I needed a catchy title for my article, so here you are. In fact, these 5 tips I give you here are not the-ultimate-magic-recipe. But these are 5 principles I really believe in, because they come from my own experience. So I won’t say you’ll have to follow it to the letter to become the best lead designer in the world, but it could help you and your team if you apply it.
First, some context: How I became lead designer
I work at PrestaShop (a free open source CMS specialized in e-commerce) since 2015. At the time, I was recruited in the software team as product designer, not as lead designer.
When I arrived, I was the only designer in the core product team. There were other designers in 2 other departments, and no lead designer. Other designers worked internally in separate departments with limited knowledge share, working in silos and with weak guidelines.The number of designers has grown since then: we are now 5 designers split between 3 departments (product, marketing and marketplace).
At first I wished we had a lead designer to supervise our work: a more experienced designer, able to make us work together as a solid design team and helping us grow as amazing designers, challenging us with inspiring design review sessions, working with us at building a stronger brand identity, teaching us industry-proven design methodologies and processes… I wished I had a mentor, a guide.
Until the day our Head of Product made me aware of our own potential. He made me realize that if I wanted a design team I just had to connect people with each other and build a team with them.
So I took it upon myself to plan design lunches, then organize a few meetings, starting only with the designers of the company. At first, it was just about talking to each other. They all felt the same as I did: we needed to share our work and issues with each other in a formal way. Great! So we met, weekly.
And then it started to become bigger than this. I realized I could share my knowledge in UX with them and help them grow, while they could bring me the help I needed in the product team. Together we could build bridges between our departments and start working on cross-departments projects, such as our branding application.
We learned from each other and started to work as real design team. I had more experience on UX and product design processes, and they had more experience on graphic/web design and the way PrestaShop uses its branding. Each of us had a complementary point of view. We were stronger and more efficient together.
Having been the trigger for this design team: I promoted our work in front of the management, because I really believed in this team’s potential. More importantly, I understood that, sometimes, you don’t need to wait for the “man for the job”, the ultimate designer, the One, the “chosen”, because talents are already there and they just need someone to push them a little bit.
While working on building a real design team, with or without mentor, came that day when one of my colleagues told me he saw me as their lead designer. Time after time I discovered that it was one of the best professional experience I ever had, and that I was better at connecting designers at work than designing myself.
You don’t need to be the best, you don’t need to be the boss, you don’t need to be the head of anything or whatever…
Being a lead designer is not about ego, it’s not about being better than anyone. Being a lead designer is about believing in the others and, for my part, following a few key principles.
1 | Stay humble
“Rockstars don’t share — neither their ideas nor the spotlight. Team cohesion breaks down when you add individuals with large egos who are determined to stand out and be stars. When collaboration breaks down, you lose the environment you need to create the shared understanding that allows you [to avoid repetition] to move forward effectively.”― Jeff Gothelf, in Lean UX
Being a lead designer is not about being the boss nor being the best. The basic idea is knowing that each member of the team has her own potential, her own talent and that she could be better than you are in a domain. As a lead designer, if your team members become better than you, it proves that you did a great job. And if people become better by your side, they will recognize your value as a lead.
2 | Build a relationship based on trust
It sounds obvious, but it is common to find teams failing this principle. Trusting your team members, knowing that they are able to do their job and do it well, believing in their potential and expertise, letting them express themselves and find their own way of working is crucial. If you want your team to trust you, you have to trust them first.
3 | Accompany with benevolence
Accompanying with benevolence encompasses 2 points:
- Accompanying is about letting your colleagues do their job, looking on how they do it to be able to guide them if they need, and to spare them big failures or bad experiences if you can. It is not about keeping watch on all their tasks breathing down their neck. Your colleagues should recognize you as the one they would ask for help or advice if they need to. The one who won’t judge them if they fail and will help them succeed by themselves.
- Benevolence is crucial. Designers need to experiment, and failure is part of experimentation. And all human beings need time to learn and develop their skills. Accompanying with benevolence is about leading with empathy, patience and kindness. We are not robots. We are people, with emotions, weaknesses and strengths in the same time, sensitive to stress. So benevolence is crucial, mostly if you want your team to stay for long.
4 | Federate the team
Gathering is the key to work as a team. Here are a few tips to federate people:
- Create occasions to make people share their work and knowledge with each other. Having visibility on what the others do. For example with weekly design review sessions.Sharing knowledge helps people making progress and getting used to grow together. Less competition, more interactions. When designers share what they know with each others, it improves communication and team spirit. If they don’t, everybody loses because it breaks down the relationship and brings unbalanced skills in the team.
- Work together as often as possible. Your team members should consider the others as partners. If they’re used to work together, and help each other, your team will be stronger.
- Organize workshops to develop your team’s skills. For example, at PrestaShop we do whiteboarding session once a week during lunch time. It is informal and optional, and it is open to product managers if they want to try. We do it to develop our design skills together by interacting and challenging each others. We do it with benevolence. These whiteboarding sessions were at first an idea from one member of the design team. It didn’t come from me. She wanted to test a whiteboarding session once. We enjoyed a lot the exercise and the benefit it brought us, so now we are used to practice it. I also try to align the team skills with small training sessions. These are just examples. No matter the form of the exercise, workshops are efficient to strengthen the team’s relationship.
5 | Let people go
Yep, this is it.
Nowadays, people don’t stay all their life in the same company, especially in digital companies. Turn-over is a fact. Forcing someone to stay if he made the decision to leave is useless and the consequences on the team’s mood can be a disaster. It is the best way to create conflicts. But if you let people go, they’ll leave in good relationship and they’ll stay invested in their job (or at least in the team), and will make a real transfer of knowledge with all team members.
Letting people go is also a way to protect the rest of the team and to maintain the quality of relationships. And as lead designer, if a team member leaves for a better place, this means that you certainly did a good job. You should be happy for her, even if it is always hard to lose a talent.
Thanks for reading this article. If it was interesting or if you have any point of view to share on the topic, let me know!