Here’s a story for you on creativity and design leadership for context:

There’s a guy in a small town who loves baking pies. All his friends and family place orders for his delicious pies that simply can’t be beat by any local bakery.

He’s not a professional baker, however, this guy works in real estate … and hates it.

But his pies are his passion, they give him purpose.

His friends and family keep ordering pies and some plant seeds that he should open his own bakery. This idea sounds ideal so he saves up and does the damn thing:

He opens his very own bakery.

The doors open, the customers are waiting in a line that wraps around the corner and his pies are flying off the racks. The bakery is a huge success!

However, this guy hates paperwork…and ordering supplies, and managing people, and generally everything that it takes to actually run a bakery.

He realizes that with all the damn administrative nonsense he has no time to bake his pies.

Time goes on and pies are selling well and he expands into other confectionary treats, but he can’t remember the last time he baked a pie, or created a new recipe, or smiled, or slept!

He hates what he’s built and he just wants to bake pies again.

But he can’t. “The show must go on!”, he thinks to himself.

“The only way back is to burn it all down.”

…He’s honestly beginning to consider this option…

Design Leadership vs. Design

The thing is, not all designers and makers are meant to lead. Many jump at the opportunity, title, and paycheck without fully understanding the responsibilities and challenges that leading a team entails. It’s very likely they won’t design a damn thing for a good while.

The Design Leadership Handbook states:

“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.”

Management is about making the team effective at their jobs. Good managers ensure the team has everything they need to get their jobs done. They shield the team from the distractions that might come from others, while ensuring that each team member is given a chance to do their best work.

The loss of being able to practice design and contribute through creativity can slap many designers in the face when they step into a leadership role. This lack of direct creativity and personal expression can turn a creative into a shell of what once was a thriving, humming creative engine. Very rarely does a design leadership role involve design, and seldom do new candidates realize this until they are months into their new role.

While the title and increase in pay may be attractive, the actual day-to-day is much less glamorous. Sometimes, it’s nice to just have people tell you what to design and leave it at that. It’s nice to leave the worry of deadlines, project management, and client communication on the shoulders of someone else.

Design Leadership Isn’t Design, It’s Stewardship

Design leaders are stewards of a design effort. They are not designers nor do they have a hand in creating the final product. They are constantly gauging the environment around, the team, timeline, budget, resources, competition, and strategy.

All varieties of Creative Director are great at leading a design team because they’ve usually been designers themselves. They understand what goes into a final product and the process from conception to completion. They’ve walked the walk, now they are leading the journey.

Also, it’s not at all uncommon for a not-so-great designer to be an outstanding design leader! These types don’t have to try nearly as hard to “let go of design” and are typically able to jump into the leadership role much faster. As long as they are good at fighting for a vision and defending the emotional wellbeing of their team, it may not matter if they’ve ever designed anything!

A limited background and experience in design may have less impact on your new role than you may have thought. But if that’s the case, what stuff is actually important?

What Makes a Good Design Leader?

Invision defines a good design leader by the 8 following traits:

  1. An active practitioner
  2. A coach
  3. A team player
  4. Open-minded
  5. Able to provide actionable feedback
  6. Capable of adapting tone
  7. A dealer in hope
  8. A collector of collaboration partners
The moral of story:

If you love design and can’t live without your hands in the paint, it’s probably best staying in your role as a designer. There is no shame in that! But, if you’re curious how you’ll look flexing your leadership muscles and are ok foregoing your craft, then by all means grab for the next rung on that ladder!

For our B2B readers: If you’re seeking design services or are curious about what some refined design leadership could bring to your in-house design efforts, get in touch with us. We can guide you in making the best decision for your specific needs.