The Designer’s Hierarchy of Needs

brian mcconnell
Jan 8 · 4 min read

The core premise of Servant Leadership is putting the needs of your team first. I believe it’s a large part of success for any team is creating an environment that designers can thrive in. Attracting, retaining, and engaging talented people requires intentional effort. The end goal is a highly performant team but getting there is a design project in itself. Identifying designers’ needs is a valuable, “problem discovery” research study in the design project in building your dream team.

My many years (but not that many) of leading teams, managing designers, talking with fellow leaders, and interviewing candidates has distilled a few consistent insights into what designers' needs are when taking on, or staying in, a role. As a bonus, many of these needs are also applicable to product managers and engineers.


Smart, talented people want to work on interesting projects that have an impact. Obvious right? The best designers want to work on substantial design challenges. The day to day project work is the single biggest driver for most designers to give their best effort. The work needs to be engaging and worthy of your time & talent.

A design leader has the responsibility to their team, and to themselves, to make the strategic decisions on where you apply your energy. There’s a lot of groundwork needed to ensure you’re making the right choices. Often you need to say no to impactful projects. Sometimes you need to pitch for the projects that do. This is the job of a leader in attracting and retaining talent.


We win and lose as a team. Designers want to work with people who will make them better and help the team succeed at the mission.

I’m an avid road cyclist and there’s a pretty simple tip for getting faster on a bike: ride with people stronger than you. Design is similar and many good designers want to join a team with a talent level above theirs to force them to improve. Even just being exposed to better design helps designers grow.

The second facet to the caliber of the team is knowing there’s the required talent across the board to succeed. If there’s a lopsided ability, either in the design team itself or in cross-functional partners, then success will be hard-won.


This could easily be the top driver for many designers and it’s tightly coupled with the Mission and the Team. It’s critical to nurture an atmosphere of positivity, empathy, and compassion to foster psychological safety, connection, and collaboration. Good design depends on this trust to have effective feedback on work in progress. We need to have a safe space for nurturing fragile new ideas. Working through messy uncertain human needs confidence across the team.

Culture also goes beyond the design practice to include the entire company. Are you proud of your company? Do you believe in its values? Doing the right thing is everyone’s job; especially design.


Opportunities for career growth are important to everyone and it’s something every designer will think about before they take on a role. Designers are looking at two facets of career growth: personal development and how this role fits into their career story. The design leadership team needs to ensure there are strong mentorship and coaching structure for designers that fuels personal growth. In addition to being the right thing to do, it’s a great way to up-level the team.

One aspect of career growth that is unique for designers is the maker/manager dilemma. Designing and Managing are different jobs. Making the leap from creating impactful work to scaling yourself through others is a transition that requires intentional support. As a design leader, you need to get very crisp in your mind and with your team about what the expectations are for each path.


Designers want sharp modern tools to produce their best work. Fast machines, performant network storage, ergonomic input devices, all the production & prototyping apps, printers & physical space for externalizing work, design operations processes … all these tools better enable designers to achieve their flow state to work on the problem at hand.

Working with obsolete tools or cramped quarters invariably impacts the quality of the work. Designers have to spend more time wrestling with tooling than delivering value to users.

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