InVision presents

Design Leadership Handbook


by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery

What does it mean to be an exceptional design leader? Transitioning to design leadership can be challenging for individual contributors. The skills that got you there often don’t translate into your new role. Insights from design leaders who have been in those shoes can help you gain confidence and tactical skills.

In this book, you’ll learn how to grow as a leader and build a first-class design team.


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Becoming a design leader
You'll never be 100% prepared

What does it mean to be an exceptional design leader? Transitioning to design leadership can be challenging for individual contributors. The skills that got you there often don’t translate into your new role. Insights from design leaders who have been in those shoes can help you gain confidence and tactical skills.

In this book, you’ll learn how to grow as a leader and build a first-class design team.

Go to Chapter
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Building the team
Chemistry is key

Hiring humble, smart, complementary designers can be a daunting challenge as a new design leader. Defining your values, learning how to interview for hidden qualities, and giving yourself enough time to make smart hires can help you build a first-class design team.

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Managing a design team
Serve and protect

Managing is a design manager’s primary job, but the best leaders aren’t bosses as much as servant leaders and coaches. Your best work will be in discovering your team’s talents and interests, and removing impediments to nurture personal and team growth.

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Operationalizing design
Build the process

Creating clear, straightforward design structures frees your team to be their most creative while still hitting their deadlines. Building a structure for useful feedback and transparency fosters a healthy design team culture.

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Forging alliances
Design is a team sport

There’s no room for design leaders to be lone wolves. Just as design work benefits from collaboration, you’ll enhance the conversation around design by gathering allies and building relationships with engineering, product, support, and more.

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Shaping design vision
The story of why

The power of story can unite your design team in pursuit of a shared goal. Go beyond the how and why of your product—step out of your “maker” shoes and search for the story of why. A strong shared vision shows your team the future you’re building together.

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01

Becoming a design leader

You'll never be 100% prepared

Andy Law spotted an opportunity. As a designer at Netflix, he saw firsthand the need for someone to step up and bridge the gap between mobile design and the company’s engineering management. Things would be more efficient with some design leadership. Andy raised his hand and found himself in a new leadership position.

Though he had a clear understanding of the product and his craft, the mechanics of leading a team was new territory with an intimidating learning curve. He approached leadership as he would any design challenge—with research.

He interviewed managers both at Netflix and tech companies in the Valley to better understand what it means to be a design leader. Andy also carefully observed leaders and spotted the gaps in the organization where leadership was needed.

Most designers, when presented with a leadership opportunity, leap into the role enthusiastically, unaware of the challenges ahead. Not Andy Law; he wanted to be sure he knew what he was getting himself into.

He spoke with people who’d once been managers but returned to individual contributor (IC) roles, asking what about management didn’t work for them, and what should he look out for. He learned that in most cases people struggled with the new duties required of them. Their talents as an individual designer didn’t translate into management.

Andy pored over leadership books like Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy and Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People to fill gaps in his knowledge. At first skeptical that some of these books from decades past would still be relevant, he found that the principles—largely based on human interactions—were still quite relevant.

Andy knew his new role would occasionally feel uncomfortable. Despite doing his homework, he would at times feel unprepared, and he would certainly make mistakes. But all great design leaders start their careers with doubts and misgivings. Andy once told his boss:

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

This philosophy guided him through the transition as he found his footing. As a manager, Andy learned how to deal with all types of personalities, how to motivate people, and how to develop rapport to be effective.

Andy Law’s preparation for his new role as a design leader is exemplary, but for the rest of us, a little guidance can make the transition smoother. This guide will help you get your bearings. We’ll show you the essential skills you’ll need to cultivate, and we’ll provide you with practical methodologies to be more effective in your role.

Here’s how to become a design leader.

What it means to be a design leader

The transition to a leadership role is hard for many designers because their love of craft runs deep—leading design means less designing. As a leader, you’ll spend most of your time managing the team. That doesn’t mean you’re no longer a designer; it just means someone else will be implementing the design. Your new position is an opportunity to provide vision and guidance.

You’re no longer just playing an instrument. Now, you’re conducting the orchestra.

As a designer, you’re accustomed to thinking carefully about the customer experience, a skill that will also come in handy as you lead your team. You’ll be designing an environment and structure that brings out your employees’ best work to serve both the company and its users.

There are emotional challenges that come with a transition into a leadership role. As a leader among leaders, you’ll be working more often with people who don’t necessarily think like a designer, which is not bad—it’s just different. You’ll need to express ideas differently. To your design team, you might say, “This one feels like the right direction.” But to an executive, “This meets our business goals” will make more sense.

You’ll be adapting to new cultures and speaking new languages, but soon foreign territory will become familiar and you’ll find ways to be effective in most any situation.

What you’ll learn

Design leaders do more than spend their days giving thumbs up or down in design critiques. In this handbook we’ll help you get your bearings on these essential skills:

  1. 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.
  2. Manage: Evaluate each team member’s performance, coach them so they can grow, and minimize conflicts.
  3. Operationalize: Keep your team moving efficiently by standardizing the design feedback process, managing projects, and coordinating with other teams.
  4. Forge alliances: Build connections with other team leaders and executives to make sure your team gets what it needs.
  5. 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 each of your responsibilities in detail, starting with how you’ll build your team.

05

Forging alliances

Design is a team sport

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 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, sales people who hear frequent requests, product managers who understand schedules and scope, and customer service agents who know where users struggle the most. All have valuable context to offer you and your team. Each one influences the success of your team’s work.

And don’t just network laterally—spend time with different stakeholders and executives to understand their roles and expectations. 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.

As you become connected to colleagues on other teams, not only will your team’s designs be more informed, you’ll also put design on everyone’s radar, which is critically important. Your conversations will educate the rest of the company about design as a function, profession, and mindset. Your outreach to colleagues over time can change your company’s culture, making it  more compatible with the needs of designers.

Making inroads

In the High Resolution podcast, Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu discuss how to make sure design has a voice with Rochelle King of Spotify. View the full episode on Youtube.

Design is often protected—intentionally or not—from those who are perceived to be outside the process. That’s a shame, as often there are experts that are excluded simply because they don’t move in the same social circles at work.

It’s important to bring stakeholders into the design process early and often to get feedback and fresh perspectives. Sharing your work digitally makes it easy to gather feedback from specific people, but there’s value in setting the stage for unsolicited feedback too. As mentioned in the previous section, surprising things happen when you print screens and post them in a space where passersby can catch a glimpse. Leave Post-it notes and pens nearby and see what happens—you’ll get surprising feedback from unexpected sources with this approach.

Unlike digital, print is persistent and casual. It invites spontaneous participation even when you’re not around, which is perhaps its greatest strength. Take note of who leaves useful feedback so you can include them when you share your team’s next prototype.

When design is accessible to all, the process feels inclusive.

Regularly scheduled design reviews can be a great way to not only keep your design team synced, but to forge connections with other teams. At the health tech company Counsyl, Laura Martini (now at Google) made a habit of inviting engineers and execs to design reviews to get new perspective for her team, but also to put design on people’s minds.

In addition to design reviews, you can make colleagues aware of the work happening inside the design team by delivering presentations as a coffee hour or a lunch and learn. You can present your work on an important project, or deliver a crash course in Design Thinking. Create a design Slack channel to share books and articles with those who want to learn more about your discipline, and share updates on your work.

The more visible your team is in your company, the easier it will be to connect and collaborate with other teams.

Educating your company about design

In the High Resolution podcast, Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu hear from Amanda Mallard of Omada Health about how everyone can be empowered with design. View the full episode on Youtube.

Even if your team is already visible within the company, it can be challenging to find ways to focus the company culture on design without hiring more design resources. One method is to find alternate means of educating non-design colleagues about how designers solve problems.

At Netflix, Andy Law approaches this in several different ways. Once a quarter, Netflix holds a “UX Progressive,” where engineers and others can visit a designer’s desk to get a demo of current work in progress. Andy has also used screenings of InVision’s DESIGN DISRUPTORS film as a way to educate colleagues about design: “There are a lot of people interested in how designers approach and solve a problem, and DESIGN DISRUPTORS does a really good job of synthesizing what that is.”

Another approach is to host one-on-one sessions with colleagues who are interested in learning more about design, or who seek design help with a project. When Irene Au was at Google, the design team held weekly “office hours” where colleagues could come with questions and get feedback on their projects.

No matter the approach, educating colleagues about design and empowering them to use elements of the design process offer opportunities to increase the visibility and influence of design within your company.

Related: Design plays a key role in 38% of the world’s largest organizations

Key takeaways

  • Set design review days on your team’s calendar and invite specific people to participate
  • Your org chart is not a list of names; it’s a group of potential allies. Get to know them.
  • Post your work in an accessible space. Present your work at company coffee hours. Talk about your work and answer questions in a company Slack channel.
  • Solicit feedback every step of the way. This isn’t design by committee, but good ideas—and constructive criticism—can come from anywhere.
  • Find opportunities to educate your company about design (UX progressives, film screenings, office hours).

About the Authors

Aarron Walter
VP of Design Education

As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices. Aarron founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million.

He is the author of the best selling book Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart. You’ll find Aarron on Twitter and Medium sharing thoughts on design. Learn more at http://aarronwalter.com.

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

Design Leadership Handbook
Design Leadership Handbook

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