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Design Process
6 minute read

Who's at the Helm? – Dissecting the Qualities of Design Leadership

Sara is an innovative design leader that has driven growth for more than 100 multinational corporations, mostly in the financial sector.

Of all the forces that govern our careers, none is more misunderstood than leadership. It’s an overused, underdeveloped concept. We visualize leaders somewhere on a spectrum between Lee Iacocca and Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. The middle ground is a mishmash of unrealistic characterizations and expectations.

For many in design, the traits of a good leader are ill-defined, based on in-the-moment impressions and influenced by assumptions that have nothing to do with leadership. Without knowing what healthy leadership looks like, designers and leaders are susceptible to relational dynamics that perpetuate discord.

The first step toward change is awareness. Often, it’s as simple as putting words to a paradigm that everyone feels but no one articulates. Thankfully, there are distinct leadership styles that have been defined by extensive study. We examined each through the unique lens of the design world, and six leadership profiles emerged.

1. Coercive: The Evangelist

Design evangelists are brimming with knowledge. They hold deep convictions about design issues and preach their beliefs to audiences of every size. Their zeal drives the industry forward and inspires the broader design community. In organizations where design is overlooked, evangelists ignite change by championing the value of design to its most ardent opponents.

When evangelistic fervor burns too brightly, passion becomes oppressive. Zeal turns aggressive. Here, flexibility and discernment give way to arrogance and ultimatums: My way or the highway. Unmoored evangelists are especially problematic for mid- and senior-level designers, experienced pros whose valuable insights are trampled beneath evangelists’ powerful personalities.

Of all the design leadership styles, evangelists hold the highest dual potential for good and harm. Caution is required. Evangelistic leaders can temper their intensity by fostering open communication with staff and seeking relational accountability from superiors.

Design leadership
Design evangelists aren’t shy about sharing their passion and knowledge with others. (Ilyass SEDDOUG)

2. Authoritative: The Visionary

As designers, we learn to zoom in and zoom out - to get close to design issues before dropping back for a broader view. Visionaries excel at the macro, the big picture, and have a knack for plotting a course from problem to solution.

Unlike evangelists, visionaries invite others to answer the question: “How do we get there?” Not that visionaries default to democratic decision-making. They include to inspire because they understand that executing their plans requires buy-in. Beyond big picture thinking, visionaries define goals and quality standards for their teams. This brings clarity and structure, both of which empower designers to make decisions and innovate.

Visionaries veer off course when their plans become untethered from what is possible or relevant. This is a form of creative overindulgence, and while it may yield interesting ideas, those under the direction of unrealistic visionaries quickly become disillusioned and confused. When visionaries are infatuated with their own ideas, they risk losing the ability to provide actionable guidance to their teams.

Design leadership skills
As design leaders, visionaries excel at big picture planning. (Deva Darshan)

3. Affiliative: The Buddy

Design buddies land leadership roles thanks to their lengthy resumes, but they have little in the way of real leadership experience. Buddies closely identify with the day-to-day mindset of staff designers, so when they become leaders, they act more like peers than authority figures.

Above all, buddies advocate for their teams. People are first, and a high degree of freedom is entrusted to individual designers. Because buddies are seen as equals, the designers they lead feel safe to share their thoughts, and collaboration thrives. Design buddies work hard to maintain positive team vibes, and they’re rewarded with motivated workers.

Because of their devotion to designers, buddies are prone to ignoring the needs of other departments. Design buddies also struggle when addressing issues of poor performance and interpersonal conflict. Too often, buddies emphasize positive feedback and fail to show those under their charge how they can improve.

Buddies may be perceived as lacking the authority to make tough personnel decisions. In unfortunate cases, buddies’ peer-to-peer approach leads to blatant disrespect and crumbling camaraderie.

Design leadership roles
Design buddies earn the trust of their teams but struggle to establish themselves as authority figures. (Dimitri Houtteman)

4. Democratic: The Vote Taker

Design supplies a never-ending stream of decisions. Some are monumental, and others occur so instinctively that they go unnoticed. Democratic leaders are highly aware of design decisions and do their best to ensure that everyone is able to voice their views.

Those under democratic leadership feel included and valued. Decisions that democratic leaders facilitate tend to stick because they represent the prevailing attitudes of their teams.

In the design world, voting on every decision inhibits speed. Seemingly simple choices become painful, deliberative affairs. Designers grow frustrated as they’re repeatedly asked to weigh in on topics of little consequence. Matters are made worse when it becomes clear that democratic leaders seek votes to mask indecision.

In every context, democracy has limits. Democratic leaders must learn to shield their teams from issues that hinder productivity and threaten job satisfaction.

Design lead
Democratic leaders work to ensure that all voices are heard, but they also bog designers down with endless voting. (Element5 Digital)

5. Pacesetting: The Pixel Hero

Some designers rise through the ranks on the wings of technical wizardry. Their skills are unparalleled, their precision unmatched, and all who see their work marvel. When these pixel heroes are assigned leadership roles, their obsession with quality doesn’t diminish. In fact, it becomes the mission of pixel heroes to raise the skills of their teams to that of their own.

Designers under the leadership of pixel heroes tend to admire them, so they push themselves to be more like their bosses. Outside of design departments, pixel heroes are respected for their high-caliber work.

Unfortunately, design expertise doesn’t equal effective leadership. Pixel heroes tend to fixate on quality while overlooking the needs of their teams. When work doesn’t match their standards, pixel heroes micromanage. This undermines trust and leaves designers attempting to avoid failure rather than striving to do their best work. Low morale and burnout follow.

If pixel heroes learn empathetic management styles, they can be effective leaders. Often, this means that pixel heroes must be willing to show designers that they are invested in their professional growth and personal fulfillment.

Design leadership network
Pixel heroes land leadership roles thanks to their unmatched commitment to design details. (Umberto)

6. Coach: The Mentor

Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric’s golden era, once said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” In other words, leadership has little to do with leaders. It’s about the people they lead. What are their problems? What motivates them? How are they best served?

Those fitting the mentor profile wholeheartedly adhere to this line of thinking. Their highest aim as leaders is developing people. Communication is open and ongoing, and the climate of their teams is generally positive. Mentors excel at providing thoughtful and direct feedback. This is appreciated by their teams, who feel supported but also have standards to work toward. As leaders, mentors are particularly well received by remote teams.

It’s not all rosy for mentors. On teams comprised of mostly senior designers, constant feedback and guidance may be seen as an interruption. Organizational fit is key. Mentors focus on the holistic development of those they lead. Companies (or executives) that promote data-driven or results-oriented cultures may struggle to see the value of the mentor leadership style.

Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

Design team leader
Of all the design leadership profiles, mentors most value the holistic success of those they lead. (WOCinTech)

Effective Design Leadership Blends Styles

In literature, many of our favorite protagonists find themselves teetering on the potential of their greatest strengths. It’s the essential nature of internal conflict. Will amoral qualities be harnessed for good or slide into darkness? It’s no different with design leaders. Will their inherent skills help teams thrive or cause them to disintegrate?

Design leaders should strive for self-awareness and seek support for their weaknesses. It’s wise to have people in place that can provide design leaders with honest feedback when their abilities become overbearing. Ultimately, the best leaders are well-rounded and able to transition between multiple leadership styles for the sake of their teams.

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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

How can I be a good design lead?

One of the most important qualities in leadership and design is a willingness to listen. Design leads don’t simply hand out instructions to their team members, they must understand process blockers, resource needs, and interpersonal difficulties. The best way to accomplish this is through active listening.

What does a head of design do?

The head of design is a design team leader and advocate. In many companies, this role helps establish and maintain creative vision, oversees project timelines and budgets, manages and mentors designers, and relates design activities and initiatives to other departments.

What is a design lead?

A design lead oversees a team of designers within an organization. Design leads come from a variety of design backgrounds. They may lead highly specific teams, like UX teams, or the designers under their charge may represent a range of design disciplines and specialties.

What does it mean to be a design lead?

There are many design leadership roles. Design leads manage teams of designers from a variety of design backgrounds and disciplines. At most companies, design leads are responsible for developing the designers under their charge, maintaining design quality, and advocating the value of design to other departments.