Leading Design 2019 — What the big tech players are saying

Ryan Martin
Nov 12, 2019 · 4 min read

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to attend Leading Design 2019 in New York. I’d flown across the globe from Australia to hear what some of the big players are saying about design leadership to help inspire my fresh journey in to that world.

Walking through the streets of Williamsburg, finding my next $6 Latte (seriously, the Australian dollar sucks) I wasn’t sure what to expect from the conference, yet I was surprised at how small it was.

I’m used to attending UX Australia, which hires out The Grand Hyatt Hotel to manage the 700+ attendees and 3 tracks of talks. But as the announcer thanked the 300 of attending, I realised just how fresh design leadership is.

Amongst all of the stories about failures and successes, personal journeys and tips and tricks, there were 4 key themes that really stood out to me:

1. We’re still figuring out what it means to lead design

A common thread throughout the conference was everyones willingness to be open that the transition in to leadership is tough. It’s still a relatively new area, considering the fact that it’s only been in the last 5–10 years that design has really hit ‘scale’, and so the concept of leadership is still developing and growing. (Funnily enough, the idea of scale for Aaron at Invision is 2500–3000 designers the likes of Google and IBM can employ..)

Margaret from Google has a strong call to arms that we need to expand our definition of what a good leader looks like, that we shouldn’t be hanging our hats on the Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of the world.

2. Be more external and less internal

Khoi from the Adobe XD team preaches the idea that design needs to be democratised, that we need to change the way we talk about design.

He referenced the idea of Cathedral vs Community — Cathedral being an exclusive area with closed doors, Community being open source and free for people to join, manipulate and iterate on the design practice.

There is an underlying shift in tone from “how do we make design awesome” to “how can we use design to make the business awesome”. Aaron from Invision talks to how more mature teams are moving away from terminology like ‘design’ sprints and ‘design’ workshops, as labelling them as such creates an exclusionary perception — that these things are only for design, or should just be used for design problems.

3. Think outside design — how can you help lead the business?

Nick Marsh from Wonderbly talked about his journey of transitioning a company with a growth focus (losing money but gaining marketshare) to a profit focus (gaining profit but stagnating in marketshare). His approach to downsizing was to create more vertically integrated teams that focussed on big impact, recognising that he had to make tough calls from a product lense to bring the next phase of growth for the business.

Stuart from Booking.com talked to the idea of learning about, and solving problems for, other functions (HR, Legal, Finance) as a strong way to advocate what design can bring to the business as a whole, outside of product design.

4. Build talent through sponsorship

We often talk about mentorship as a way to develop our people, however the idea of ‘sponsorship’ seems to be picking up steam (something I’ve never heard of before). Sponsorship is having someone with authority recommend another individual for a job/project/task with the intent of helping them build their skills and brand.

Khoi from Adobe and Farai from Shopify touched on this as an important step that’s not often considered when thinking about diversity, and is way to make sure that we’re driving inclusivity for those that need a platform.

As a designer young in his leadership journey, this was all really refreshing and inspiring to hear that the troubles I’ve felt aren’t unique. Leadership is a tough gig, but it comes with so much reward that it keeps pushing you to stretch yourself not just for you, but for your team.

I’m looking forward to seeing how design leadership evolves in product companies over the coming years and being on that journey.

Ryan Martin

Written by

A user experience designer working at @realestate_au, based in Melbourne, Australia. Portfolio: www.ryanmartin.design

Leading Design

Looking at the challenges and opportunities of design leadership in all its forms

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