I was recently asked if a Design Leader had to be a Designer. The answer is yes, absolutely. But do you need to be the best Designer? No. In fact, I argue you should not be the best.
Aim to be the worst designer in the room
Anyone directing or leading a design team should source the best talent possible. You should be absolutely committed to developing your designers into the best they can be. Hopefully that’s better than you.
There is no room for ego in building a great design team. Easy to say, hard to learn. It took me many years to really get a handle on this.
I have, at different times, been the best designer on the team and of course it feels great. But it feels even better to contribute to the development of others and honestly know that output supported team is greater than that of an individual.
It’s only when you let go of the personal competition that you can be truly subjective and supportive of your team.
In my current (small) team, I am fortunate to work with two of the most talented designers (phatch, henrywr) around. I’m constantly impressed with their ability to grapple with really complex processes and turn them into great user experiences and stunning interfaces.
They are hands-down better craftspeople than me.
So, do you need to be a Designer at all?
Back to the original question… To effectively lead a Design Team, you need a true appreciation for great design to be able to get others to produce it.
A Design Lead needs great empathy. You need to understand the anatomy or a concept idea in order to critique and challenge. Issues or opportunities are rarely to do with colours and shapes — the dangerous territory of like and dislike. It’s usually the stuff you can’t see — the foundations—that makes or breaks the design.
Critiquing how things look will only get you so far. You need to be a Coach to get down to the why and how, not just the what.
As a Design Leader, I’m here to identify and praise excellence, challenge choices and continuously improve quality and performance. I don’t need to have the answers. I do need to ask the right questions, provide the right design strategy and adjust tools and processes to allow the team to flourish.
Fortunately, as a beautiful byproduct of this, my team has actually brought out the best in my design abilities and we continue along the improvement path… together. Everyone’s a winner.
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I’ve been working in digital design since 2000 and leading design teams for the last 9 years. I’m currently Director of Product Design for a disruptive Cloud interconnection company.