How to transition to a design leader

4 min read
Aarron Walter
  •  Oct 18, 2019
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Most designers, when presented with a leadership opportunity, jump into the role enthusiastically, unaware of the challenges ahead.

But not Andy Law, who before making the leap from designer to design leader at Netflix, did his homework by talking to others who had made the same transition. He discovered that most designers struggle with the new duties required of them as leaders. They quickly realize that their talents as individual contributors don’t translate into management.

“I’m never going to be 100% prepared to be a design leader, but I’ll always be 100% committed,” Andy concluded.

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Andy’s just one of the many respected design leaders I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Having successfully built world-class design teams, you’d have never guessed that these impressive individuals didn’t identify as natural-born leaders.

Andy Law, Director of Product Design, Mobile, and Website at Netflix.

Big career transitions are never easy, and as Andy discovered, it can be especially challenging for most designers who trade designing for managing. They’re no longer playing an instrument. Now, they’re conducting the orchestra.

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“A lot of the anxiety about moving into leadership is that the typical introverted, thoughtful traits associated with designers are not a natural fit at the executive level,” said Bob Baxley, former design leader at Apple, Pinterest, and Yahoo.

“Therefore, designers wanting to increase their scale and influence have to be fully aware of the emotional challenges that are likely to result.” –Bob Baxley

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So while the journey from designer to leader might not be easy, it can be done successfully. Here are some insights I’ve gained through my conversations with design leaders over the years on how to develop the confidence and tactical skills you’ll need to make the transition smoother, build first-class design teams, and grow as a leader.

What got you here won’t get you there

Design leaders do more than just spend their days giving thumbs up or down in design critiques. The first step to becoming an effective leader is knowing that you’ll need to cultivate an entirely new set of core skills, including how to:

  • Build your team: Find people with the right balance of technical and soft skills for your team. You need to be searching for talent even when you don’t need it! Find the right organizational structure to make your team productive.
  • Manage: Evaluate each team member’s performance, coach them so they can grow, and address conflicts. Julie Zhuo has created a great guide to get you up to speed on management.
  • Operationalize: Keep your team moving efficiently by standardizing the design feedback process, managing projects, and coordinating with other teams. Design operations is essential to scale.
  • Forge alliances: Build connections with other team leaders and executives to make sure your team gets what it needs and partners effectively.
  • Provide vision: Though you’re no longer pushing pixels, you still need to play a central role in crafting a vision for your product and brand.

As a design leader, you’ll have a lot on your plate! Let’s take a look at one of your most important jobs: how to build your team.

Building your team: chemistry is key

Your team’s performance and culture will be influenced greatly by the people within it. As you build your design team, think not only of the talents of the individual but how all the individuals will work together.

Great teams are composed of individual contributors with complementary skills—they think we, not me. Chemistry is important—thoughtful leaders will choose people who unite, not divide.

Look before you leap

If you’re stepping into a leadership role in an existing team, don’t rush to make changes. If you do, you’ll make enemies and mistakes fast. Get to know each person in the team first.

In private conversations, ask each team member these three questions:

  1. What’s working?
  2. What’s not working?
  3. If you were in my position, what would you focus on?

After you’ve gotten a good feel for the team, begin to enact the changes needed to make the team more effective.

“Chemistry is important—thoughtful leaders will choose people who unite, not divide.”

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Defining your team’s values will help you shape team chemistry and think more carefully about how you hire.

Defining team values

Your team is unlike any other team in your company—though your team is part of the broader company culture, you have your own sub-culture, too. The act of design is uniquely emotional, as it requires exploration of new and uncharted territory.

Because design is often a qualitative endeavor—operating on feel, not numbers—it introduces a level of vulnerability that is atypical of product management or engineering. It is a unique discipline with its own set of values.

And those values are important. They will shape your culture, hiring decisions, team member evaluations, productivity, and ultimately the happiness of each person on your team.

As a design leader, one of the first steps you should take is to work with your team to define the core values that will shape your culture and establish a motivational foundation for the work you do. When there’s buy-in from everybody, teams operate more cohesively.

How to identify your team’s core values

  1. Seed the conversation. Before getting the team together, gather values from other design teams and jot down a few notes about the values you’d like to see your team consider. This sample team values doc will give you and your team a starting point for your discussion and help you understand how values affect your work.
  2. Gather your team and share your thoughts with them. Have each team member write down five values on sticky notes privately, then post them on the wall for discussion.
  3. Let each team member explain the values they identified.
  4. Group common values on the wall to narrow your options and identify trends.
  5. After discussion, give each team member 5 small dot stickers to cast their votes for the values they feel best represent the team.
  6. Further discussion may be required to trim the list to the essentials. Once you have a final list, create a shared document with a detailed description of each value.
  7. Consider making your team values visible. A series of beautiful posters can help them sink into your team’s culture more effectively.
  8. Pay close attention to these values over time. Do they remain an accurate representation of who you are as a team, or are they merely aspirational? If the latter, realign the values to better reflect the team.

Forging alliances

Great design leaders recognize that their team’s work is but one piece of the broader ecosystem of their organization. Engineering, product management, research, support, and many other teams play important roles in creating a great user experience. You’ll need to build social capital across your organization by developing a rapport with your colleagues.

Get in the habit of stepping away from your computer to get to know people. Grab lunch with a developer who may build out your team’s next design. No need for an agenda—just get to know each other. Spend time with researchers who have their finger on the pulse of your customers and sales people who have frequent “face time” with customers.

As Mark Opland, Design Manager at Facebook said, “Your legs are your most effective design tool. Get out and connect with people.”

How to build powerful partnerships across teams

  1. Don’t just network laterally—spend time with different stakeholders and executives to understand their roles and expectations.
  2. Bring stakeholders into the design process early and often to get feedback and fresh perspectives.
  3. Ask questions about the broader strategy of the company. You’ll need to understand the big picture to design products that fit into the company vision.
  4. Put design on everyone’s radar by connecting with colleagues on other teams and educating the rest of the company about design as a function, profession, and mindset. When design is accessible to all, the process feels inclusive.
  5. Schedule design reviews on a regular basis to keep your design team synced and bring people outside of design into the process.
  6. In addition to design reviews, make colleagues aware of the work happening inside the design team by delivering presentations as a coffee hour or a “lunch and learn.”

“First and foremost, a design leader needs to be empathetic, driven by curiosity to observe people beyond just dialogue,” said Eriq Quint, Vice President and Chief Design Officer at 3M. “This will support design leaders to better understand the needs of customers to initiate relevant innovations, drive great design leadership amongst their creative talent, and enable cross-functional collaboration with colleagues.”

Found this interesting? If so, check out, where you can learn more about design leadership and the practices that will help you and your team do your best work.

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