The 8 qualities of a great design leader

4 min read
Felipe Memoria
  •  Apr 8, 2016
Link copied to clipboard

Editor’s note: We’ve asked a handful of design leaders to respond to prompts each week. This time we asked, “What do you believe are the essential qualities of a good design leader?”

Don’t miss responses from Peter Merholz, Uday Gajendar, Libby Bawcombe, and Chris Thelwell.

A strange thing tends to happen when you become a leader: you stop doing hands-on work.

I’ve always questioned how someone could be a good leader without also being a practitioner of the craft. If you’re not actively participating in the work, how do you teach, push, and give meaningful feedback? This is especially true in digital, where the medium evolves so quickly, and new interaction models—or even entirely new platforms—seem to emerge overnight.

Being directly involved in the work has been a foundational principle at Work & Co. All of our partners are hands-on, working directly with our teams to create products and services. I’ve thought a lot about what it takes to be a good design leader, and while it’s something all leaders consistently have to work at, there are a few qualities that I’ve identified as essential.

Image courtesy of Work & Co.

A good design leader is:

An active practitioner

There will be times when a tough design challenge can’t be solved within the team. A design leader should also be a highly experienced practitioner who can help push things in the right direction, which often means doing the work themselves. A leader’s craft and work ethic have to inspire the rest of the team.Twitter Logo

A coach

A design leader should be able to help train and push other designers to get better in their craft and everything else related to the profession: how to think, how to design, how to collaborate, how to negotiate, how to communicate, how to present, how to sell, how to ship, how to recruit, how to manage, how to run a business, and finally, how to become a well-balanced executive.  

A team player

To a good design leader, no task is too small.Twitter Logo They should only ask for things they’d be willing to do themselves. And when the team succeeds, a leader shares the credit and recognizes the effort of others.

“A leader wants to hear different points of view.”

Twitter Logo


A leader is open to changing their opinion and is curious to hear different points of view. There are always several possible answers to a design problem.

Able to provide actionable feedback

A leader should give tactical, practical feedback. They collaboratively solve problems with the team, as opposed to giving abstract feedback.

Capable of adapting tone

Junior designers need more constructive feedback, while senior designers need more direct feedback. Every message can be delivered with complete feedback, but the way it’s delivered needs to be adapted depending on how mature the designer is.

A dealer in hope

 A team needs to believe their leader will help guide them to do their best work. And not only that—they need to believe that person will help them sell it and ship it.

“Good leaders build lasting relationships.”

Twitter Logo

A collector of collaboration partners

You are as powerful as the people you collaborate with.Twitter Logo Good leaders identify the best people to learn from and grow with. They build lasting relationships. Mutual respect for each other’s craft leads to trust.

The job is never done. Being a good design leader requires skills that take many years to refine. As the practice of design continues to evolve, so must the skills of a leader.

The best way to do that? Get intimately involved with the work.

Join the conversation

Write your own response to the prompt “What do you believe are the essential qualities of a good design leader?” on Medium, and submit it to our publication.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard