After interviewing hundreds of design leaders in my recruiting business for the last three and a half years, sitting thru about 350 speeches by design leaders whilst running DMI for six years, reading about 350 articles by design leaders as the publisher of the DMI Review and the DMI Journal, and co-editing/writing four anthology books about design leadership, I’ve seen some patterns emerge.
It’s a fascinating job function, and one thing that continues to impress me is the unique combination of qualities and skills of great design and innovation leaders. Here are the ten characteristics I see, and look for, in great design leaders.
Empathy. Design leaders tend to be people who care about people. After all, just about everything is designed for people, and so it seems the best design leaders put the user first and foremost.
Curiosity. Great design leaders never stop asking why. Why? Because they want to get to the root cause of the challenge to be solved, and know it is often different than the problem initially stated. Curiosity seems to be a natural attribute.
Humility. Coupled with curiosity, I’ve noticed that great design leaders listen more than they talk. Not to be presumptuous, the best are always in discovery mode. Because it’s not who ultimately designs the solution that counts, it’s how well the solution solves the problem that matters.
Creativity. I don’t think I’ve ever met a design leader who said they can’t solve a design problem; creativity just comes naturally. You’ll often find design leaders designing things outside of work as much as at work, creativity is core, it’s just a part of their DNA.
Design savvy. This may go without saying, but with more and more people claiming to be design leaders, I must state that the best design leaders I know all have a background in design; typically in product, UX, visual or communication design. And it’s quite handy, because it often takes one to know one.
T-shape. In addition to deep roots in design, most have additional interests and competencies in related disciplines, such as business, engineering, technology or anthropology/sociology. The idea of T-shaped people, first developed by Marco Iansiti at Harvard Business School, helps explain why great design leaders are often capable of tackling and solving a wide range of problems, not just design problems.
Research savvy. Having breadth of interests and capabilities yields itself well to research, and most design leaders I know thrive on discovery. The reason being, they know that you can’t solve a problem without knowing the causes and the constraints, and that research is a way to discover boundaries and understanding. By research I mean qualitative. Unfortunately, mention quantitate research and their eyes begin to glass over.
Social savvy. Coupled with research, design leaders tend to be incredibly socially aware. Trends, art, fashion, artifacts, culture, whats next and whats different is all far too interesting to be left unattended by design leaders, which probably stems from their natural creativity, curiosity and social adeptness.
Leadership. It seems to me that that leadership just comes naturally to design leaders. They are the ones to grab a marker and white board meeting notes, they are the ones to ask the challenging albeit sometimes naive questions, and they are the ones to then push for their preferred solution and try to bring the room along. And why not? They figure if that solution doesn’t fly, they can just create another one.
Communication. Coupled with natural leadership skills are most often wonderful communication skills. Great design leaders can tell stories, draw sketches, act, and even write snappy copy. They are masters at multimedia communication. No wonder so many UX designers are emerging as leaders.
Competitive. The last point is that over and over I’ve seen that design leaders play to win. They strive for success. No problem is too great to solve, and in fact the challenge to succeed is the real carrot, not the individual design solution. And its the process, not just the result that matters.
I hope this little summary is helpful for anyone wanting to better understand what makes design leaders tick. This is not intended to be a checklist whatsoever, I’m simply tipping my hat to the beautiful attributes of some of the people I admire most.
And by the way, in case you noticed, this list has eleven points, not ten. Great design leaders are far too expressive to be contained by an arbitrary set of even numbers.