Let me begin by saying that being a design leader is not giving presentations to many people or writing books and articles. That’s just one type of leadership. I know fantastic design leaders who lead differently. There are dozens of design leadership philosophies out there and I am not trying to write yet another one. Rather I am writing practical tips that any designer can apply to their day to day work to lead through design.
So let me tell you that design leadership…
…starts with ownership
Don’t wait for anyone. If you see something that can be better, take initiative. Re-design, suggest changes and make things better. No one will complain if you make something better. I have seen many sections of websites or apps left unattended by designers and engineers because they don’t have bandwidth, or because it is not a priority. So feel free to help out. Ask your teammates questions. Be genuine and humbly naive so that you may learn from them about why certain decisions have been made. Offer to help. And then deliver.
It continues with inclusion
Don’t be a design loner. Involve others to create great stuff together. It is a fun practice. Sometimes you will have conflict. And conflict will help you grow. Others will learn from you and your perspective. You will learn from theirs. At the end of the day, you will be a better designer and probably a better human being too.
Ownership and inclusion = earned trust
My dad always says that trust is not given freely. He says you have to earn it. Including others in your design process shows that you care about them and their perspective. Having ownership shows others you will do the work, and do the work well. As you do this you will earn their trust. You will become a valuable team member. The kind of guy/gal everyone wants to involve in their project.
You will inspire others
Day to day design work can be a grind. Pushing pixels is not easy. Running design research sessions is not easy. Meetings and more meetings are tiring.
So as people see you working hard and earning others’ trust, they will be encouraged. We are all encouraged when we see someone working with passion.
Folks on your team will approach you, ask to be a part of what you are doing. If they do, be sure to involve them as best as you can (even if just a lunch chat is all you can offer at the time). You have no idea how much of an impact you may have in their lives. You have the power to encourage, to challenge, to help grow, to fuel passion. It’s great stuff! We all need encouragement every once in a while.
Design leadership ends with humility.
Remember that what you are building comes from a myriad of great minds working together. From all those designers who came before you, to the brilliant developers you are working with, and the fantastic business strategy folks on your team. No one makes a dent in the world alone. We all have people supporting us.
So when you are in position to show off, don’t. Instead, show off your team’s great work. Compliment them. Make sure they feel appreciated. Because they are. You wouldn’t be in that position without your team. If you win over your team, not not only will they perform great work, but you will also gain their friendship, respect and fellowship, something everyone needs a lot more off.
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