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The 5 Key Traits of Effective Design Leadership

Ines Almeida
Ines Almeida
7 min read
Design leadership traits

From billboards to digital ads to the products themselves, great design has always been a way to differentiate your brand. But over the last five years, the rise in the number of traditional, B2B, and DTC businesses has created a cluttered, chaotic playing field where great designers are challenged to deliver more assets in shorter time frames.

With faster turnaround times required and constantly changing platform requirements, how do you help that great design team deliver without burning out? More importantly, how do you protect and support your team with buy-in from your management team?

The answer is thankfully a straightforward one—it takes great design leaders. We asked our team and some of our favorite designers their thoughts on what qualities a great design leader possesses. Hint: It's more than just great communication skills.

Starting with one of the essential qualities for any leader—trust—here are our five qualities every great design leader should have.

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1. Great Design Leaders Build Trust

Great Design Leaders Build Trust

All leaders know that trust is the foundation of any team, and this includes design teams. Having a solid sense of trust gives design teams the confidence to work collaboratively to deliver fantastic design assets on schedule. It also allows teams to level up, flex their graphic design skills, and grow.

When design leaders foster trust, it opens up dialogs where team members feel safe to share new, innovative ideas.

Trust builds an environment where designers know their work—and their opinions—are valued. There isn't an ingredient more important than trust when it comes to building an inclusive and equitable workplace. Knowing they can share ideas and concepts in a trusted environment creates space for diverse voices and opinions.

Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.
Seth Godin

For Kyryll Odobetskiy, Design Lead at the TD Lab, clarity is one of the keys to building trust.

Clarity in expectations, clarity in what problem to pursue, clarity in what's not important. The best leaders I learned from all had extreme clarity and focus. The absence of those makes life hard for a team cause they don't know where to focus their energy and they don't know which tradeoffs to make.
Kyryll Odobetskiy, Design Lead at the TD Lab

Having trust goes beyond the design team. Great design leaders build trust throughout their organization. It's not only trust within the team—it's trust within the organization.

Making a brand guide and sharing it is one thing, but building that brand guide with input from as many stakeholders as possible creates trust for the foundation of your design and messaging. Creating a trusted team environment and a trusted organizational environment empowers design teams to do their best work.

2. Great Design Leaders Have an Open Mind

Great design leadership means having an open mind

We're all creatures of habit. When starting a new design project, most of us will go back to what worked before as a starting point. Great design leaders can shake their teams out of their comfort zones. Leaders taking teams out of their comfort zones means having to take themselves out too.

Great design leaders understand that new solutions can come from unexpected places. It takes someone who can put themselves in the audience's shoes to see the different ways design can affect an audience emotionally, critically, and inspirationally.

Designer and photographer Joe Martz said that looking at problems from multiple angles is a great habit to get into.

I find this true in both my design and photography. I don't think this is exclusive to creative work, but from my experience it definitely helps. Taking that extra step and pushing yourself a bit more to further the design can be beneficial.
Joe Martz, Designer and Photographer

It's also critical that design leaders understand when their team requires some inspiration. We've all had those moments when we've found ourselves staring at blank artboards in Adobe Illustrator, trying to find a place to start.

Great design leaders recognize the rut before their teams do—and have the tools and tricks to open up their team's minds to new ideas to get started.

3. Great Design Leaders Know The Importance of DesignOps

DesignOps Leadership

Constraints can breed creativity. Design teams work better and are happier when using the same tools, and they understand the tools they're using. But all of that depends on a solid, well throughout DesignOps process. One where you've selected the right tools and processes for your team and organization.

The nature of design is to inherently change an organization. Design leadership and change are inextricably tied.
Alison Rand, Chief Strategy Officer, Design Operations at SAP

Great design leaders have a deep understanding of the importance of DesignOps within an organization. Using the mantra "the right tool for the right job," effective design leaders choose the software tools that allow their teams to do their most creative work.

Whether that's Adobe Creative Cloud or Figma for design or Asana or Jira for project tracking, design leaders work to understand what their team needs to deliver for the organization.

Understanding DesignOps and selecting the right processes and tools is only part of the equation. Design leaders use the trust they've built within their organizations to communicate how those processes work.

Having the entire organization understand and respect those 'constraints' in the processes from DesignOps are there to keep your team focused on their tasks without the distractions of others in the org looking for updates on deliverables and timelines.

4. Great Design Leaders Have Courage

Design managers and leaders need courage

Leading any team takes courage. Within design, great design leaders show courage by putting forward their team's ideas to key stakeholders in their organization. It's unfortunate, but design is not a priority in some organizations or sometimes not respected as much as it should be.

Great design leaders have the courage to approach those in the organization who don't have a good grasp on design and communicate complex concepts in simple ways.

design culture

Source: Pellvetica - Hootsuite Spotted Boardroom Mural

Graphic design and muralist Steve Pell agreed that courage and bravery are essential traits for effective design leaders.

I think it takes a lot of bravery to be a strong design leader, because it can be a very thankless, mental health destroying position. You must have courage. Your team will be encouraged by your bravery, and will trust you.
Steve Pell, Graphic Designer and Muralist

5. Great Design Leaders Have Growth Mindsets

Leadership design means having a growth mindset

Design processes, tools, and styles are continuously evolving. Design leaders who leverage their growth mindsets are the ones who become the most effective design leaders.

A growth mindset is simply knowing that your abilities—and those of your design team—can be developed through dedication, practice, and openness to new ideas.

Great design leaders approach their work knowing that ambiguity and uncertainty are part of the job. They also have the courage to guide their teams through those challenges and inspire them to look for new angles or different ways to bring fantastic design to life.

My dad encouraged us to fail. It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying. Don't be afraid to fail.
Sara Blakely, Founder and CEO of SPANX

These leaders also understand that mistakes are part of the process. Through these sometimes hard lessons, we find inspiration to create designs that capture the attention of our audiences and convert them to customers.

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Final Words

If you're thinking about leadership and design, and the role that it can have on your team and company, then you're on the right path. No matter the type of business you work at or the industry you're in—we all want to deliver great design that wows people. Becoming that effective design leader that provides amazing design means:

  • Building trust in your team and organization
  • Being open to new ideas
  • Communicating the importance of DesignOps
  • Having the courage to lead
  • Encouraging your team to have growth mindsets

For creative managers who want to level up, investing in design leadership training is a great way to provide more value to their team (and their company).

Published: Jul 27, 2021
Ines Almeida
Written by
Ines Almeida
Ines Almeida is an Associate Creative Director based in the beautiful Lisbon, Portugal. With over 20 years of design experience under her belt, Ines is not only a highly skilled creative, but she also has a passion for design mentorship and helping our many Supersiders grow in their careers.

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