3 Min Read

What Design leadership isn’t

Michelle Beukes

February 23, 2018

By Chanetsa Mukahanana, UI Designer at Freethinking

Two friends and I started a business just after I finished varsity. We knew absolutely nothing about the industry, let alone running a business, so we made tons of mistakes and learnt a lot from them.

We may hear a lot about what makes a good design leader. But to approach it from another perspective, and in the spirit of transforming those mistakes into learnings, let’s look at what design leadership isn’t:

It’s not about pushing pixels.  Instead of directly designing the experiences of users, a true design leader does this indirectly, through shaping good teams and establishing a clear vision.

It’s not design management. Good management is about making the team effective at delivering the desired results and helping people to get their jobs done. While good management is essential for a design team to succeed, it’s not design leadership.

It’s not about getting awards. Design for real-world use, not for accolades. Focus on the user and the outcome, the awards might not come, but the point is to create products that impact people’s lives. On the flip-side though, we know that reward inspires motivation – so by recognising and rewarding your team members’ efforts, you tap into the best way to motivate them and bring out the best in them. Recognition and reward can be powerful tools, provided they are structured well, used in moderation and at the right time.

It’s not about showing people how smart you are. Yeah, this one’s tougher than I thought. It’s fair to say that many of us need help with this. Ultimately, the goal of design leadership isn’t to continually emphasise your skills but to empower those people around you.

It’s not about knee-jerk reactions to your competitors/trends. Reactive leadership occurs when you don’t plan, to avoid problems or take advantage of opportunities. Those on-the-spot decisions you make tend to leave your team feeling disempowered and teaches them to expect direction instead of teaching them to be self-reliant.

It’s not just for the leader alone (you can’t go it alone). Success is a group endeavour, so the entire team should take part in creating success so ask for and accept help along the way. Individuals and teams can feel isolated and unimportant when big decisions are made without taking account of their perspectives.

It’s not about being precious about your ideas/solutions. It is easy to become too invested in your own ideas, but being attached to your ideas will lead to cloudy decision making. The more attached you are to an idea, the less willing you are to accept feedback about it, and thus, the less chance it has to develop into something truly great.

“It’s easy to become too invested in your ideas… being attached to these ideas will lead to cloudy decision making.”

It’s not about seeing people as objects to be moved around. Treating people as mere objects to be moved around leaves them feeling afraid of making mistakes, being judged or embarrassed. These feelings result in an environment where people are in survival mode, focusing on self-preservation and doing all they can to keep their jobs instead of focusing on delivering great products.

It’s not about staying rooted to the spot. Design leaders must continually remain one step ahead of the rest – scanning the horizon for new trends, technologies, approaches and user preferences. A huge part of their role is to explore new opportunities and decide how to evolve the direction of the design team.

It’s more about culture and environment than you think. Design leaders must strike a balance between setting a clear vision from the top, with the flexibility to allow teams to bring new ideas to the table and feel a great sense of autonomy and ownership over their roles. True design leaders orchestrate the activity and the creativity of the design teams, ensuring an environment where everyone feels motivated to contribute at their highest level.