3 Functional Things Product Design Leaders Do

As product-making companies invest more in design and product designers strive for greater impact, we need a clearer picture of what design leadership looks like.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing design leaders. While there are many different leadership styles, here are three functional things I’ve noticed all product design leaders do to help set direction and elevate their team’s creative output:

1. They help the team see where it wants to go.

A design leader makes things that give her entire team a vantage point to see what works/doesn’t work, what might be possible, and where to go next.

Sometimes this means independently conceiving of brand new ideas and bringing them to life, e.g. in a compelling north star vision. But more often, design leaders channel and magnify the creative ingenuity of their larger cross-functional product team: PMs, engineers, other designers, content strategists, researchers, data scientists, etc. In practice:

  • When the problem a team is working on is still ambiguous or high-level, she brings clarity. Her work turns fuzzy concepts into tangible artifacts, giving them shape, substance and coherence.
  • When there are lots of moving parts, she elevates the team's perspective – by integrating disparate elements into a holistic picture, where the whole is seamless and greater than its sum-of-parts.
  • When there are multiple paths forward, she helps chart the right course – by highlighting opportunities with the most potential for impact, illuminating hidden tradeoffs, and laying-out logical stepping stones towards the larger vision.

Teams with effective design leaders have a clear picture of what it would look like to achieve their goals. This helps them get real about where they want to go and be more intentional about the decisions they collectively make along the way.

2. They help the team rally around a shared starting point.

A design leader fosters strong team alignment around its priorities, principles, and working assumptions — so that there is a shared starting point to launch from.

Without this shared starting point, confusion sets in and teams may disintegrate into disparate factions and lone wolves.

Rallying the team does not require rockstar-like charisma or creative wizardry. On the contrary: some of the most effective design leaders I’ve worked with are calm, collected, even low-key about their work. They have strong intuition — but their process is highly structured, rational and accessible. Some ways in which this adds value:

  • When the team hasn’t fully coalesced around the product strategy, a design leader helps them get organized — by creating logical scaffolding (e.g. spectrums to place ideas along, design principles, people problem statements, etc.)
  • When a proposed direction is speculative, he adds rigor — by helping define causal hypotheses, data queries or experiments to validate/invalidate them, and actionable next steps either way.
  • When it’s not clear where to start or what to make first, second third, he brings focus — by helping the team hone in on the most important elements to get right within the product experience.

Teams with effective design leaders have a unified sense of: “Where is here, and what is my role in getting us from point A to point B?"

3. They help the team follow-through on tough goals.

A design leader helps the team remain in a creative, constructive, problem-solving mindset — even and especially when the going gets tough. For example:

  • When there are blockers or setbacks, they help the team adapt — by revising assumptions and quickly iterating the product design around new information and constraints.
  • When there isn’t ownership of a key risk or challenge, they step into the gap — by leveraging their unique strengths / designer’s toolbox and owning it themselves, or advancing the conversation around that challenge until the team has defined an action plan with clearly-assigned responsibilities.
  • When execution falters / doesn’t hit the quality bar, they drive the work forward — by renewing or linking back to the vision, modeling care and accountability for results, and finding practical ways to get to better outcomes in concert with the team.

Teams with effective design leaders have a flexible, disciplined, “ever-forward” mindset. They can transform challenges into creative constraints and prompts — to keep following-through on tough goals.

Conclusion

If you take away one thing from this article, I hope it’s that the mark of a good product design leader is that her team delivers strong creative output and impact.

Design leadership is not about: moonlighting as a PM, being the most dominant voice in the room, or championing design purity at all costs. It’s also not something that is bestowed or anointed, but rather a trust that is earned. Design leaders leverage their unique strengths, skills, and creative practice to catalyze:

  1. a clear and compelling vision for where to go;
  2. a shared, well-defined starting point to rally around;
  3. greater capacity to follow-through in the face of adversity.

In this way, design leaders multiply their team’s ability to make better stuff: products and features that are more valuable, easier-to-use, and exhibit a higher level of craft and quality.