teacher on management, leadership, and strategy.

Mintzberg seeks to rebalance leaders based on the 3 poles of art, craft, and science because he thinks that most leaders are too focused on the head, and not enough on the hands and heart.

  • Art means leading through vision, synthesis, and insights
  • Craft helps you lead through doing, learning, and experience
  • Science means leading through logic, analysis, and evidence

In order to be a leader and create things like strategy, you need to balance all three in order to be successful.

Even having 2 out of 3 styles might also cause imbalance:

  • Leadership without the head can lead to chaotic, disorganized design leadership that's missing process.
  • Leadership without the heart can feel formulaic and dispirited design leadership that's missing that spark.
  • Leadership without the hands can produce a disconnected design leadership style that's missing practicality.

Design leadership is all about leading authentically with your whole personality, from your feelings to your thoughts.

The key is to constantly practice balancing styles and find balance for your existing style.

With practice, you can learn to work better with your team...especially the difficult ones.

Until next week!

Jeff Humble
Designer & Co-Founder
The Fountain Institute

P.S. Next week, I'm teaching a LIVE masterclass: How to Design a UX Strategy. If you're looking for practical ways to lead, then this webinar will give you everything you need to get started in UX strategy. Here's the flyer:

The Fountain Institute

The Fountain Institute is an independent online school that teaches advanced UX & product skills.

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