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frog Voices

How to Foster More Empathetic Design Leadership

By Halle Kho, Executive Design Director, frogNY

In recent years the philosophy of design thinking has gained adherents across industries and sectors, and rightly so — it’s a powerful tool for reframing entrenched assumptions and patterns of thought, identifying unseen opportunities and developing innovative solutions to human problems. However, for an organization to successfully integrate design thinking principles and habits of mind into its culture, it must embrace design leadership. In short, design leaders must aim to practice and project the tenets of design thinking in all their official interactions and capacities—whether as a teammate, a supervisor, a subordinate or a service provider. It’s a difficult task, but it can be made easier with a clearer understanding of the role of creative directors and design leads, as well as some practical tools for managing time, mental load and interactions with designers.

The Role of Design Leaders

There’s no step-by-step guide to design leadership, and no one-size-fits-all description for successful design leaders. But if you’re a creative leader within your organization, you’ve likely gotten there because you have two key attributes: talent and experience. While some talents may come from natural predispositions, it’s much more likely they were honed through years and practice of dedication, sinking in your 10,000 hours to develop the skills and expertise necessary to succeed in your field of design.

In the past, creative leaders tended to wield that talent and experience like a weapon, cutting down people or ideas they disagreed with and hammering their own opinions and biases into the heads of their team. There are many obvious drawbacks to this approach (including bad morale, a lack of innovation and imagination), and for that reason leadership has trended towards a more “hands-off” approach in recent years. In the search for more flexible and inclusive leadership, however, I think we may have gone from one extreme to the other. It is important to recognize that creative directors often have the expertise to solve problems and devise solutions that less experienced designers are unable to see.

That’s why I propose a middle way, one that supports designers and gives them space for autonomy and creativity, but that also takes advantage of the talent and experience of seasoned creative directors. The key to this style of design leadership is to understand your own needs, strengths and biases, as well as those of your team. For instance, knowing which system-oriented thinkers on the team can quickly develop efficient design models, or which lateral-thinking designers can best brainstorm solutions to a conceptual problem; understanding that UX designers might need to be pushed outside of their library of patterns and standards, or that service designers need sufficient time to incorporate user feedback. Of course, it also requires understanding that even these are biases that may be useful in one context and detrimental in another. I find it’s usually best to start a project by observing what designers do when given space to experiment, then trust my talent and experience to tell me when it is time to provide greater structure, guidance and critique. Ultimately, that’s what most designers are looking for, and the best way to help them develop their own skill and expertise.

The Importance of Self-Management

Of course, to practice this style of design leadership, you need the time and energy to observe, understand and support designers. That’s not always easy to come by, but there are a few practical techniques that I lean on to make sure I’m ready to give my best.

1. Focus on your energy. To make the most of the limited hours we have each day, it’s necessary to monitor and manage your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy. Sometimes you might need to push through natural dips in energy, but it’s worth checking in every couple of hours to keep yourself at a consistent energy level. If you notice you’re lagging or feeling stressed, you could take a walk or a quiet two-minute break without electronics. Maybe you’d prefer to spend that time listening to music that makes you happy or focusing on taking deep, thoughtful breaths.

2. Start with one thing. People today spend almost half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. Then they try to make up for the loss by multitasking for the other half of their time. But multitasking can be a huge waste of time, especially for makers: taking sometimes up to 25 minutes to get back into the task at hand. To minimize wasted time, focus on one task at a time by creating a daily priority list and sticking to it as much as possible.

3. Make your calendar your assistant. Use a shared calendar to map out your day, and encourage your team and colleagues to refer to it when building their schedules or looking for a time to meet. Scheduling can be a nightmarish waste of time, so make a habit of keeping your calendar organized. Sometimes you might need to be more flexible with your schedule, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

4. Block out time for yourself. We all need time for ourselves, whether it’s to catch up, replenish or prepare. Block off some time for yourself each day to catch up on emails, write down reflections or observations, or to manage your energy. Also recognize that you can reduce your mental load by encouraging your team to do dry-runs the day before a presentation, or by delegating tasks that you don’t need to own.

Leading by Design

The most valuable outcome of good design leadership — beyond any particular project or product — is the development of a culture that values inquiry, unexpected approaches and honest, constructive critique. In order to get there, we must recognize that everyone from CEOs to the most junior designers need both autonomy and collaboration, structure and exploration, encouragement and critique. Your job as a design leader is to know the individuals you work with well enough to understand which they need at any particular moment or stage in the design process. You must also demonstrate by your own example that it is necessary to ask questions and to accept criticism, to change your mind when you’re wrong and to assert your expertise when you’re right. Managing people in any industry is difficult, and managing designers can sometimes feel impossible, but you can improve your effectiveness as a design leader and help build a culture of design thinking if you center your interactions with colleagues around the following habits.

Habits for Empathetic Design Leadership

1. Display curiosity. Curiosity is the most important aspect of creative leadership. By asking probing questions, diving into design and demonstrating that you are invested in learning alongside the team, you can accelerate progress and build the trust required for honest critique. True curiosity demonstrates both respect for designers and their process, as well as your expectations for the work. Tim Brown has written extensively about the power of asking questions to open new pathways of thought and design.

2. Cultivate empathy. No one wants their lead to do their job for them. In the vast majority of situations your role is not to hand down The Answer, but to foster creative solutioning that generates an array of possible answers. To build empathy with your team, reflect on questions like: How would I feel if my boss derailed my process to implement their solution? How can I lead less experienced team members to a possible solution through inquiry rather than lecture? How can I make my interactions more comfortable and natural? How can I demonstrate my process while staying inclusive of others’ experience levels and contributions? This requires patience and a self-awareness of the messages you are communicating through your words, tone, expressions and body language.

3. Take time for evaluation. Evaluation is critical to delivering useful feedback, but it is not the same thing as giving feedback. It is an internal process in which you look holistically at a project in order to see its components and implications clearly. It requires time, reflection and consideration to gain a better understanding of the relative advantages and disadvantages of one solution to other possible solutions. It may also require consultation with other experts to help give form and justification to an intuition grounded in your experience.

4. Give constructive feedback. The most important rule here is that feedback is always about the work, not the designer. This is crucial to making progress and to building personal trust and respect. Feedback should also be both positive and negative — no idea is perfect, and no idea is completely terrible. If you have taken the time to honestly evaluate, you should also be able to provide a solid rationale that movitaves the team to follow your feedback. This should be a familiar process, since it’s a good chunk of what we are paid to do by our clients — provide a compelling storyline to sell their ideas and mission. The more you can inspire discussion, debate and pressure testing through your feedback, the better the result will be for the client.

5. Ask questions again. When the team is stuck or in the weeds, help bring clarity by asking questions that lead to different possible solutions or outcomes to a problem, even if they seem ridiculous or have already been ruled out. Again: display curiosity. Often, designers can generate their own solutions if you ask questions that give them the opportunity to articulate their thoughts in a safe environment.

6. Sketch solutions together. When a designer simply can’t wrap their head around a problem, an answer or some piece of feedback, don’t let them flounder to the point of frustration. Sit down with them and start whiteboarding, drawing, looking at references and finding other examples. Use your experience and expertise to inspire them by articulating your thought process and demonstrating your own path to solutioning.

7. Stay out of the files — mostly. I love diving into the files, but that’s often the last place I should be. Sometimes you’ll need to provide some art direction, but that level of thought partnership rarely happens at the pixel level. With IXDs, for example, you are there to direct and support their thinking and outcome, as well as the quality of the presentation. In some rare cases, however, you might need to dive into the files in order to articulate the change you are trying to inspire.

One of the greatest advantages of this approach to leadership is that it accommodates a huge variety of personality and leadership styles. You may find that you ask more or fewer questions than other creative leads, take more or less time evaluating, feel more or less challenged to put yourself in the shoes of the designers — regardless of such variations, consistently displaying these behaviors will improve outcomes for both designers and clients while also increasing feelings of satisfaction, appreciation and autonomy. Additionally, you will be helping train the next generation of design leaders within your organization. If you are looking for a powerful tool to help introduce and implement these principles of design thinking and leadership, frog’s Culture of Critique is an excellent place to begin. It’s not an easy task, and it is never complete — we will never be perfect leaders — but the effort is well worth the rewards.

A comprehensive guide to facilitating creative critique.

To learn more about implementing empathetic design leadership in any organization, read Halle’s guide to “Building a Studio Culture of Critique.”

Download the full guide

As Creative Lead of frog’s New York studio, Halle leads a team of talented interaction and visual designers to deliver on a complete user experience across projects. Halle is responsible for growing and maintaining the culture of design in the studio and ensuring quality and inspiration on projects. Prior to frog, Halle was Senior Creative Director for Barnes & Noble, where she was responsible for the rebrand of BN.com. She started her career in agencies, where she led client teams for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Grey Goose, Johnson & Johnson and Armani. Her award-winning work has been shown at the Cooper Hewitt and MoMA.

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