Design Process
7 minute read

How to Manage a Design Diva (and Not Be One)

Andi has 20 years of UX and IA expertise leading enterprise clients through complex system overhauls in various industries.

There are many different types of personalities in the design profession. One that comes up a lot in conversation (for a variety of reasons), is the design diva. As designers, we have all experienced difficult working situations, but the design diva introduces a new set of challenges.

What is a Design Diva?

The etymology of the word diva reveals that this label is not at all random. Entering into the English language in the late 19th century, the word diva is derived from an Italian noun, diva, meaning female deity. There is also a male form of the term, divo, which is reserved for famous or popular male singers. A diva is similar to prima donna, or popular female singer.

Egos in design are a common challenge

The design diva brings a new level of tension to a design team.

Design divas command attention wherever they go, often at the expense of others. They tend to have an inflated sense of self-importance and believe that their work, ideas, or efforts are superior. They are difficult to work with and they typically don’t have the client’s priorities, or users’ needs, at heart. The opposite of a design diva is a designer who works collaboratively with the team and the client.

How to Spot a Design Diva

To determine whether a designer is a diva, there are a few questions we might consider:

  • Does the designer behave as if they know more about the client’s business needs than the client themselves?
  • Is it more important that the designs which have been created are worthy of being in the designer’s portfolio?
  • Does the designer dismiss client feedback as uneducated or uninformed?
  • Does the designer use unclear, esoteric jargon in a condescending tone to explain reasons for design decisions?
  • Does the designer prefer to speak first when discussing design solutions?
  • Is it difficult for the designer to apply design modifications or start over when the client is not satisfied?

If the answer to three or more of these questions is yes, then there is a high probability that the designer is a diva.

Design divas bristle when design feedback is given since it tends to hurt their ego

It's easy to spot a design diva. They use unclear, esoteric jargon, prefer to speak first, and dismiss feedback as noise.

How to Work with a Design Diva

Being on a team with a design diva can prove to be difficult. It adds an unnecessary amount of tension, and the resulting design work can suffer.

The simple solution would be to remove the design diva from the project, but this may not be possible due to time or resource constraints. Here are some possible workarounds when the design diva must stay.

Emphasize Teamwork

No one designs and builds a product in isolation - every designer on the team has an important role, and we all need each other to achieve the desired results. Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of each team member will afford the design diva an opportunity to feel valued and important.

Design teamwork and role definitions are keys to working with a design diva

One thing a design team can do to foster a better relationship with a design diva is focus on teamwork and clearly defined roles.

Reduce Authoritative Voice

In some cases, a design diva may be a rebellious or egocentric personality type who responds negatively to authority. Attempting to coerce this personality type to follow direction may only exacerbate the situation.

Instead of controlling a design diva through an authoritative management style, it might help to determine why the diva is behaving in such a manner. Consider these possible root causes:

  • The working environment does not support teamwork or collaboration.
  • Design feedback is not taken constructively within the team.
  • Design ideas are disregarded or rejected without reason.
  • Not all members of the team are treated fairly.
  • Communication within the team is strained or overly sensitive.

When one or more of these issues have been identified, it’s good to take immediate action, figure out the root cause, and work to resolve it. Simply opening lines of communication can alleviate a lot of tension on the team.

Encourage Information Gathering

Client and colleagues—whether they are designers or not—may be a wealth of knowledge in their given area of expertise. Coincidentally, knowledge sharing creates a sense of empowerment—something divas love. A design diva might gain valuable material for use in their designs if they spent more time gathering information from others, or learning from their expertise.

If the design diva needs guidance on how to collaborate and gather knowledge, take the time to demonstrate the importance and value that information sharing will bring to the team.

Focus On Tasks

The primary goal of a design project is to successfully solve a business problem. By focusing the design work on solving the problem one piece at a time (via user stories, or individual feature requirements), a design diva may find that they have to focus their efforts as well.

Without focusing on specific project tasks, the design diva may drift off on tangential ideas or lose sight by working on a pet project. This can put the entire project at risk since all team members are needed for a successful outcome.

Build a Culture of Respect and Sharing

Sometimes a designer can be perceived as a diva when the culture within a company or product team does not encourage idea-sharing, and individuals do not feel respected for their individual contributions.

In situations like this, it is a good practice for design leaders to recognize what is happening and try to be empathic to the designer’s situation. Everyone wants their hard work to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Design teamwork involves building a culture of respect and sharing

Building a culture of respect and sharing leads to better teamwork which reduces the chances of a design diva destroying the dynamics.

When designers feel that their ideas and contributions are valued—whether they are good or bad—and the work is acknowledged with respect, the culture itself will change for the better.

How to Avoid Becoming a Design Diva

The Art of Listening

They say that humans have two ears and one mouth for a reason—that they should be used proportionally as such. This is especially true when working directly with clients who are seeking design expertise.

Clients express issues, concerns, and known problems that they and their colleagues are experiencing. Practice the art of listening to hear those points, interpret them constructively, and propose solutions to solve those problems in a language clients can understand.

See the Bigger Picture

We have all worked with designers who are more focused on how a design will look in their portfolio than how it will best serve the user experience or the client’s business problem. As soon as the client perceives this, the designer could be out of a job.

Every designer wants to present their best work. Portfolios foster a sense of accomplishment and often lead to larger, more challenging projects. But, there is a danger in allowing the focus to shift from the intended outcome of a project to the personal gain of the designer. When this happens, the designer risks earning a reputation for being a design diva.

Author Simon Sinek suggests focusing on the why, or, the bigger picture. This approach to design requires that the designer give more attention to the details of the project and often helps to reduce any tendency toward personal gain.

Focus On Reputation

Once a designer has established a reputation for being a design diva, seeking employment can be a challenge since clients often seek recommendations and feedback about designers before hiring.

A better approach is to create a reputation for leading clients to a successful rollout while simultaneously helping users to achieve their goals. A collaborative designer will find that clients reach out more frequently and seek further work.

Be The Change

If the culture or management of a company does not readily acknowledge designers for their contributions, some individuals may respond by trying harder to obtain the attention they feel they deserve.

Unfortunately, this attention-seeking behavior may be ignored, forcing the designer to try even harder and follow a path towards becoming a design diva.

When faced with a challenging work environment, a designer has three obvious options in order to avoid being labeled a design diva:

  • Tolerate a bad situation (this won’t last long)
  • Seek different employment (this may not be as easy as it sounds)
  • “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Design teamwork can help foster change for everyone on the team

Applying sensible principles to design teamwork can help change a design team from dysfunctional to functional.

The third option offers the best outcome. Whether serving in a design leadership role, or as the most junior resource on the team, a designer can make things a lot easier by treating others as they would like to be treated.

It’s hard for anyone, even divas, to respond with negativity towards someone who has offered kindness. Here are a few tips to foster this kind of change:

  • Encourage teammates to share and collaborate by sharing and collaborating with them.
  • Show respect to leadership and peers by asking them for their feedback on any design work, and take that feedback seriously.
  • Ask others to offer their ideas for solving design problems, and then follow through by using those ideas in new design work. This will demonstrate that their ideas are valued.
  • Be sure to give credit where credit is due. If someone contributed to a solution or offered guidance on a design problem, acknowledge that contribution.

Summary

As designers, we face a multitude of challenges alongside the normal day-to-day design work, so it is critical to establish an environment where collaboration, acknowledgment of work, and the sharing of ideas are encouraged.

Often, we encounter a design diva or we risk being labeled one due to our behavior. This personality trait is difficult and sometimes painful to have on a team due to the tension and conflict that arises. If this happens, it is possible to work through it by applying some tried and true principles.

Successful application of these principles will yield better client outcomes, a stronger team, and an improved culture.

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

What does being a diva mean?

A design diva commands attention wherever they go, often at the expense of others. They tend to have an inflated sense of self-importance and believe that their work, ideas, or efforts are superior.

What is diva behavior?

A design diva behaves selfishly and exhibits a sense of self-importance, superiority, and acts as if they should be the center of attention. True to many egos in design, a design diva does not listen nor do they care about others’ opinions.

Why is feedback important in design?

Feedback is important in design in order to create better designers and outcomes. It is also important to reduce egos in design and foster collaboration across the entire team.

What are the qualities of a good designer?

Good designers are curious, collaborative, great listeners, humble, patient, open to new ideas, and have passion and drive. They’re certainly not design divas.