The Power of Design Leadership
How do leaders bring value to design?
I’ve been experimenting with design since my teenage years. After a decade at a software company, I recognized the real value of my contributions. I understood my vital strengths, (almost) stopped pushing pixels, and became a leader. Today, I set out to find the elements that turn a great design into a flexible, enduring mechanism.
As more products and services wish to offer top-tier experiences, the effects of successful designs are increasing. Everyone wants an incredible website and a perfect mobile app. Most of us require ease of use, speed, security, and reliability. But who can satisfy such high expectations?
The main ingredient
Many design leadership roles have emerged in this century. Who are the leaders, what are they good for, and which strengths should they manifest? Are they creatives who come up with groundbreaking ideas? Managers shuffling priorities? To me, design leaders push designs and people in the right direction while sustaining a long-term strategy. They are masters of their craft and managers caring for their teams. They guard space for creative exploration but pull back when they wander too far. They apply intuition, gut feeling, and emotional intelligence backed by profound practical knowledge. They make decisions that contribute to meaningful experiences with lasting benefits. Above all, design leaders can develop responsive systems infused with the following qualities.
Like a meal in an authentic restaurant, a design should consist of delicately arranged quality ingredients. As more people demand transparency, there is a little space for deception and disguise. Customers and users appreciate an adequate attitude — one that fits their preferences and style. Like other good things in life, authentic, trustworthy experiences have become an inescapable requirement. Insightful designers work as ambassadors of such extraordinary interactions.
We entered an era where the need for unity spans across time, space, platforms, products, and devices. Well-aligned, interlinked design is more enjoyable than one full of gaps. Creatives can achieve great visual consistency through the combination of color, shape, typography, icons, layouts, and patterns. But aesthetics are just a fraction of the ever-expanding design craft. True leaders care about many more attributes that enhance a unified experience: function, performance, reliability, content architecture, a tone of voice, and others.
If it works why change it? Well, few things hold the privilege to stay the same. Change is often welcome, and innovation became a necessity in many disciplines. Societies, industries, and markets all keep transforming while design possesses the unique ability to respond. In a world driven by business goals, brands evolve to meet new needs and speed up progress. The best designers have a constant appetite for growth, exhibiting the right mindset for adaptation. Skilled leaders assure a design stays on track without ever slowing down.
Innovation and agility fuel novel ideas and endeavors. To succeed, designers have to adapt and follow these trends. The same requirements apply to the tools, methods, and resources necessary for this craft. Most of them get more advanced, accessible, and affordable. Designing interactions, animations, and prototypes have become automated to a significant degree. Icon libraries boast thousands of icons, fonts offer variable widths, printers introduced the third dimension, and the tiniest of devices carry a wild computing power. Design leaders filter through trends, optimize processes, and build scalable design systems ready for the (near) future.
It must be exciting to invent something that stands the test of time. If only it didn’t take that long to prove itself. The timeframe gets noticeably shorter for many designers in the modern age. We live, work, and act fast. The phone apps we love so dearly get super-frequent updates, and the services we use daily conform to our latest cravings. We are in an accelerated world where slow equals old. But there is a place for long-term value. We still naturally dislike change, mainly when it means a push away from our comfort. That’s where design leaders jump in, introducing resilient strategies that present notable impact in the long run.
No matter your agenda, a design should be delightful to look at, navigate, and use. It should convey (preferably positive) emotions. It should connect people, ideas, and dreams. And it should allow for curiosity, freedom, and fun. All of these are essential to my passion for design. As a leader, I am committed to making sure that design stays a compelling and enjoyable instrument — until the robots take over.
I believe design leaders honor these qualities while many others employ them subconsciously. If you are a designer, try to sit back and think about the unique properties of this discipline that go beyond visual decoration. And if you are a design leader, try your best to incorporate these features into a system that is ready for today and tomorrow.