The Thing About “Leading” Designers

In stumbling through what has to have been my umpteenth compendium of “Leading Creative Professionals”, I think I finally hit a point where the sameness of this list or that list all came to a head.

Bullet point after bullet point of the same coverage compiling a high school year book’s worth of favoritism. To be sure, there are a number of those on these lists that I, myself, would consider a leader in their own respects; demonstrating leadership opportunities both locally and remote and encouraging this industry and its creative professionals. But that had me thinking about the criteria we use when it comes to the leadership nomenclature. What makes a leader? And why do so many of the current design “leaders” seem to be so similar? And are some perhaps not offering leadership so much as just good work?

The idea of “leading” designers can be problematic because oftentimes there’s an implicit correlation with “following”. As if the number of people that “follow” a social media account is a direct qualifier for who gets to be a Leading Designer. But let’s be honest here: there’s an inherent bias in the task of who we deem “leading” by aligning it with the imaginary social currency.

This is concerning for a number of reasons. Not the least of which: Conduct should be weighed in “leadership”. We’re declaring to those that follow our content that these are the individuals worthy of your attention and your following. And for one reason or another, they may be! But I believe there’s a systemic issue with our industry pandering towards those with a following while sweeping under the rug some of the more conflicting, uncomfortable behaviors. A “good designer” may put out great work, but is their conduct towards others just as inspirational? Are they intentional about breathing encouragement and actual demonstrable leadership into this industry? Or are they more concerned with planting their flag in their corner of the internet or style of choice and barking at everyone else to get off their lawn? Should so-called design leaders also be judged on their character?

And let’s be clear about something: Our character doesn’t have to be judged by one bad thing we do or one misstep we’ve previously taken coming back to haunt us again and again. I, just as much as anyone, would fail this test and will continue to make an alarming amount of mistakes and more-than-questionable behavioral choices. These individuals don’t have to be defined by these grievances, but without the intent to change those more distressing propensities, they become problematic in our elevating of their work. While perhaps it’s not difficult to separate an individual’s work from their conduct, maybe it should be. These behaviors don’t have to be so big as to be at the “scandal” level. I’m thinking more about how we lead and conduct ourselves with others — both old and new to this industry: Everything from encouragement and critique to inclusion.

But while we don’t have to be judged by our worst, systemic problematic behaviors can and likely should invalidate us from being seen as a leader. Turning a blind eye to conduct to appreciate the work is a decision you could make, but isn’t one you probably should.

We should be covering individuals who actually want to see growth and progress collectively more so than seeing others as competition; those offering critique instead of merely judgment. Are those with a following leveraging it for good or self-indulgence?

Ask yourself if those that you’re propping up are similarly propping others up or tearing them down?

Leadership is more than amassing a following on a given social network. People “Follow” social profiles for any number of reasons: Maybe someone looks and thinks like you. Maybe they make you laugh and you could use a good chuckle throughout the day. Maybe you appreciate their work, know little else about them, and this is an attempt to get to know the individual behind the work.

Whatever the reason, followings happen for any number of decisions. One does not necessarily dictate the other. Likewise, not everyone is afforded the opportunity or promised a large following regardless of the quality of their work and/or character.

There are also a number of designers who have little to no social media engagement, but are both influential in their work as well as their leadership (albeit at a smaller scale). Some are just now beginning to have others take notice, others just aren’t as interested in social loot. But their work and their leadership can be influential; many of those you don’t even know the name of, but their work continues to lay the foundation for modern influential design. Some are leading on a local level, but that outreach is infectious and spreading. These unsung heroes are worth tracking down and bringing out of the shadows (if they so desire) more so than the tenth feature this month on the same designer with the same thing to say to the same people. If you’re influential in your content distribution, broaden your audience’s horizons with more than just those at “the top” of the social spectrum.

It’s also problematic because we frequently align ourselves with those who look and think like we do. It’s why who we put on these lists is just as important as those we leave off. It’s why conferences historically were dominated by a single archetypical speaker. It’s noticeably easier to amass a following in an industry if you’re a white male. Before companies and organizers made attempts towards being more intentional about bringing diversity into the speaking circuit, much of the landscape was dominated by sameness in both persona and content delivery; the same 5 steps towards success — so long as you look like this and behave like this.

There’s a sliding scale of opportunities that have historically been offered to those of differing genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, and orientations. Leadership in both the social and professional world can be more hard-fought for those that don’t fit the archetypical white male mold. Art that departs from the flavor of the week doesn’t get covered as often. Provocative work can be more difficult to circulate than that which is agnostically comfortable and validating. I know this to be true, because there’s admittedly still a pang of discomfort at times when “male” is brought up. And there likely should be! We should feel the disquiet — be empathetic towards what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes that aren’t our own.

These “Leading” misconceptions bring with them the baggage of an elite group of individuals that further separates them from the rest of us. All afforded different opportunities for any number of reasons.

Are the attitudes of those we tout as leaders that of inclusion or exclusivity?

Finally, I think intent matters. What’s the actual purpose of your coverage? Is it to prop up those to distribute life advice in the hope that others might achieve something similar? Is it for you to personally be able to talk to your “heroes”? Is it to better align yourself with and to finally personally be known within those most elite of circles?

I believe that the intent of a majority of these isn’t to prop ourselves up, but rather to lean in and learn from those further in their career — which is a noble task. So many creative professionals are deserving of the title of “leader” in any number of circles as their output of work is just as masterful as their offering of leadership and guidance within this community. But I’d be more encouraging towards demonstrating heightened discretion when it comes to proposing leaders in design and otherwise.

I want to be clear that this isn’t to instigate a witch hunt to find and remove any and all offenders at any point in time of leadership panache. This also isn’t to call out any one designer and drag them for being less than stellar. It’s my own wrestling with how leadership is defined and an encouragement for us to ask for more when it comes to defining what’s expected from those we deem leaders. This also isn’t an dismissal of the concept of “leaders”, but rather a suggested scrutiny for those that we do choose to classify as such. It’s a call to encourage those with a following to use it for goodness, grace, and support for a community that is so often characterized by petty name-calling and a clique mentality. There’s enough room at this table for any number of well-intentioned meaningful creatives to do this work together and make this workspace inclusive and empowering if only we’re willing to hold ourselves and those we prop up to a standard that’s deserving of the title “leader”.