Why Design Leads are the Most Important Role in Highly Effective Design Orgs
I’ve long believed that, rather than Heads, Directors and VPs of design being the pivotal team role, we actually need to focus on hiring more Lead Designers. In this article I attempt to explain what a Lead Designer is, what they do, and why they play such an important role in high performing teams.
How Designers Become Managers
Great designers often get promoted into leadership based on their exemplary craft skills, their ability to ship high quality solutions at speed, and their general ability to inspire and motivate others. However it’s hard to be both manager and a practitioner—something we define as a “player coach”—without the risk of burning out. As a result, design leaders quickly step away from their craft skills to become full time managers.
During this transition, and for a couple of years afterwards, newly minted design managers still have vestigial craft skills they can lean on. However as designers get sucked ever deeper into management, there’s a tendency for those skills to atriffy. In fact this is one of the main sources of anxiety for designers moving into management. Even if folks keep on top of their skills through personal projects, their fellow designers are no longer being exposed to their working practices on a daily basis, so their ability to affect their team's craft skills slowly dissipates.
Senior Practitioners Plug the Gaps Left by Rapid Growth
This is why having very senior practitioners on your team is so important. While your design manager is off fighting important political battles, and providing you the necessary ground cover and air support, design leads are alongside you in the trenches. As such senior design practitioners act as role models for the less experienced designers on the team to look up to. This is what being a successful designer looks like in our organisation, and these are the skills, attitudes and behaviours I need to model in order to advance. One of the great things about having good design leads on the team is that they’re generally around to help out more junior designers. As such design leads are the consummate talent multipliers. They can turn an average team into the preverbal 10x team*
Design Leads also play an important role in bridging the communication gap between leaders and practitioners. Design Directors often find that they need to repeat the same message a dozen times before it truly lands. However if they’re spending their whole time hopping between meetings, it can be hard to clearly communicate intent. As such, junior designers will often seek clarification from their senior peers. Folks who are more visible, more available and can take the time to run through the details and answer any outstanding questions. Similarly, if the senior designers on the team ignore or reject certain decisions, it’s going to be much harder to get the rest of the team on board. Because of this, Design Leads are a vital conduit for disseminating strategy and setting behaviour.
The Role of the Design Lead at Different Organisational Types
In some organisations, the Design Lead is the last practitioner role before management. This allows Leads to get a taste for influencing people and projects without the higher organisational expectations. As such, it can help designers decide whether they want to move into a full time management role, and ease the transition if they do. From a company leadership perspective, having several talented Leads on the team can be sensible succession planning in the event that your Director moves on. If the Lead wants to move into management, they’ll already have the support of the team, the connections around the organisation, and will know where the bodies are buried (or at least where the research is being stored).
In an increasing number of organisations, designers are no longer forced to move into management roles to advance their careers. Instead they can follow what’s known as the IC (short for individual contributor) track. Senior ICs generally have similar pay and status as their Director colleagues, but are focussed on delivering the work rather than managing individuals. The nature of the delivery tends to change at this level. It’s often more strategic, more political and involves a lot more cross discipline coordination. Here’s a great talk explaining how senior ICs operate in a large organisation.
For me this is where Design Leads really come into their own. As super talented problem solvers who can sit alongside the Heads and Directors of Design as peers and equals. After all, if you have an amazingly talented designer, why stop them from doing the thing they’re best at, in order for them to advance? Instead, why not create space for them to focus on the areas they can deliver most value, and have professional managers look after people management?
I hope this article has outlined how a handful of strong Design Leads can have an outsized impact on the maturity of your design teams, and your organisation's ability to deliver high effective design solutions. With talent in such short supply I’d rather have a new Design Director supported by three or four amazing design leads, than a super experienced Design Director leading a fairly junior team. Solid, high-end players will help support and motivate the entire team, while creating enough room for the new designer to grow; a win-win situation for all.
* I generally hate using militaristic language and analogies. Design isn’t a war, and this sort of language can be potentially exclusory. However I struggled to find a better one here, so my apologies.
** OK, so the 10x thing is obviously bullshit, but I’ve seen mediocre teams become high performing teams over a 3-6 month period, simply because an amazing designer joined the team and helped everybody step up their game.