How to become a better design leader?

Leadership in design is not just a technical quality, but a glue that builds strong teams and delivers better outcomes

So you’re in that phase of your design career where you are no longer just a designer. You have moved to the next level, and your roles and responsibilities have changed accordingly. You are now a design leader. Leadership is hard, and sometimes intimidating. There are things you can do to prepare yourself for this big change. When you know what a leader does, it should not be that hard.

Stop pixel pushing

A design leader will no longer just limit themselves to Figma, Sketch or XD; but they will expand their horizon by thinking about the product from a level up. They don’t just look at how the design feels and functions, but what business value it adds to the company. Is this the right thing to launch, is this the right time, do we have enough evidence to support our design decisions? These are questions they will delve into. Product thinking is the biggest and most unique thing a design leader will do.

Identify the best (and worst) traits

When you have a team, every team member is going to have some unique capabilities and shortcomings. As a leader, you need to figure out who is good at what. Someone may have a knack for user interaction and they may be better suited to research roles, while someone might be naturally gifted with an incredible sense of color and composition — these folks might do better in UI. So you need to know everyone inside out, and put them in positions that they’re the most efficient.

Set solid standards and guidelines

A team needs to have the same voice. Voice as in how work is done and delivered. There needs to be a solid design guideline in place, and a standard operating protocol that makes sure your team (and not just you) are able to deliver the same quality of work. For this, you can get started by creating a style guide or a design system. Write down the rules, educate the team and help implement it. This way you can ensure that anyone coming in and out of the team can still deliver the same quality without a significant drop.

Don’t be a micromanager

As a design leader, it’s extremely important that you keep a tab in your teammates, but also give them sufficient breathing room. Don’t spend time shepherding them. Let them do their work in a way they’re able to deliver the best outcome. Do check in at the end of every work day if they’ve done a good job, but don’t be hovering over their Figma file or nitpicking their process. Focus on the outcome.

Give room for exploration

Every team member performs best when they have sufficient freedom. Let them go through the process and decide what works best for the project. When you become overly prescriptive, you’re preventing them to come up with unique ideas. These ideas might actually be better than what you thought up in your head. So make it a game – let your teammates actively go out there and figure out what design is great design: without you having to tell them. This also empowers people tremendously when they felt heard.

Treat like how you’d like to be treated

This is the most important one. Leaders who are a pain in the backside are seldom loved by their teammates. Don’t be cruel, condescending or terrifying. This actually works in counter-productive ways as your teammates will never open up to you and give their best: simply because you’re too overpowering. Freshers especially need compassionate hand-holding. Also, if you don’t like being shouted at or scolded, you should probably not do it to your teammates either.

Bonus: Design leaders must also be great communicators. I wrote a blog about it. Read it here

Being a good person goes a long way. A good leader is someone who is good at heart. Kindness goes a long way. We really need to be a good person first, and then a leader perhaps.