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.

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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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03

Managing a design team

Serve and protect

In the High Resolution podcast, Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu discuss the two paths of design leaders with Kate Aronowitz of Wealthfront. View the full episode on Youtube.

The primary job of a manager is to manage the careers of others. Though management may not be your passion, it will be an important part of your work. As a design leader you’ll help people do great work and develop fulfilling careers, which can have a profound influence on your organization.

Great managers are not bosses, they’re servant leaders who wield their power to help others. Your service will be an example to your entire team, and will encourage behaviors that will make your team strong. Your actions are a far more effective coaching tool than words alone!

Rich Armstrong, the former COO of Trello, succinctly describes the responsibilities of a manager who serves his or her team and helps each person grow:

  1. Discover where their professional goals intersect with those of the organization.
  2. Remove impediments to their achievement of those goals.
  3. Hold them accountable to move forward on those goals.
  4. Show them how far they’ve come from time to time.

The way to deliver on each of these responsibilities is to schedule 1-on-1 meetings with each team member.

1-on-1 meetings

1-on-1 meetings are a great way for managers and their direct reports to connect individually on pressing issues, develop a strong relationship, and ensure that employees feel like they’re working toward their goals. These are not status update meetings; they’re an opportunity to give regular feedback and foster growth.

Feedback flows both ways. Smart managers ask team members for insight into how they could serve the team better. These honest conversations can help everyone improve.

1-on-1s are also an important time to get to know each team member personally and build rapport. The complexities of life often follow us into work and can affect our performance. Making time for personal conversations can give you insight into a team member’s emotional state.

Ask these sorts of questions in your 1-on-1s:

  • Short term goals: How do you feel the project is going so far? Are there any projects you want to work on in the near future?
  • Long term goals: What do you want to be doing in 5 years? What are your big dreams in life?
  • About the company: What is the company not doing today that we should do to better compete in the market? What’s 1 thing we’d be crazy not to do in the next quarter to improve our product?
  • Self improvement: Do you feel challenged at work? Are you learning new things? What area of the company would you like to learn more about?
  • Manager improvement: What could I do as a manager to make your work easier? Would you like more or less direction from me on your work? How can I help you with your goals?

There are so many important topics to cover. Jason Evanish has published 101 questions for 1-on-1s, an invaluable source that will help you spark meaningful conversations with your team members.

Say thank you and celebrate

With all of your responsibilities as a design leader, you’re going to be busy—very busy. As you focus on pushing projects forward and running your team, don’t forget that people need to be recognized for their contributions. Make a habit of saying “thank you” to each team member for their work. Everyone needs to hear it individually and as a team.

After wrapping up a big project, take time to celebrate with your team. They need to feel a sense of accomplishment and recharge their batteries. If you move on to the next project without recognizing the team’s accomplishment, you risk them feeling empty and uninspired to climb the next mountain with you.

Etiquette tip: Criticism during a celebration will just demoralize your team. Save your feedback about the project until after the celebration!

Introducing new management layers

As your team grows, you’ll need to introduce additional layers of management to keep the team and their projects on track. You’ll know it’s time when you no longer have enough hours for all of your 1-on-1 meetings.

When you reach that point, you’ll be anxious to get extra help to relieve some stress, but fight the urge to take quick action. Putting the wrong person in a position of authority will only make your work harder.

When you’ve identified a prospective manager, assign them just 1 employee to manage and observe how they handle the shift in work. If they neglect their new management responsibilities in favor of design work, you know you’ve got the wrong person for the job.

If the team member performs well, add additional direct reports and remove design tasks from their to-do list. Continue to monitor and coach them regularly to help them get their bearings.

Twitter has a unique approach to how they transition individual contributors into management. In other organizations, career growth is often closely connected to a company’s org chart—to make more money you have to become a manager, which incentivizes the wrong people into positions of power. In contrast, Twitter sees the transition into management as a lateral move, and there is no pay raise associated with it. Raises are performance-based, which incentivizes the right behavior—designers who want to further pursue their craft will develop their career without sacrificing their passions.

Right person, right project

There are 2 very different types of designers: hunters and farmers. Each is essential to a design team, but—as Aarron Walter discovered while leading the UX team at MailChimp—when matched with the wrong project, chaos ensues.

Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths, and look for traits in each of your designers to identify farmers and hunters:

Farmers

  • Love constraints, and feel lost without them
  • Enjoy slogging through existing products to find a more refined design solution
  • Thrive on product iteration and refinement

Hunters

  • Excited by freedom to wander—too many constraints deplete their energy
  • Comfortable with uncertainty and unfamiliar territory
  • Thrive on new products and redesigns

Resolving conflicts

Conflict is uncomfortable, but it’s inescapable as a design leader. When conflict arises in your team, confront it early to maintain the health of your team.

Each 1-on-1 meeting is an opportunity to listen for the stirrings of conflicts. Don’t wait until  deadlines are missed or the team seems ineffective. If a designer reports conflict between other team members, talk with everyone individually before taking action. Matters can be blown out of proportion when information is second hand, and you can make things worse if you act before you’re fully informed.

When you’ve identified a conflict, get all parties in the same room to have an honest conversation. Let everyone have the opportunity to be heard, and don’t conclude the meeting until you’ve collectively identified a pathway to resolution.

Key takeaways

  • Conduct regular 1-on-1 meetings to establish rapport and foster career growth with each team member
  • Take time to thank your team members and colleagues regularly. People need recognition to feel their work is valued.
  • When your team has reached a big milestone, celebrate. It’ll make your team closer and communicate your respect for their contributions.
  • Before moving someone into a management position, let them test the waters by managing 1 person. If they perform well, add additional direct reports.
  • Avoid pay increases when transitioning someone into management. It incentivizes the wrong people to seek positions of power.
  • Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths. Pairing the right designer to the right project is key to keeping your team productive.
  • When conflict arises, do your research before you act. Trust, but verify the claims made by your team members.
  • To resolve conflict, get all parties in the same room to have an honest conversation. Let everyone have the opportunity to be heard.
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