Interview with Kim Goodwin

In advance of the Leading Design conference in London on the 24th-26th October, I caught up with Kim Goodwin 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?

When I became the creative director in a small startup, I didn’t really model myself on anyone, but I did have a different sort of model in mind. I’d previously been lucky enough to manage a team (of non-designers) in a place with a solid leadership and management training program. “Creative director” was certainly title inflation at the time, though, because guiding design was a skill I didn’t have yet. So…I muddled through and made a lot of mistakes. Mostly, I learned by paying attention to when my guidance worked and when it was ineffective, then adjusting accordingly.

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

Many days are full of meetings, either with clients or internal teams: planning work with my management team, reviewing critical projects, figuring out how to deliver value to a new client, or trying to improve the ways we work. Sometimes there’s desk work about boring but essential things: hiring plans, budgets, and proposals.

Leadership means you’re constantly “on stage” in one way or another, whether that’s communicating vision and goals, aligning teams, or having productive coaching conversations. Being effective “on stage” requires taking some “backstage” time to think and plan about those things. If I don’t book backstage time in my calendar, it doesn’t happen.

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

Once in a while. I may do some quick preliminary sketching to help me scope a project and think through what requirements to give the team. I may do a bit of thought partnership at the whiteboard early in a project. It’s been a while since I’ve done detailed, production-ready work though. There was a time when that frustrated me…but I’ve realized that planning a project or thinking through how to structure a team or a process is also a design problem. The big difference is that human behavior is a much more complicated design medium.

What are the qualities of a good design leader?

They’re much like the qualities of any good leader: being trustworthy, being able to rally people around a shared vision, and being effective at clearing obstacles out of the way.

What is the design culture like in your current company?

I like how you framed that question, because there’s culture within the design team, but there’s also the larger organization’s approach to design. Right now, the organization has absolutely the right core values, but needs the right skills, processes, and tools to translate those values into the user experience. That takes a while, but is much easier to build on than a culture without the right core values.

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

My biggest challenges right now are aligning goals across various functions and building strong relationships within and outside of my teams. I work in a different time zone from most of my colleagues 2–3 weeks out of every month, so I’m too reliant on both email and structured meeting time. Relationships are built in the small daily interactions and unstructured time, so when I’m in the office, I schedule a lot of meals, drinks, walks, or other social activities. It sounds silly, but I had several very productive sessions at a baseball game just this week.

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

We have teams split into focus areas, each of which has a mission, like helping members connect with other members or encouraging them to share medical data. This allows a certain degree of expertise and leadership to develop in the teams and makes them easier to scale. Visual design and what you might call UI architecture — understanding complex data relationships and implications for the experience — have leads who work across the teams. I think it’s the right structure for this organization, but all the functionality is intertwined enough to create some coordination challenges.

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

My answer to that varies from day to day, I think…but it always feels good to see an individual or a team progress from needing a lot of help to really nailing the project on their own. In the end, coaching designers can have a much bigger impact on the world than designing one product at time.

Any advice for a new design leader?

In my view, the worst leadership behaviors are rooted in insecurity, so you just have to decide that your job is to work toward making yourself obsolete. Never try to be the expert in everything or decide everything. Ask dumb questions. Own up to your weaknesses and mistakes. All of those things make it easier for the team to trust you and to show you their imperfections, too.