In the book “Persuadable,” Al Pittampalli argues that people must be open to persuasion in order to become great leaders. He dispels of some long-held notions we have about leadership, particularly the ideas that leaders are resolute and unwavering. I couldn’t help but think about designers as I was reading this book because many of the myths we believe about leadership, we often believe about design leaders as well.
As I reflect on my own time as a junior designer (and in conversations with junior designers today), I used to believe similar myths surrounding what it means to be a design leader.
If I were to sum up what I felt a design leader, it would be something like:
- “You have to push back on dev so they respect design.”
- “Make a design decision and follow through.”
- “You’re the expert so it’s your responsibility to teach others about the value of design.”
- “You’ve got to be aggressive to earn a seat at the table.”
Any of these sound familiar?
Designers often conjure images of a confident person walking the stage presenting a beautiful design with utter confidence, or a design director asserting design’s role in the upcoming product roadmap. Or maybe we imagine a design manager going to bat for their design team when development didn’t implement the agreed-upon designs. In fact, behind most strong design leaders is someone who is actually much more persuadable than you’d realize.
I’ll be the first to admit that my journey to design leadership started by believing these myths and compensating for my own insecurities by engaging in battles with developers, or arguing against points counter to my own.
Before I felt like I was a design leader, I needed to act the part. But the reality is much different, and I think Pittampalli’s points about leadership are perfect for design where we’re usually thrust into feeling the need to persuade others even at the expense of getting closed off to others’ ideas.
The key to being a great design leader is less about being persuasive and more about being persuadable.
In this article I’ll break down his seven practices of persuadable design leadership (I consolidated down to just six). My hope is to dispel the myths we buy into and chart a course for avoiding the pitfalls I’ve encountered in my journey to design leadership. I hope that design leaders, and those aspiring to lead through design, find this useful.
1. Consider designing the opposite
This is a simple exercise that any designer can start with. Before digging your heels into convince your design team that your idea is great, start considering the opposite. I think this is a trap junior designers can easily fall into because as you put your design forth to more senior people, it’s easy to project an air of confidence. And if you have your own feelings of self-doubt (like yours truly), then you might feel that you have to protect your design from any and all opposition. Instead, embrace this as you hone your design because it will make it stronger.
- Imagine you’re designing your feature for a competitor. Designers have a nasty habit (me included) of assuming all competitors are wrong. We feel bolstered in our own work by designing something different. But what if the competition did it for a reason? Allow yourself to open up to what competitors are doing.
- Think how another company would solve it. In a similar approach, imagine an entirely different company’s solution. There’s always the whole, “How would Apple do it?” But you can find better analogous examples to influence your work.
2. Gradually refine your design philosophy or strategy
Pittampalli references one of my favorite books, “Superforecasting,” which references how there are two different ways of viewing the world: 1) as a hedgehog that sees everything through one overarching idea, or 2) as a fox that rely on diverse opinions and data (it’s actually based on an Isaiah Berlin essay, but Superforecasting gives a lot more detail on studies done since then which validates the concepts). As you can imagine, hedgehogs (which make great/awful political pundits on TV, are much less effective leaders than foxes.
The field of design is rooted in finding inspiration but it’s no less susceptible to buying into dogmatic views. These can take the form small things “all apps should have a top nav rather than a side nav,” or larger concepts like, “all great design must start with a design system,” or “designers should code.” But to be successful, it’s more important to remain flexible rather than buy into one idea.
- Read (articles and books). Never stop continuously learning. As much as I bash discussions like “designers should code,” I still check in on the debate now and again because I know my views can change.
3. Destroy your concepts
The book uses the oft-used, “kill your darlings” and uses this to explain higher-level business decisions (e.g. Bezos’ decision to disrupt Amazon’s bookselling business with the Kindle). But this same philosophy can easily be used in design itself.
- Delete old artboards. Or at the very least burying them in a graveyard page. As you refine your designs, don’t be afraid to start fresh.
- Let old ideas die. Maybe it’s all the Marie Kondo sweeping the nation, but I think having old ideas linger can be detrimental because it adds clutter to your brain. I’ve heard too many designers say things like “I had this idea years ago,” or remain closed off to new ideas because they like their old one better. Remember that ideas are easy and if they come back around again, that means they’ll be even stronger. If they don’t, then leaving them behind was for the best.
4. Empathize with your broader team members
Empathy with users is considered a key attribute to being a successful designer but we often forget to employ that same mentality when it comes to our team. In the past I’ve advocated that being a truly successful designer will require that you understand the motivations and incentives for the other functional areas on your team. For example, while I often sparred with QA, I did so because I was irritated they were infringing on my turf. But what I learned was that while I felt I owned design quality, they felt the same way. Their job is to ensure the product has as few defects as possible and sometimes that meant questioning the design itself.
- Preview your work with functional areas early and often. The longer you wait, the less receptive you’ll be and the worse off your design (and relationships will become).
5. Avoid analysis paralysis
In a book about being persuadable, Pittampalli also cautions against being too persuadable. In design this is the tendency to weigh different options endlessly, often to the detriment of your own success. Either weighing other people’s feedback, or simply staring at two art boards for the user preferences page you have to finish tomorrow but not knowing whether to go with a side nav, or top nav (not that it’s ever happened to me or anything).
- Match the communication strategy to the design scope. Handle small decisions in lightweight ways. You don’t need a meeting to discuss button placement, simply send a slack or have someone stand over your shoulder. Conversely if it’s a big foundational concept, a meeting could be warranted.
- Match your effort to value. How impactful is the design detail you’re poring over? If it’s small then save energy. If it’s big — either because it affects other parts of the design or it’s important to the business — then spend more time on it.
- Remember there is no certainty in design. You can avoid over-analyzing or over-weighing others’ opinions by understanding that in the end there is no way to be 100% whether your design will work as expected.
Don’t use analysis as a comfort blanket keeping you from making tough decisions.
6. Set the standard
I consolidated the final two practices into one because they both pertain to a leaders role in establishing a precedent for others to follow. Leaders must help bridge the gap between their own cohort and ideas that exist outside their group. In design I think this has tremendous importance for two reasons. 1) Design has a unique role in touching many users’ lives so the impact of what goes in the design is exponential. 2) Designers’ “peers” are often more than just other designers but the broader product team so they can impact more functional areas.
Design leaders will regularly adopt new ways of doing things. In doing so, you will influence others around as a legitimizing reference point. For example, a couple years ago you may have been the one spearheading the creation of your organization’s first design system. That may not seem on the surface a very dramatic position to take but make no mistake, it’s a big shift you are trying to create in your org, no matter how obvious it seems to implement. Ultimately, being a design leader is about how you can delicately balance the status quo while setting an example for how to evolve.
- Lead by example in your own work. Something as small as using diverse names and profiles in mockups can set a strong standard. Designers aren’t inherently more influential than other roles but the unique position of designs in prototypes, marketing materials, and simply as internal vision pieces can give a platform to lead by example.
- Be an ambassador. To be a great designer, you have to balance the views of many people, both internal and external. Designers must fight the urge to be dogmatic in how we create change in our product teams from the outside. For example, it’s easy to criticize a product’s legacy UI and propose sweeping changes, but if you do this without understanding why it’s there to begin with then your ability to change it will be small. Being an ambassador means you are bridging the gap between two ways of thinking.
Being a designer is inherently a leadership position. Whether you are leading the product team with a vision, leading junior designers, or simply designing things that lead users to do something, leadership is a fundamental component. I hope that becoming more persuadable can help guide you to be a great design leader.