Leading design 2017

Some thoughts on design leadership from the Leading Design conference


Monday 30th October 2017

Jon Roobottom

I spent some of last week listening to some great design leaders share their thoughts at Leading Design 2017. Hosted by the fine folks from Clearleft the event is now in its second year.

The Barbican Centre entrance — The venue for the excellent Leading Design Conference
The Barbican Centre entrance — The venue for the excellent Leading Design Conference

Before last year’s event, I was still trying to figure out what my job was, let alone how to do it well. I think my biggest fear when I took the position was that I would no longer have much to offer. Increasingly I’d be taking on less and less of the day-to-day work, and without producing designs or churning out HTML what was I? Last year’s conference helped me to figure out at least some of what I should be doing with my days:

  • Designing team processes, environments and culture
  • Protecting the team from too much work
  • Evangelising design’s role in the company’s success

My notes from last year are a bit of a mess. This tells me that I hadn’t really fully understood what any of these new responsibilities were. In fact, its taken the last year for me to get a handle on what any of these mean for my working life. Was I doing a shitty job in the meantime? No, well, I certainly don’t think so. I just hadn’t fully appreciated that I’d taken the step out of a production role and into a leadership role and that I was completely unprepared for what that meant.

The more I learn about design leadership, the more I realise that in most of the challenges you face every day, you can usually ditch the word design. Leadership is its own thing, a skill you have to be taught and then refine over time. Just because you can design doesn’t automatically mean you can lead a team of designers. Not something I was quick to pick up on. My advice for new design leaders is to realise that you’re unprepared for this new challenge and to cut yourself some slack when things inevitably go wrong. And spend time learning about leadership from whatever source you can. Other leaders in your organisation are an absolute gold-mine.

This year, I kept a page at the front of my notebook titled “Overall thoughts” and whenever I heard common themes that struck a chord, I wrote them down:

  • Things go wrong for everyone, no team is perfect, not even those with 100s of designs and huge budgets
  • No-one in your company knows what design leadership is. Spend more time with other design leaders
  • Be the “shit umbrella” — protect your team
  • Managing designers is hard (although, I’d change this to managing people is hard)
  • Design-ops are important. Design-ops are important. Design-ops are important.
  • Strategic partnership is a must. Strive to understand how you can help others in your company solve problems by understanding their point of view
  • Take the time to understand your business, not just the role of design within it
  • Ask obvious questions, it’s a safe bet that your not the only one who doesn’t understand

My thoughts on design leadership continue to evolve. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I can write a comprehensive list of what makes a good Head of Design. Like anything, you get better at it over time. There’s always more to be learned, and always some way to be better at your job.

I do think it’s important to keep evaluating and striving to be better. And, of course, events like Leading Design give you time to step back from the coalface and formulate your thoughts.