For designers, the thought of taking on a management or leadership role often feels foreign and scary. Whether fear that leadership would take them away from making, or apprehension that executive teams won’t value their contributions, something holds them back. But without leadership level contribution from design, companies falter.
Fortunately, leadership is a creative practice. And as it turns out, designers spend years honing skills that are necessary to be a successful business leader in a rapidly growing company.
These designer “superpowers” include: creativity, vision, storytelling, empathy, and systems thinking.
Since creativity is the cornerstone of design, designers can simply apply this skill to a different set of problems as business leaders. The best designers are known for navigating ambiguity with ease and seeking interesting solutions to the seemingly impossible. They are imaginative and creative, stretching beyond the obvious solution to seek out unique and meaningful outcomes. They have a naturally positive approach to problem solving, iterating their way towards progress.
In business situations that demand leadership, outcomes are often uncertain and complex. Almost always, there isn’t a clear path, but leaders who are creative will often find a way forward. Creativity is just as critical in designing organizational structures and defining international rollout strategies as it is in developing a prototype for a brand new product.
Today’s businesses demand great leaders exhibit the ability to inspire groups of individuals, if not industries, to take giant leaps. This starts with having a clear, compelling — sometimes even audacious — vision that teams are eager to support.
Design is inherently a visionary discipline. Even the smallest design project must envision a world different than the current one, and the largest projects define the direction for entire businesses. Designers enjoy challenging the status quo, seeking radical alternatives, and creating new experiences where people thrive. Many of the most strategic designers are considered visionaries.
A vision without the means to express it and rally others around it can never be real. Creating a narrative around a vision is what makes it exciting and actionable for the people who are tasked with executing it. Designers tell stories visually, verbally and through the experiences they create. Excelling at making their visions tangibly compelling, designers energize others through their visionary thinking.
Leaders skilled in creating a strong narrative around an envisioned outcome will inspire others to follow. As a leader, you are tasked with motivating others to first understand and then execute, making this storytelling capacity incredibly important in the business realm.
At it’s best, design is inherently in the service of others. Human-centered design, usability and accessibility are all about maximizing ease of use and offering meaningful interactions and experiences for others. Designers are challenged to reach beyond their norms and see different perspectives, needs, and approaches to everyday life.
Empathy is a critical skill for business leaders as well; leaders without empathy are usually not leaders for long. Without the ability to understand their team, their customers, or competitors, they are a distinct disadvantage to those who do. Designers that can understand and empathize with different perspectives are poised to be the kind of effective leaders that connect with others in meaningful ways to develop broad-reaching solutions.
From designing simple interfaces for complex enterprise management tools to defining multi-stream product development process across multiple parts of the organization, designers spend their career honing the ability to turn the complex into the navigable. They not only understand and work within complex systems, they often design them from scratch.
Similarly, organizations are complex systems that need, well, organizing! Designers have a great capacity to consider interacting elements and design systems for organizations. This ability to visualize and navigate complexity through clear systems and processes is essential for business leaders at every level.
Certainly these aren’t all the skills or traits that a great leader needs, but I have seen how they form a strong foundation that increases the chances of rapid growth.
I recently began working with a client that found herself in a senior leadership position, quite by accident. Though she had previously felt competent and respected, she felt lost in her new role as a senior design executive. She wasn’t sure what her role should look like or what traits she needed to succeed as an “executive.” But after talking through some of the key challenges she was being asked to solve, she realized they were all very clear design challenges, just at a new scale: designing the organization, articulating the brand vision, on-boarding new employees and creating positive incentives to ensure a great culture over the long term. All these challenges leveraged her core skills: understanding and empathizing with others, designing systems, creating new things and iterating on them over time. Sure, she still had more to learn, but recognizing the core super powers she already possessed help her step into her role with much more confidence.
Mia Blume is a Design Leadership Coach living in San Francisco. Currently, she advises companies on how to build useful, well-crafted products and shape healthy design organizations.