Earlier this month I had an opportunity to attend the Leading Design conference in London. The event took place in the Barbican, which was an amazing venue. The first two days had talks by multiple notable speakers, and the final day offered a chance to participate in workshops. I didn’t come to the last day so my impressions are based on the talks on the first and second day of the conference.
A lot of the speakers worked for big, well-established companies such as Facebook, Google and Spotify. As the event website informs us, the conference was about ‘leading design teams, overseeing design direction, or instilling a culture of design within organisations’.
Themes from the conference
A lot of different topics were discussed but there were a few that kept popping up in multiple presentations and could represent the challenges a lot of design leaders are facing at the moment: 1) team building, 2) managing design teams successfully, 3) team structure, 4) career paths and development tracking.
- Team Building
This is the topic that was possibly discussed the most often. A lot of speakers shared their experience of building and maintaining a successful design team. For example, Kim Fellman, who leads Design Experience at Pinterest, advised that to build your dream team you need to find people who can solve various problems for you, such as decision makers/drivers, communicators, community builders and strategists. Simon Rohrbach, a design leader and the former Director of Content, Research & Design at Deliveroo, gave a talk about building a design team in a growing company. According to him, you make your company successful by making your design team successful. A successful design team can spot the opportunities other people don’t and do it early. What is important to do as a leader is to know that there are some things other people can do better than you and delegate these things. That will enable you to focus on the things you do best. Nicole Burrow, a Design Director at Spotify, described the tools that are needed to build a high performing team. According to her, building a great design team is like creating a band. The three things you should focus on is building the culture of your team, fine tune it and prevent burnout. Finally, Stuart Frisby, the Director of Design at Deliveroo, described how being a manager is more than being a good designer, it is a separate skill that you have to learn. A true manager is successful when their team is successful. It’s important to make room for your team to grow in number and ability, and take pride in that.
2. Managing design teams successfully
Another popular topic was successful management of design teams. A few speakers mentioned it, but the two who covered it in detail were Cap Watkins, a CXO at Primary and Christine Pizzo, a Manager & Senior UX/UI Experience Designer at Intrepid Pursuits. Cap mentioned that as a leadership coach he completed around 600 one-on-ones with design leaders and that helped him to understand what makes some of them successful. According to him, you need to be really interested in people, know what your job is, learn to recruit, think long-term and learn to collaborate. He also mentioned that an experienced manager’s priorities change with time and after a while become (in the following order): company, design team, direct reports and design work. Christine, on the other hand, focused on the successful management of millennials (you belong to that group if you were born between early 80. and mid 90.). According to her, millennials in particular are very sensitive to changes in their environment and you need to create the right conditions to help them grow. They are a group who is very interested in their career progression and not always willing to wait for a promotion (‘I’ve been in this industry for 2 years’), so as a leader you need to make sure that you document career paths in your organisation well. According to Christine, three things you need to remember as a manager of millennials are: 1) helping them to cultivate meaningful relationships at work, 2) making them care about the company and projects and d) ‘getting them working’ by creating the right structure of the team for efficient communication and collaboration.
3. Team structure
Another theme that kept reappearing was team structure. Even though none of the talks were dedicated to that topic specifically a few speakers mentioned a dilemma around having the design team sit and work together versus embedding individual designers in product teams (or a hybrid of both). Nicole Burrow, a Design Director at Spotify, mentioned that for a while designers at Spotify were embedded in product teams (squads) but that made them feel isolated and didn’t promote collaboration. Because of that a decision was taken to put designers back together but make them sit very close to the product teams and work with them very closely. Bob Baxley, a freelance design executive, discussed the role of vision, process, and people in design leadership but he also touched upon a topic of team structure. In relation to the question if designers should sit with product teams or other designers, Bob said that It depends what you design for. Putting designers in product teams helps optimise for speed, but letting them sit and collaborate together helps optimise for quality.
4. Career paths and development tracking
A few speakers also mentioned career paths and tracking your own and other people’s development. Two speakers who devoted their entire talks to it were Jason Mesut, a Director at Resonant Design and Innovation and Melissa Hajj, Director of Design at Facebook. Jason spent many years of his long career developing visual frameworks that help designers map their own and their team members skills, and plan future career development. He believes that it’s important for designers to self-reflect on who they are and what they can currently do. The visual frameworks he advocates help with that and can also be useful for directing your team’s development and hiring the right people. Melissa, on the other hand, argued that personal growth happens when an individual is provided with the right conditions for it. The role of a leader is to provide these optimal conditions and help individuals learn and develop. Supporting individuals leads in turn to building a high performing design team.
My favorite presentations
Among many good presentations there were a few that I consider my personal highlights:
- Dan Makoski’s ‘Pioneering Design’ was an inspiring talk. Dan, who is currently a Chief Design Officer at Lloyds Banking Group, classified designers as ‘settlers’ and ‘pioneers’, and described his journey as a pioneer. He presented his radical redesign of the Walmart page as an example and later went on to talk about his more current work for Lloyds bank. Dan is a great example of someone who’s been working in design forever but kept a fresh eye and a will to shake up an established organisation when necessary.
- Another presentation that I enjoyed was Julia Whitney’s ‘Group Decision Making’s Dirty Secrets’. Julia, an Executive Coach, discussed how making decisions as a group might have benefits but in many cases brings about problems and the decision reached isn’t optimal. She went on to describe six common examples of group dynamics that influence decisions.
- I also found Randy Hunt’s presentation entitled ‘Plans are lies, so let’s keep planning’ interesting. Randy, who is a Head of Design at Grab, described his experiences with the planning process at different organisations and concluded that planning might be done too rarely and, at the same time, take too much time. He mentioned that at some organisations planning seems to be taking more time than executing the plans, which is clearly wrong. His recommendation was to review one’s plans often and adjust your actions accordingly.
The conference gave me multiple insights into design leadership and what it involves. It was also a great opportunity to listen to some of the most accomplished design leaders out there. Coming to a conference like that left me motivated to keep developing my career and start working on my own leadership skills. I highly recommend going back next year.