Design is like a lot of fields in that, if you are successful, sooner or later somebody is going to ask you to be in charge of something.
This may not be your cup of tea: you care about solving a problem, about putting something useful and beautiful into the world, not about motivating a bunch of people with totally different brains than you. You may think being in charge of other people ultimately means having less time to focus on designing. Whatever the reason, I have worked with incredibly talented designers who — when faced with assuming a leadership role — have seen their confidence waver.
As designers, what we love is the craft. We love problem solving. We want to make the world a better place. We love collaboration. And we thrive on solo time too — putting on the headphones, staring down a blank canvas, pulling magic out of the ether. We do that, get really really good at it, and our careers advance. We happily take on more ambitious projects, tougher problems. Eventually, whether it’s starting our own team or working as part of a larger team, that means stepping up to lead. Here’s the truth: as long as you’ve been designing, you’ve been training for leadership.
Designers are natural leaders. Here are five reasons why.
1/ You’re inherently empathetic.
Great leaders understand people — what motivates them, where they have challenges, and how to help them. Sound a lot like user-centered design? That’s because it is — just applied differently. The same skills that you’ve cultivated to help you understand users and deliver delightful experiences can make you incredibly effective at heading up a project or a team. Reading people, figuring out what makes them tick, thinking about how to guide them toward success…the skills you learn designing for humans also make you great at leading them.
2/ You love puzzles and solving problems — the tougher the better.
As designers, our passion is problem-solving. Well, good news: leadership is nothing but problem solving! Building or repurposing a team, guiding a project through a particularly rocky time, understanding the organizational structures native to your company’s culture…these are design problems, pure and simple.
Or more specifically, they are problems that are well served by design thinking and methodologies. One of the most important things that I’ve learned over the years is that design thinking is universally applicable. Frame the problem, generate options, refine and repeat, execute and iterate…these steps serve in settings far beyond the design space, leadership strategies most definitely included.
3/ You are able to visualize the future — and to share that vision.
As designers, we must be able to communicate a vision of the future to our audience. A leader must do the exact same thing, only here the audience is our team. Nothing galvanizes a team like a designer mocking up a few frames and showing it to people. Designers and creatives have the unique ability to actually show people what the future could look like.
This ability connects strongly with leadership. We look to our leaders for inspiration. By pointing out where we are and showing us clearly where we want to be, our leaders offer a tantalizing call-to-action and the tangible results of high confidence. As the leader, this infusion of confidence works both ways: it is a great thing knowing that your team has got your back. I’ve found that it inspires me to do my best work as well.
4/ You are trained to experiment and iterate…and do it again.
There’s a saying that “Writing is rewriting”. If anything, it feels even more true to say “designing is redesigning.” We are constantly tweaking, revisiting, iterating…approaching our work from a thousand different angles. Designers learn early on the importance of putting in the work.
Don’t get me wrong: we love that burst of inspiration, that moment when something just seems to fit…we just don’t rely on it solely. Great design may start with a startling spark of intuition, but putting in the work to iterate and refine is what really makes the end result.
This appreciation of rigor and discipline are also essential for a leader. You are an example to your team. If you show resilience and optimism in the face of complex and difficult challenges, your team will learn from the example you set.
Leaders have outsize influence on a company’s culture. Your personal level of discipline is reflected and magnified by those around you. As a designer, you have practiced discipline for your entire career. As a leader, you can share that discipline with others.
5/ You know how to translate a breadth of inputs into an elegant solution.
As designers, we take in a wide range of inputs — case studies, pain points, user experience, budget constraints, market opportunities, the rules of physics — and synthesize these into one end result. Designing is kind of like a magic trick — you turn the abstract into the material, creating something concrete out of thin air. The trick lies in knowing how to recognize all the different ingredients and turn them into something tangible, something real that did not exist before.
Leadership requires this same gift for synthesis. The different skills and personalities present on a team are the disparate elements which you must carefully consider and balance and weigh as you perfect the equation.
Your team without a leader is like a bunch of vials sitting in a lab, inert, just waiting for someone to mix them. As the leader, it’s up to you to mix them wisely, to apply heat or cold, to use less of this one here and more of that one there…it’s up to you to take these separate materials and turn them into something greater than the sum of its parts: a true team.
As a designer, you will recognize the complexities of the task at hand.
As a designer, you will delight in them.