The New Design Leader Emphasizes Leadership

“Graduate of a top design school. Has an amazing portfolio filled with magical, beautiful work. Knows exactly how to solve every problem with a better design. Wears black turtleneck sweaters and jeans.”

If a major corporation were to write a job ad for a new design leader who will make their organization competitive, we might imagine this type of ad. (Well, maybe not the turtleneck part, but they’re thinking that, right?)

Yet as we learn more about the current cohort of design leaders — the ones who are making their organizations more competitive through design — we find they are nothing like this mythical ideal super-designer. Their superpowers aren’t turning everything they touch into beautiful works to be idolized.

Instead, they focus more on leadership than on design. That isn’t to say they ignore design, rather that great design is the touchstone by which they bring everyone together.


Persuasion by Connecting the Vision to Great Design

MasterCard’s Senior VP of User Experience, Karen Pascoe uses MasterCard’s guiding principles as her design North Star. As she’s collaborating with other senior management, she shows them how a better designed experience for their customers and retailers can achieve the overall vision of the company.

We’re finding that successful design leaders work within those principles to get everyone working towards better experiences, instead of constantly trying to convince folks to head in a new direction.

Filling Their World with Solid Research

At Marriott International, General Manager of Digital Globalization James Nixon knew he needed solid ground to show the possibilities of new markets and opportunities. He teamed up with Director of UX Gina Villavicencio to conduct extensive user research in faraway markets like China, Japan, and South America. Together, they showed the company how small improvements in user experience could help create great growth for the corporation.

User research is the most effective tool for bringing the user into every conversation. Smart design leaders prioritize their team’s user research capability above design skills. Understanding the user and their needs will drive great design.

Placing Design Skills Closest to the Decision Points

When building out IBM’s new design studio in Austin, TX, Program Director Adam Cutler made sure the studio’s designers would be embedded with their teams. Because most of IBM’s teams are scattered across the globe, he outfitted the studio with top of the line communications capabilities. The designers have the best of both worlds: they’re involved in every decision their technical teams make, while being housed in a state-of-the-art design facility that fosters great collaboration with other designers.

Design for design’s sake doesn’t work. For it to truly change an organization, it has to be baked into every decision the product team makes. For this, embedded designers are key.

Embedded designers that stay connected with the other design efforts bring a layer of cross-product convergence that gives the entire product suite a solid identity and feel. That identity and feel demonstrates how design is working across the entire organization. (This is why we’re seeing such an emphasis on design systems these days.)

Building Towards Shared Understanding

During the redesign of Fidelity.com, Senior VP of User Experience Design, Steve Turbek worked tirelessly to communicate why the changes were important. He used the research data his team gathered to create a shared understanding of their users, those users’ needs, and how the business would be improved by the new set of design enhancements. His role as a lead design communicator ran through every phase of the redesign project, so everyone knew why they were doing what they needed to do.

The number one contributor to poor design is an inconsistent understanding of why the project exists. Smart leaders focus their efforts on reinforcing everyone’s understanding on the reasons the work is needed.

Letting Others Take the Credit, While They Take Any Blame

In her founding role at the Center for Civic Design, Dana Chisnell worked with dozens of state and county government officials to help them bring a better designed citizen experience to life. Sometimes it went well and sometimes, well, not so well. When the results showed great improvements, Dana would step back and let the officials take all the credit. However, in those projects that didn’t result in improvements, Dana was ready to catch the arrows.

Design, for non-designers, seems like a scary, mysterious thing. Smart leaders make it safe by letting their new-to-design collaborators take the credit when things go well, but absorb the blame when the project doesn’t work as planned.

Emphasis on Leadership, Not Design

In the past, when we talked of design leaders, we always put the emphasis on their ability to design. We opined about showing great design, teaching great design, and constantly talking about great design.

What we’re seeing from this newest crop of successful design leaders is less about design. It’s all about leadership. What they do is influence the entire organization through a solid practice of providing sound user research, communicating effectively, being open and transparent, and making it safe to push the boundaries.

In large organizations, change rarely happens quickly. However, everyone we talked to at these organizations was excited by how quickly an attitude of great design seems to have taken hold. They credited that shift to the solid leadership of these folks.

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