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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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.

04

Operationalizing design

Build the process

To do their best work and hit deadlines your team will need structure. They’ll need clarity on the work happening within the team, and regular feedback at each step of a project. By formalizing the feedback process, you’ll help your team operationalize their work without compromising on quality.

Building feedback into your design practice will help in so many ways:

  • You’ll avoid spending too much time on a design that may have significant flaws
  • You’ll gain multiple perspectives on a single problem, helping the designer get closer to an effective solution faster
  • Presenting work for feedback will keep your team synced on project progress, and hold everyone accountable to milestones and deadlines
  • As designers get in the habit of presenting their work and giving feedback to others, they’ll learn to think more clearly about their design decisions, and become comfortable articulating their ideas
  • Regular feedback processes will give junior designers the opportunity to learn from senior designers, helping your entire team level up

The first step to operationalizing feedback in your team is thinking carefully about how designs are shared.

Setting the stage for feedback

By changing your space to create the right environment, you can set the stage for feedback and collaboration in your team. For distributed and remote teams, this is doubly important—establishing dedicated times and places for sharing works in progress keeps everyone connected.

In person

The walls of your design studio are a sacred space. This is where your team’s ideas can be shared, debated, retooled, and celebrated. Make it clear to your team that the studio walls are not a gallery—this is work space!

If you don’t already have one, invest in a large format printer and get the whole team connected. Print design work daily and post to your studio walls for scheduled design reviews and casual conversations.

If your walls aren’t ideal for posting work, you can buy 8-foot by 4-foot sheets of foam core and lean them against your walls. Get some nice Washi tape to post your designs in style (and easily peel off later). Leave markers and sticky notes nearby so your team and anyone in the company can easily jot down a bit of feedback and post it.

 

The design team at Greater Good Studio has gone so far as to create project bays, a modular space to post work for critical discussion. Each new project they begin gets its own bay—a physical manifestation of their progress.

The fidelity of the work you post can influence the feedback you get. Pixel-perfect comps may lead others to believe the work is finished, which will inhibit feedback. Work that’s a little lower fidelity or with notes scribbled on it will make it clear to all that you’re still working through ideas.

Remote

Remote teams can also set the stage for feedback using tools like Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, and of course, InVision. The entire design team at InVision is distributed and uses their own product to conduct design reviews. LiveShare, a design collaboration feature in InVision, lets the team present their work and get real-time feedback. Early ideas are explored with Boards, later becoming Prototypes that are again shared with the team for feedback.

With so many affordable tools at hand, remote teams can easily build feedback into their design process too.

With the stage set for feedback in your team, you’re ready to establish the format for each type of feedback your team will need.

Operationalizing the feedback process

Designing out in the open is just the first step. Your team will also need to get feedback on their designs, sync with teammates to make sure progress is being made, and learn from mistakes so they can improve. This is a tall order, and calls for different types of feedback processes.

Let’s take a look at a few ways to get your team the right feedback at the right time.

 

Design reviews

When they should happen: All the time! They’ll keep your team moving forward

Who should be there: The designer plus no more than 7 people

How it helps: Designers get the feedback they need to refine their work

Design reviews are critiques that let designers get detailed feedback that’s framed by the project goals. Design reviews can happen at a number of different points in a project. It’s often helpful to do one early on so the designer can get fresh perspectives before investing too much time in an idea that may be misguided. The midway point and toward the end of a project are also natural times to get additional inputs.

Never use a design review as a big reveal of project. If you wait until you have everything polished, you’ll be too invested to accept the feedback you’re given.

Design reviews are a great opportunity to bring in experts from other teams to make the work better. Colleagues from support, engineering, product management, QA, legal, marketing, or even an executive may have a new perspective to help you see the problem differently. But try not to overload the guest list in these reviews—too many people and you’ll have a hard time guiding the conversation.

Design standups

When they should happen: Daily for large or distributed teams, less often for small teams

Who should be there: Everyone on the design team

How it helps: Your team gets the chance to sync up on projects

Design standups are short, daily check-ins that help your team stay abreast of the work that’s being done. As the name suggests, everyone remains standing in these meetings so no one can get comfortable enough to launch into a soliloquy.

In a standup, each team member answers 3 questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Are there any impediments, or blockers, in your way?

While most teams choose to conduct standups in the morning, you may want to consider doing them after lunch—the morning is when our minds are clearest and ready to focus on creative work. For remote teams, pick a time that accommodates multiple time zones.

Don’t let standups turn into impromptu design critiques. If someone needs immediate design feedback, ask that they hold the request until after the meeting—a standup should be short and focused on project progress.

Retrospectives

When they should happen: After a project is launched or a sprint is completed

Who should be there: Everyone who worked on the project

How it helps: Your team will internalize lessons from each project

Every project is a learning opportunity, but if you don’t pause to take stock, valuable lessons will slip away. When you’ve launched a project or completed a sprint, it’s a great time to reflect on what went well, what was confusing, and what didn’t go so well.

Matt Spiel, Director of Design at Treehouse, conducts retrospective meetings regularly. He sends a pre-retrospective survey to the team before the meeting to capture each person’s perspective individually. This helps to eliminate the bandwagon effect, which happens when the views of the group conform to those of a few vocal people.

Matt asks his team to rate their performance both as a group and as individuals on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest. Ratings tend to cluster in a similar spot, but occasionally there are outliers. Team members who’ve given starkly different ratings are asked to share their views in the meeting to promote transparency and honesty.

Discussion in Treehouse’s retrospective meetings is centered around 3 questions common to most Agile retrospectives:

  • What worked well for us?
  • What didn’t work well for us?
  • What can we do to improve our process?

These questions are sometimes referred to as Start, Stop, Keep—what should we start doing, stop doing, and keep doing?

Honest conversation about each of these questions becomes easier with the cultivation of trust and plenty of practice running retrospective meetings.

Postmortems

When they should happen: After a project has gone poorly

Who should be there: Everyone who worked on the project and an impartial facilitator

How it helps: Your team will learn from their mistakes and find a way forward

Not all projects go well. Some go horribly wrong, requiring all teams involved in the project to come together to consider and learn from the mistakes they made.

Though projects rarely go awry at Etsy, they’ve established a strong process to guide them through those that do. Their process follows many of the recommendations set forth in the Agile methodology.

Here’s how to run a postmortem:

  • Before the meeting: Send an email asking the team to identify key points in the project timeline. This will be used to construct a master timeline of events, which will be discussed in the meeting. By focusing on events, you’ll avoid negative finger pointing, which can derail the process.
  • Moderator: Choose a moderator who wasn’t on the project and can be impartial. This person should be guiding the conversation from the whiteboard, taking notes for all to see.
  • Ground rules: The moderator should first point out that this is not a blame session, but an opportunity to learn. It’s a conversation about the shortcomings of the team’s process, not the people involved.
  • Facts: People recall events differently. The moderator can help the team agree upon what actually happened so lessons can be extracted. Establishing a timeline of events can help pinpoint where things went wrong.
  • Lessons and actions: As key lessons are identified, they should be written on the whiteboard for all to see. The actions required to mitigate the problems stemming from the failed project also need to be identified, assigned an owner, and provided a clear deadline.
  • After the meeting: The lessons learned from the postmortem should be emailed to the entire team, along with the action items that are to be completed.

Postmortems can seem rough, but they’re far superior to repeating the same mistakes. They’re a powerful opportunity for your team to learn and improve your processes.

Once your team’s operations are sound, you need to start thinking beyond your borders. How will you interact with other teams in the company? This challenge is less about operations, and more about just getting to know people.

 

Key takeaways

  • Build a culture of feedback help your team grow
  • Get your team in the habit of posting their work for all to see. Feedback comes more naturally when you create the right environment.
  • If your team is remote, set the stage for feedback using tools like Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, and InVision
  • Conduct regular design reviews to give designers detailed feedback framed by the project goals
  • Conduct design standups regularly to help your team stay abreast of the work that’s being done
  • At the end of each project, hold a retrospective meeting to collect the lessons learned and continuously improve your team processes
  • When projects go poorly, run a postmortem meeting to learn from your mistakes without finger pointing
06

Shaping design vision

The story of why

What is it about reading a good story that makes it seem so effortless? In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall writes:

“…authors trick us into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: we lie back and let writers pipe joy into our brains. But this is wrong. When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard.”

We evolved as storytelling creatures, and the power of story has never left us. As companies scale and teams sprint through product iterations, it’s easy to lose sight of how your product should fit into the lives of your customers. The best way to keep everyone pointed in the right direction is with a clear, compelling story—a story that will unite and guide teams toward success.

Related: Secrets of design leadership—from Stanley Wood of Spotify

Product roadmaps guide team milestones, but they only show us what to build and when. They don’t show us why we’re building a product. Stories, however, are great at explaining why. In Start with Why, author Simon Sinek proclaims that, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” Similarly, the best product teams don’t merely follow a process; they march toward a shared destination—a vision of the future presented as a story that answers, “Why are we building this?”

Talking about the why

Design leaders need to craft the vision for a product and communicate how it fits into the lives of others. There are many mediums for conveying this story; some design teams create large boards that show design style or tell the story of how their product will fit into the lives of their customers. Others create short videos to illustrate to all how the product will fit into the customer’s lifestyle.

While preparing for a major app redesign, the UX team Aarron Walter led at MailChimp produced a vision video to guide the company on what was to be a 4-month project.

The research team had noticed after a number of customer visits that people were doing work differently. Persistent internet connections on phones and tablets let people work anywhere and all the time, ducking in and out of small tasks. This created a sense of found time that was quickly being filled up with more to-dos.

As people became overwhelmed with their work, they needed to hand things off to others. Seeing these behavioral patterns, the UX team realized they needed to rethink how MailChimp handled collaboration across many devices.

The project required the collaboration of many teams. They wrote a short script and worked with their in-house videographer to produce a brief vision video in about 10 days.

Faced with a major redesign of their platform, MailChimp created this vision video to guide all teams.

The production was inexpensive and relatively fast, but the outcome was of high enough fidelity to guide designers, developers, marketers, and other stakeholders around the company as they worked to realize the vision set forth.

Sketches and storyboards are another great medium for conveying stories. Airbnb worked with Pixar illustrators to create storyboards that showed how their products would fit into the lives of their customers. Their storyboard gave everyone a vision of the product experience they wanted while still giving each team the freedom to solve the problems as they saw fit.

 

The storytelling mechanism you choose is less important than the story you tell. The act of creating a product story before you begin the design process not only helps you mobilize your teams, it also forces you to clarify your intentions for your product. You’ll step out of the maker’s mindset and consider how your product will fit into the lives of others.

Vision—whether presented through a video, storyboard, or some other means—gives purpose and clarity to our work. Without it teams often lose sight of their mission.

 

When you come to a fork in the road, take it

As design leaders, we are often thinking and communicating in terms of how design ties into company strategy, and we become less focused on craft. This is just a normal part of how a role evolves as responsibilities grow. As a company scales, CTOs don’t often do much coding, and CMOs rarely have time to write a blog post or draft an email campaign.

But as designers, we are in a somewhat unique position where our craft can inform our thinking. Don Norman, Director of the Design Lab at University of California, San Diego, writes about the tension between craft and design thinking in his essay The Future of Design: When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It:

The fork in the road does not have to be a choice between two options: this is an opportunity to pursue both. Design as a craft has a long history of providing great value to humankind. Design thinking is as yet unproven, but it has the potential to provide a different kind of value to the world. Both are essential, so let us take the fork in both directions.

In Don’s view, we don’t necessarily have to give up the craft of design to become leaders, or to convey the vision for a product. In fact, this vision could be stronger if we “learn and think by drawing and doing.” So sharpen your pencils, dust off your sketchbook, and start telling better stories to guide your team to success.

Key takeaways

  • Craft the vision for your product and communicate how it fits into the lives of others. This will serve as the North Star guiding all teams.
  • Use story to communicate a design vision. Video, storyboards, and comics are all great mediums to show colleagues the future you’re creating for your customers.

 

Conclusion

Our hope is that, after combing through this guide and the readings we’ve recommended, you feel better equipped to lead your team. You now know how to build and manage a team, you have a plan to operationalize design, you recognize that you’ll need to forge alliances to be effective, and you know how to shape a cohesive design vision so everyone in your organization has a North Star to guide their work.

Though your learning curve as a design leader is steep, the rewards are great. You’re in a position to influence the trajectory of your team and your entire organization—that’s exciting.

Design leaders like you will reshape teams, companies, and ultimately our industry. Your wisdom will grow with practice, and as it does we hope you’ll share what you’ve learned with others. Leaders teach, and in doing so the depths of their wisdom deepens.

Thank you for being a leader! We’re rooting for you.

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