8 Tips for New Design Leaders

Congrats on the new leadership gig.

You’ve worked hard. You’re a life-long learner. Now it’s your turn to lead a team of designers on a project — or with their career path. Here are a few things I wish I’d known when I got my first leadership gig.

1. Prioritize and delegate.

Talk to other managers. Before you start working with a new designer, talk to his manager to find out what you’ve got.

Frontload your workload. Create a plan that gives designers the hardest work in the beginning of your project timeline. Designers are fresher at the beginning. And if shit hits the fan, you and your team won’t be up all night before your deadline.

Give designers achievable challenges. Start each working relationship by giving your designer a harder work you think she can handle. Then track her very closely for the first few days and adjust her workload to what’s an achievable challenge for her. Doing so gives hotshots a chance to shine. But it also allows you to jump in and give more detailed direction to folks who can’t rise to the challenge. Don’t miss the opportunity to let someone wow you.

On the other hand, if someone is performing below the level you need, it does no good to continuously push her so much that she feels like he’s always failing. Adjust her workload down and communicate the staffing issue to project managers.

2. Be clear.

Communicate what, why, how and when. Designers at every level should know what his overall assignment is and how it fits into the big picture. Tell him what principles are guiding the design, how detailed his work should be and what volume of work he’s expected to produce. Set deadlines when you can give him feedback before he shows it to a bigger group. [Checking in and following up on timelines. Helping them realize when they’re over promising. Send out a schedule of what’s expected.]

Give the right feedback at the right time. Early design should be rough and explore a range of ideas. Give feedback that encourages ideas and maybe ignore the details at this stage. Once a design direction is locked, begin to fine-tune your feedback to detail oriented perfectionism.

Have designers write down all feedback and check it off. Okay, this might sound like micromanagement. But the more designers you’re working with, them more feedback you’re keeping up with. It’s nice to not have to memorize everything you’ve told each designer.

3. Be direct.

Realize there’s a difference between being nice and pleasant. When something’s not right, it’s your job to say so. [The other part of being direct is transparency. Sometimes shit hits the fan. Tell your team what’s going on, acknowledge it’s messed up, let your team vent, buy them shots (or hot chocolate). ]

Allow yourself to be impressed. Reframing things from “looking up” to “looking down.” Was always trying to impress the people above me, but not taking care of the people below me. A shift was to realize that people were trying to impress me, and I’m the one giving that feedback now.

Let it be known. Let the designer know when the client (or some higher up) really loved something. Or let people know when there’s a problem.

4. Inspire.

Convey a sense of purpose. Or the client’s objectives. Or something that takes the focus off of you. “Give them the kool-aid.” Finding what’s interesting about that one project. They’re all fighting for the same thing.

Let people own their piece, even if it’s just small.

Sketch as far along as you can. It’s harder to tear it down because you spent to much time on it. A junior designer might be slower in the software so their ideas might be at risk.

Ask questions that push design thinking. Instead of saying, “Move this button to the left,” try forming it as a question. “Can you tell me about the button placement on this page?” This gives your designer a chance to think for herself. Maybe she’ll have a great defense that pushes a product to be more innovative. Or maybe she’ll say something that you can turn into a teachable moment (pardon the cliché). They need to have an opinion about it. If the client asks us to do something and they say, okay I’ll do it, I ask what do you think about it. Make them think. Give them ideas without doing the ideas work for them. Praise and challenge. This is awesome, what other ideas did you have around this? The more specific the praise is the more it matters, or helps.

5. Teach.

Teach one design lesson at a time. Designers at every level have a room to learn. Each time you meet with a designer, combine specific feedback with one design lesson. Specific feedback is stuff like: “move this button to left align with the form fields.” The design lesson might be: “use alignment and figure-ground relationships to create scan lines or visual funnels to bring the user’s eye down the page.” How your designer a couple of examples, then ask him to talk about how he might apply the lesson to his work. The next time you meet, hopefully he’s nailed the last lesson and you can the next one.

Let designers own their piece.

6. Be their career advocate.

Sometimes you’re giving feedback on the work, but not on the person. Have another meeting where you’re talking about their growth, approach or attitude. Those bigger “design lessons” could also include process or professionalism.

7. Protect everyone’s time.

Watch out for people who might be “quietly suffering” through a workload.

Give really concise feedback quickly. A tip is to give yourself more time to review work and then give feedback.

8. Be accountable.

Just make a decision. Have someone yell at you. Or praise you. Admit you’re wrong and be humble when you really are wrong. Remind them that you’re ultimately responsible for the work. There’s a difference between being nice and pleasant. Lead by example.

Remember, it’s not about you. Sure, you’re awesome. But everyone knows that already. So let go of things being exactly the way you want and give someone else a chance to try their own design solutions. There are an infinite number of ways to slice any pie. Sometimes that means the not super-perfect thing gets to the client, or letting the designers make their mistakes and learn from them. Let your designers own their work.