Of course design leaders lead design. But there can be sooooooo much more. A good leader provides inspiration, influence, direction, guidance, control and management, a good design leader even more. Given the right context and cultural environment, design leaders can do amazing things for any company; here is a snapshot of what the best design leaders lead:
Simply put, design is a team sport, and the best design leaders know how to assemble great design teams, guide and inspire people, and create the magic of synergy in cross-functional teams. Great design leaders are great people leaders. They ask more then they tell, laugh more than they disapprove, and yet are straightforward in critique and focus on the content. One of the core values at Pixar is to “always critique the work”. That means don’t slam the creator, instead critique the work, so the creators can do even better work.
Design leaders are adaptable process leaders, any kind they face; Agile, Sprint, Waterfall, Stage gate, Scrum, ISO, departmental and company based. Design is about making new products, services and experiences, and this requires process discipline and methods know how, coupled with creativity. Good design leaders can make good things happen regardless of process constraints.
Design leaders are connectors – connecting technology and new products and services. Connecting products and services to user experience. Connecting different functions in the company, and connecting the company to it’s customers and followers; in fact, connecting the company to all it’s stakeholders, internal and external. After all, every single company touch point is designed, and design leaders help connect the dots.
Many people wrestle with this, but I think it takes one to know one. Design leadership requires grounding, context and empathy. A background in design, any design discipline, can give this grounding, context and empathy. Actually having done the designing process, experiencing the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory in your own design, this matters. Yes, many professionals can lead a design department, but I think that behind every great design leader is a designer at heart, and at school.
Design leaders are future creators, because design is about making what will be, not what is already. Design leaders lead the creation of new products and services; they help take the company, and customers, to new places, to new experiences. Design leaders lead us all to the future, in little steps, most commonly referred to as design-led innovation.
Beyond creating new products and services, design leaders lead user experiences. Users being the end consumer, the channels and the employees. Based on the principle of user-centered design, good design leaders can create better experiences both inside and outside the company. The best design leaders I know all have empathy for the people, and demonstrate this by walking the line, not talking the talk.
7. Brand meaning
Design leaders also help bring meaning to the brand, because a brand is not just what you say, it is what you do. Design leaders are about the do. How do the products work? How do the services perform? How does the user respond? How does the innovation solve the problem, and is this the right problem to solve? How does the brand become relevant to individuals? Design is making relevance, and design leaders make brands more meaningful to it’s stakeholders.
Design leadership is as much about simplifying things as it is making new things. The best design leaders seek to simplify, to streamline. We already have enough stuff, but we probably could use more thoughtful stuff, more sustainable, more simple.
I heard a great little story, not sure if it is true, but it goes like this: Steve Jobs was talking with the CEO of Nike, presumably Mark Parker. They were discussing collaboration while looking at some shoes on display and (Parker) was apologetic, saying something like “Oh, this pair of shoes is over designed”. Jobs responded by saying “It’s not over designed, it’s under designed. Your designer has not found the essence of the shoe yet”. Great design leaders help find the essence of the problems to be solved. Nice little book: “The Laws of Simplicity”, John Maeda
If the definition of design is solving problems, than the definition of strategic design is solving the right problems. That’s what great design leaders can do for your company. So here are ten characteristics of design leaders.
In my humble opinion, great design leaders can do more for an organization that just about any other functional discipline.