The struggle between leading and managing design

Two sides of design leadership. Leadership and Management.

Design leadership is more about shaping and selling the offer of design

  • Driving and ensuring the quality of work
    That infamous creative / design director role
  • Developing clear design strategy
    Whether that’s a vision, principles, missions and initiatives for teams to work on. More of a strategist, visionary role combined with the realism of what the team can do to support it
  • Focusing teams on delivery against the strategy and any outcomes from different stakeholders
  • Evangelising design and the team’s work within and beyond your organisation
    Doing the rounds across the business, on stage at conferences etc.
  • Tackling strategic projects

There are overlaps in the activities, roles and mindsets

There’s more than one person can do at one time

  1. The amount of time you have
  2. The challenges of mode switching

A lack of time to be a great leader

Mode switching between management and leadership is a killer

Management demands a focus downwards on individuals

Leadership is often focused upwards, across and outside

Different ways to tackle the struggle

  1. Split the roles of management and leadership
    There is some precedent at places like twitter where they split team and management from creative and design direction. It’s great if you have the scale and support to do this well. Also, the right people in those roles. But i’d argue that one of those roles becomes under threat in times of cutbacks. And there’s a high chance of conflict between the two individuals if one thinks they can do some of the others’ responsibilities better.
  2. Distribute the responsibilities across the best talent you have or can find
    As teams scale, line management may need to be distributed to be manageable, and it can’t just be the ‘Jason’ or the ‘you’ show all the time. Find others who can take on parts of the different types of role and support you. It might be that you have someone who is a great leader in all ways other than getting on stage in front of people. Or maybe you have someone who is happy to line manage and evangelise, but doesn’t need to focus on the work as much. If you have some good senior folk or are on the hunt for them, think about how you can distribute the responsibilities based on their capabilities, experience and aspirations to grow.
  3. Get some external support
    Sometimes, you can get sucked into the detail and can’t get necessary perspective. Sometimes, you need to admit that and get some support in. I did, and it was invaluable. Mags came in, caught up with the team, and advised an approach to rebuilding the culture. It really helped. I just didn’t have the time or the perspective to do it. Sometimes, you’ve got to admit you don’t have the time and get in the support. You may realise how much you still want a handle on some of the stuff you thought you could relinquish, or maybe you’re glad someone can take a lot of the load off your shoulders
  4. Try and do it all yourself
    This seems like the common strategy. I think it will result in failure, burnout or an unfair expectation for a future replacement. We are all different, and there are some superstars out there, but there is usually too much to do.




Creating positive connections between people and technology. Heading up a new design and innovation consultancy called Resonant

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Jason Mesut

Jason Mesut

Creating positive connections between people and technology. Heading up a new design and innovation consultancy called Resonant

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