Interview with Andrea Mignolo

In advance of the Leading Design conference in London on the 24th-26th October, I caught up with Andrea Mignolo to discuss her background, experience and thoughts on the subject of Design Leadership.

Tell us about your first design leadership role? Who did you model yourself on?

Design leadership… This is an interesting question. Historically the idea of leadership was tightly coupled with the role of management. Hierarchical organizations with a command-and-control approach to running things would dictate something from the top of the pyramid which would then filter down through layers of management who would in turn tell their teams what to do. And the top of the pyramid was seen as leadership.

In the last few decades we’ve started to understand that leadership is very independent of management roles and titles. As something that is earned (rather than given) through vision, inspiration, and trust. Which means you don’t need a title or have to ask permission to lead. I say all this because it’s tricky for me to answer this question! I’d actually say my first design leadership role was when I had enough experience and confidence to use design to help clients frame problems and find appropriate, well-considered solutions to those problems, rather than just execute on requirements.

What does a typical day look like for you? Is it all meetings?

Pretty much! Movable Ink is in a growth stage at the moment and we’re scaling fast which means there is a lot of chaos, and concurrently a lot of opportunities for design! Parts of the organization are quite mature, while the design and product sides are fairly new. In an enterprise SaaS space there is a steep learning curve to understand a new industry, competition, users, and the market dynamics of where things are trending. My meetings range from very high level strategy to nitty-gritty process and implementation details.

Do you still get to do any “real” design?

I appreciate the quotes around “real”! I would say yes, but the focus is different — rather than designing a feature or product or service, I’m designing a team and an environment in which to foster design. In the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in organizational design and will be pursuing an MBA this fall in order to accelerate those learnings. I still roll up my sleeves and create artifacts as needed, but for the most part the juicy, interesting challenges are handled by the team and I take care of the boring stuff no one else wants to do. ;-)

What are the qualities of a good design leader?

Vision, facilitation, evangelism, asking questions, listening, and getting out of the way.

What is the design culture like in your current company?

The design culture is nascent, but I’m fortunate in that Movable Ink is a company that really supports and believes in design. During my interview process I was constantly impressed by how the company thought about design, how much engineers wanted to collaborate and sketch, and how there was support from the very top all the way down. Because the design culture is pretty new we have a great opportunity to shape it and have been very intentional about the whole thing. This includes everything from how we talk about and share design to creating design processes to support various functions in the organization in order to be seen as a true partner at every level.

What challenges are you facing at the moment and what are you doing to overcome them?

Hiring is always a challenge — now that design has a seat at the table and is seen as a competitive differentiator by more and more companies, the demand for designers has skyrocketed. Finding the right people to have adventures with is a constant challenge. To overcome this we’ve done a few things: the first is introduce performance based hiring. I could nerd out about this for ages but essentially the idea is that you hire based on what you want that person to get done in the first year, rather than just list a bunch of skills and proficiencies. The result is a job description that is clear and compelling, and gives you a chance to really speak about the design culture and goals at your organization. This increases your ability to match with the right candidates quickly and consistently, and designers really respond well to this approach. I’m also very lucky in that we have a fantastic in-house talent team.

How is your design team structured and how is that working? Anything you’d tweak?

The design team at Movable Ink is centralized, so we cover everything from marketing all the way to product. This is working well for us because it means we can operate holistically as a department and ensure we’re creating consistent, understandable experiences across every touchpoint. I’m four months into the role right now, so nothing I’d tweak yet, but I’m sure there will be in the future.

What are you most proud of achieving as a design leader?

My unflagging belief in the power of design and design leadership. The corollary being either the fortitude, stubbornness, or stupidity to never let that belief go.

Any advice for a new design leader?

Be patient! And remember that as a designer you can apply design to everything, including leadership.

Anything else on your mind at the moment?

I spend a lot of time thinking about how design can become an essential part of a company’s organizational DNA. How to foster an environment in which everyone is cognizant of the design decisions they are making (this is taking from Jared Spool’s definition of design as the “rendering of intent” which, if you accept, means that everyone does indeed design) that impact how people experience a company.