Leading Design 2016

Common threads from the Leading Design conference


Wednesday 26th October 2016

Jon Roobottom

I’ve just spent three days at the Barbican enjoying the inaugural Leading Design Conference. Having being promoted the role of Head of Design fairly recently, I found the vast majority of the talks and both workshops extremely poignant.

This was also the sense I got from my fellow attendees. Chatting with people over lunch, or a beer later on, I was struck by just how many “Yeah, me too!” moments we had. It turns out that leading design is hard, but I’m reassured to know that people have the same problems as me.

I was further reassured at the common themes that emerged over the event. It means we’re all on similar pages (or, at least we’re all reading the same book), and in an attempt to sift through those bits of knowledge that really spoke to me, here’s my top (sometimes badly paraphrased) common threads from the last three days. This is far-from all the messages that spoke to me, but this is the stuff that will have most immediate impact on my work:

Designing design

Scott Berkun’s talk Design vs. The World started the conference on the right note with a big picture view of what it means to do design in the real world, and how it isn’t just pushing pixels around a screen. It got me thinking about my role, and how its increasingly solving problems that aren’t related to UI design, or writing CSS.

Later, during the Q&A session with Julia Whitney (BBC), Danny Hearn and Mark Boulton (Monotype), it was said (with perhaps a hint of lamentation) that we’re no longer doing design at the coal-face, rather it’s our job to design the design experience: The environments and culture in which our teams works, and the processes they lean-on to get their work done.

This really struck a chord with me.

Resistance is futile

Someone (I’m sorry I can’t remember who) included a slide of Locutus of Borg, simultaneously making the point about assimilating into other team’s cultures, and scoring points with me for a Star Trek reference.

In her talk New on the Job: Your First 90 Days in a Design Leadership Role Andrea Mignolo talked about the “layer cake”, a delicious way to visualise the hierarchy in your company. She argued that you had to design the experience for each layer, to talk about design in the language of your audience.

Catherine Courage said “Strive for shared empathy”, the points in the middle where you can meet and talk design in a way thats understandable by even the most numbers-driven business development manager.

In both her talk and brilliant workshop Gail Swanson taught us about presenting to decision makers. We used mapping techniques to better understand the drivers for those people from whom we seek approval. This is definitely a technique I’ll try at Firefly, to be able to frame an argument in a way that already fits in with the pressures and priorities of others is incredibly powerful.

Dark matter

How do we quantify the value of design? Its difficult to ask quantitative questions when you’re dealing with solving problems on an emotional level. How would you measure a target like “Users feel 9% more engaged this quarter”? We don’t have the tools to measure qualitative data like this. And yet, this is the stuff that really adds value.

Nathan Shedroff’s talk Using the Waveline: Mapping Premium Value to the User Journey (a new tool for planning deeper customer experiences) detailed how to start to measure the emotional impact over time that your product or service has, and how this can be designed for maximum empathy.

If you’re at all involved in designing anything for anyone (I would argue that’s everyone), then I’d recommend further reading into Nathan’s Waveline theories. It’s certainly something I’ll investigate further.

A quick note on the conference itself

Leading Design was perhaps the most useful, insightful and timely conference I’ve ever attended. Huge thanks to Andy Budd et al for doing such a great job, and spotting the need for this event. You asked if we wanted another in 2017, its a resounding “yes” from me.

The last thing I want to mention was the venue. I jumped a the chance for a tour of the Barbican during the lunch break the second day. If you’re a fan of brutalist architecture then this site is must-see. It was the perfect venue for a fantastic three days of conference.