2021 Design Leadership Trends

Adam Fry-Pierce
Design Leadership Forum
11 min readDec 25, 2020

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2020 was transformative.
So much changed, so fast.

Global events impacted daily life at magnitudes unseen in decades. As such, many teams were (understandably) ill-prepared for everything that 2020 threw at us.

But it wasn’t all bad.
For design leaders, there were bright spots for sure. Just look at the digital transformation and the rise of design in business, for example.

For years design managers and executives have been advocating for more resources to unleash the value of design across their businesses. The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation, and many top- line executives looked to design to help stabilize their company as the broader enterprise had to pivot. As one design leader said back in March: “We finally got a seat at the table, but the chair was on fire.”

As we go into the new year, things are still uncertain. A double-dip recession threat is looming, it’s unknown if the vaccine will end the age of the social-distance economy, etc.

What can design teams and design leaders do to prepare for whatever is ahead? Slow down, reflect, and create a flexible strategy.

To help, we asked 3000+ design leaders in the Design Leadership Forum (DLF) what they are focused on going into the new year. Here’s what they had to say.

Who’s the design leader, and what’s are they focused on?

For the sake of this article, we’re defining design leaders as the group defining the future of the entire field of design. These individuals are sometimes power contributors, such as authors or makers, but that’s a small slice of the collective design leadership community. Most are senior people managers in design management, often at a director or executive level.

After speaking to thousands of design leaders, it turns out 2021 will be a year of maturing a team’s respective design practice, with an emphasis on operations.

There are 7 trends to keep an eye on in 2021. Leaders are focused on

  • optimizing remote workflows so teams can operate from anywhere
  • maturing key design practices to help recruit, and add more value
  • improving partnerships between design and critical partners
  • creating systems where design can align goals with said partners
  • ensure research is properly resourced, and is appropriately positioned
  • advance design operations and systems, to do more with less
  • rethink how their company innovates and creates new value

Let’s look at each trend.

Big studies and armchair research all point to the same thing: the remote migration isn’t slowing down.

Gartner estimates 82% of company leaders plan to allow a remote-friendly model. Others say upwards of 30% of tech companies will be bagging the office entirely.

Design is a team sport and the entire team needs to play on the same field. If one or more team members are working from home, teams will need to create remote-first models. Otherwise a number of problems arise, and guess who has to solve those problems. The design leader!

Whether for the economics, peace-of-mind, or for pure-selfish reasons of avoiding unnecessary problems, design leaders are flagging remote workflows as a top priority for 2021.

A year from now, this looks like it might be a minimum-viable practice for the modern design team.

Need help shifting your flow?

Resources:

“Mature practices are our rosetta stone. They help us recruit talent, enjoy our work, and deliver high value to users, customers, and the business.” -DLF Member

Thanks to studies like The New Design Frontier, we have evidence proving highly mature design practices have a higher business impact than low mature teams. This means better design practices make for better business. It’s better for the customer, for the investing business, and the people on the team. No surprise: a common goal for design leaders in 2021 is to mature at least one aspect of their design practice.

Many are doubling-down, hiring entire teams to own practices maturity initiatives. IBM may be the most famous example of what these programs look like. As it turns out, these programs are incredibly appealing for high-talent designers.

Mature practices are an employee perk. A workplace with mature design practices delivers that which the designer holds most dear: psychological safety, prideful work, continuous education, and enjoyable means of working. Leaders are using this to their advantage when recruiting. No longer do they have to do office tours and show off their fruitful kitchens or lounge areas. “Our practices have become the new ping pong table”, as one DLF member said.

Resources:

There’s plenty of data supporting the value of tight internal partnerships. So what stands in the way of design, product, marketing, dev, and other teams coming together to collaborate?

Egos. Doubt. Status quo-ism. Power struggles and political baggage.

None of these are good reasons for partnerships to suffer, but they make complete sense and we need to address them. We can share stats all day, but at the end of it, we’re dealing with other humans who have their own emotions, stories, and agendas.

That’s why design leaders have collectively identified ‘key partnerships’ as one of the most important variables to divert their time and energy to for the new year, as this dimension of design maturity unlocks so many other focus areas.

Key partnerships can be a catalyst to all other maturity initiatives within the enterprise, as design shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. Thus, it’s a top priority for design leaders in 2021.

FWIW: This shouldn’t be just on the leader to fix. So many of us parking lot key partnership improvement initiatives as they are super wicked problems to deal with. Many people aren’t measured by improving relationships.

Resources:

As mentioned, practices and partnerships are a high priority for design leaders. But that doesn’t mean teams are in agreement about what to work on, or how to work on it.

You can have a high-mature design team and strong critical partnerships, but teams often localize what’s important and where to put resources, making forward-progress difficult for the broader working system.

To make things worse, misaligned teams are tense teams — new problem areas crop up as a result. And tense orgs tend to have issues with things like talent retention, user leakage, and sustainable growth.

So, how does everyone get on the same page? By carving out space for partners and team members to come together and discuss shared problems, create solutions, and design plans to execute.

This takes time. Typically alignment activities are flagged as “important, but not urgent” and tend to be forever delayed. But no longer. So many teams have added things like “renewed team charters”, “alignment frameworks”, and “human centered-roadmapping” to their strategic focuses in the new year so they can be more prepared for anything that 2021 throws their way.

Resources:

“Finally, the business gave us resources to advance our user research practices. But then we couldn’t speak to our users” — DLF Member

Throughout the year, we checked in with dozens of teams to ask how their research teams were holding up. Throughout the year we kept hearing about common research pains, over and over again: teams struggled with remote research. We heard the current tools just didn’t accomodate for enterprise needs.

To make things worse, entire industries lost access to users due to the pandemic.

Take healthcare, for example. Imagine you’re a team building something for doctors and nurses. Due to some major cogs in the broader healthcare system, doctors are largely inaccessible for researchers and design leaders to interview. “Doctors, nurses, and the healthcare professionals at the front lines are time-poor, and tied up. We’ve had to work around this, ultimately leaving recent shipments unvalidated and risky in the GTM,” said one design leader.

We anticipate a new wave of remote-friendly user research tools and a rise of innovation in the research operations space.

Check out these resources in the meantime. Half of these authors are in the DLF. Ask them for help if you need it.

Resources:

When the pandemic was first setting in and teams had to work from home, operations had to be prioritized for top-line management. It turns out that in a remote environment, design systems and design operations (called: DesignOps) are critical for teams to work together.

At this point, most design leaders know this, so what gives? Why aren’t all teams investing in DesignOps and Design Systems? Because their business counterparts don’t get it.

In the next year, we’re hearing from leaders in almost every industry that remote-first operations, platforms to support their people, and design systems are a top priority. The biggest challenge is convincing the business to cough up the dough.

These aren’t inexpensive to build, maintain, and mature. Although there are plenty of industry reports that talk about the business value of Design Systems and DesignOps, there aren’t enough field-guides for design leaders to convince their business to invest.

But, fear not, dear reader. There’s another promising trend to consider. More and more design leaders are becoming business savvy and better storytellers. We anticipate leaders will secure funding, and

we’ll see a major rise in Design Systems and Design Operations in 2021. It’s yet to be decided if the majority of companies will choose the in-house route, or go the way of the agency.

Resources:

Throughout the 2010s, more and more design teams are working with Research and Development or Innovation Centers. This work mostly happened in a nice lab or an even nicer innovation center.

With everyone moving to remote, what’s the new standard? There are two winning ideas in the design leadership community.

Bake it in…or go to a building?

On one hand, some argue to evolve the innovation center of excellence, operating in a remote-first model. While innovation centers have been around for a while, very few were built for remote.

We heard enough stories in 2020 about how centers of excellence grinned to a halt, going offline for months. Many are advocating these facilities be turned into innovation clubhouses, where teams occasionally meet to collaborate, but most work is done asynchronously from home office.

Others are advocating to incorporate innovation into practices. Many are experimenting with a variety of methods to best infuse the customer voice into their product development flow in a remote environment. We hear about a lot of frameworks, but the most effective way to innovate in any environment, is to subscribe to lean mythologies and invest in maturing your research practices.

There’s isn’t likely to be a “one-size-fits-all” approach here, and it’s definitely too early to tell which route most will venture. Hopefully, it’s not a mutually exclusive option. There’s value in being customer-driven in your practices, and there’s value to seeing your peers in person.

The five cornerstones of Innovation

Look at any major brand known of innovation. They need a core set of elements to continue to be able to innovate year after year.

They probably all have 5 things in common: they have innovation systems, measurement frameworks, training programs, mature org structures, and a culture to support radical thinking. Let’s break these down.

Systems: ideas need to be able to start anywhere in the business, then flow through a set of standardized systems, so a central group can validate the ideas. Whether this is baked into the product development flow or in a center of excellence, there needs to be a known and easy-to-find system.

Org structure: Innovation isn’t restricted to a closed off R+D lab. It isn’t a small set of the design team doing really cool new work. It should be everywhere, and encouraged at every level of the company. Silo’d orgs can prohibit new thinking, and ultimately stiffle growth, as much as any other cornerstone listed here. Each org bucket should have innovation intakes engineered into the org design. Innovation systems need good org design, and vice versa.

Measures: This is controversial, and not an easy task. Once an idea is chosen for a new product line or feature, attached innovation scorecards to measure progress and help the team socialize the project’s impact. Lean Innovation Scorecards and the HEART framework are excellent references to learn from, check them out.

Culture: Everyone should feel safe enough to throw out big ideas. To do this, build a place where ideas are chosen based on evidence and merit. Ideas should have a clear rubric that objectively states what new ideas need to do for the business. Then they need to go through similar levels of scrutiny, via testing and experimenting.

Training Programs: We can have systems, measures, and culture and still have an org that indexes low towards innovation. We need training programs for every type of employee, particularly those close to product. Company onboarding programs need to address the subject head on, clearly identifying innovation intakes and pinpoint where any employee can find them. There should also be semi-regular events that bring attention to the innovation systems. Bonus points if you have an annual event like a hackathon or startup week to help encourage higher-level ideation.

Thank you

This article is derived from the 2021 Design Leadership Trends report by Adam Fry-Pierce and Diego Nunez, after speaking to many leaders in the Design Leadership Forum. If you’d like to discuss these trends with the same 3000+ design leaders who the report was partially made by, join us.

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Adam Fry-Pierce
Design Leadership Forum

Empowering design and product leaders with connections + products. Creator of http://designleadership.com. DesignOps + product ethics is on my mind. Doodler.