Design Leadership

Principles I Operate On

The best designs emerge from an inclusive process. It’s best to incorporate end users, stakeholders, engineers, researchers, marketers, business professionals, and others throughout the design process - the discovery phase, planning, research, coordination, and each iteration.

Great design leadership requires unwavering organizational commitment. For the cross-departmental coordination that great design demands there must be commitment from the top to the bottom of an organization. There is only so much a designer can do to facilitate this. There must be desire within the team first.

Designers are people equipped with any or all of the following:

  1. Understanding of correct design principles
  2. Useful tools for various phases in the design process
  3. Strategies for getting to the bottom of a problem
  4. Skills to deliver usable and effective solutions
  5. Ability to incorporate others throughout the process

Design leadership aligns team efforts for maximal product outcomes. For consumer product organizations or any team that is building a user interface, design is core to their strategy.

Innovation is Driven by Design Leadership

Most human-centered innovations are more accurately characterized as ‘design.’ This is for two reasons:

  1. New solutions to problems emerge from a multi-disciplinary team going through a process, in one form or another, of empathizing with people, defining the root causes of their problem, ideating solutions, and testing designs. That’s design thinking.
  2. When it’s human users you are innovating for, you must orient everything your team does around the details of the users’ thoughts, needs, and wants. That’s user experience design.

Design is more about the outcomes of the finished product than about its sensory qualities. A beautiful deliverable that is unusable doesn’t solve the problem. Design is about maximizing a balance between business and user goals.

The best designs are based on a combination of old principles and new insights - no matter if it be for functional, informational, or aesthetic solutions. There is more to learn from the past about design than any one person can, and yet, all that knowledge will still never be enough to design new solutions for new problems. Great designers must be, by necessity, voracious learners, experimenters, risk takers, and a bit obsessive.

Optimal outcomes meet an equilibrium between user needs, business needs, and technical possibilities. Graphic concept from A Project Guide to UX Design, by Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler:


Design is more about the process than it is about the outcomes. Preceding the polished iteration of a successful outcome is almost all of the work. The outcome emerges out of the process taken. So, more important than paying attention to the surface layer of your deliverable are the problem solving mechanics utilized.

Principles govern the process. There is no single correct process for all teams, nor is there a single process for one team to utilize all the time. There are always tradeoffs to take in your approach to new circumstances. The goal is to have the right frameworks and tools for new circumstances. This requires leadership with design expertise.

Challenges of Design Leadership

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, but arriving at sophistication is anything but simple. People look at user-friendly designs and mistake its ease of use as easy to design. In actuality, it is design experience that informs the designer’s discipline to say ‘no’ to most features and it is user testing that lead to the sophistication of the user interface. In the end, with the luxury of 20/20 hindsight, the solution always appears obvious.

Non-builders cannot fully appreciate the work behind great design. The same people who associate design closely with decoration or art typically overestimate the merit of their product ideas. This is because they haven’t prototyped their ideas. If you don’t test your prototypes, you can’t discover for yourself how many assumptions your ideas are based on.

Software engineering and design require completely different mindsets. Engineers code solutions taking into account all edge cases that may break the application. This paradigm of thought often bleeds into UI design where more features and information is included than necessary, and then organized in a logical arrangement. This is the wrong approach to design, because people prefer only to have the main features and to have them laid out in the way that is closest to how they are used to using them - they don’t want to have to think.

If a team doesn’t understand the design principles behind a process, they won’t protect them. This is why great design requires design leadership to teach, exemplify, advocate, and defend the principles.

Effective Design Leadership

Always teach. Utilize every phase of the design process for teaching moments with teammates:

  • Explain why certain research methods are right for this context and not that.
  • Raise principles of cognitive psychology in the context of UI design decisions.
  • Explain why this 2 day task could save the team 2 weeks of work later.
  • Etc.

Be a voracious learner. This requires focus on both old principles and new insights:

  • Continuously dig into and around the problem you’re solving. It will unearth strategic insights that will set your team up for higher heights.
  • Do not reinvent the wheel. Learn from the masters who have shaped the fields of design you venture into.
  • Continually leverage unstructured research opportunities that might pop up. Interview experts or users when you’re around them or interacting with them online.

Be productively paranoid about strategy. Continually test your team’s assumptions about it, because nothing dampens team morale more than months of effort wasted on a flawed strategy. Strategy shifts produce more waste than changes to any other layer of product design. Strategy needs to be the design layer that changes least frequently.

Exemplify your principles. If you want your words to carry any weight, you must lead by example.

Lead with research. Continually orient team decisions around your users and your data.



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