Got any design leadership tips?

almost 5 years ago from , Design/Dev

Hey DN, I've got a few designers and interns working underneath me now and I'm finding it extremely difficult to wrangle them all in and balance their skills. Got any tips or practical advice/anecdotes? I keep feeling like I'm in over my head.

After graduating high school, I was a freelance designer for nearly a decade. I was doing well and getting a ton of good experience, but I was terrible at running the business. I didn't want to keep the books, but loved the project-management and design/dev aspect of the gigs. The client-freelancer relationship made sense to me – I like the idea of me having my shit and you having yours and our relationship being (ideally) equalized with contracts and mutual necessity. I worked from home for around seven years dealing with clients almost exclusively via email before taking my first full-timer with a startup.

Long story short: me no human.

I keep feeling like everybody's at three-quarters throttle. The skills are there, I'm almost positive, but that last 10% that takes projects from good to great is rarely present. I'm one to feel like it's always my fault – which I feel like this is – so I know there's got to be a way to motivate them and really push the limits of their skills. All of this makes me sound super pushy, but I'm the complete opposite and that's probably part of the problem. I just push myself really hard and, I guess, expect the same from everyone around me.

Long day. Any advice?


  • Pablo StanleyPablo Stanley, almost 5 years ago
    • Get buy-in from all the different stakeholders.
    • Learn how product managers operate and then outshine them.
    • Talk to the CEO or make friends with anyone from the executive team and understand what is most important to them. What the fuck is in their minds?
    • Know what are the high-level strategies going on in all areas of the business. Own that shit and apply it on your designs. Start conversations about that. Use it as your success metrics or your goals. People are gonna be like “holy shit, this guy is hella smart!”

    Another thing. Stop asking other designers how to be a better designer, because we don't know shit. Involve yourself with people that are not on your field, understand them, get interest in their ideas. Empathy will always help you be a better human being and in consequence, a better designer.

    God luck!

    4 points
  • Michal CsanakyMichal Csanaky, almost 5 years ago

    I'm being told I'm too product oriented, but here's what helped me:

    1. define a clear vision for your team —make sure it's something more fulfilling than just chasing numbers...
    2. discuss/revise your vision with the team AND your manager(s) until the majority's convinced that it's something worth coming to the office for —to be successful you'll obviously need to gain a pretty good overview of the team's strengths, company's business goals and general overview of industry trends...
    3. convert this vision into a tangible annual plan with smaller quarterly goals —make sure those goals are measurable, and don't be afraid to iterate short term, just keep the long term vision rock solid...
    4. give them everything! —make sure you fight for your team and they got everything they need (within limits), be it flexible office hours or double amount of RAM—always, always ask what they need to progress better towards their individual goals...
    5. get a mentor, be a mentor —this would be ideally somebody in your company, but don't worry if not, just talk to some senior team leaders regularly—you'll learn a lot
    6. work hard, party hard —this is more important than it looks—spontaneous team lunches are the least you can do to build a good inclusive environment

    Obviously, there are several management styles and none of them can be applied universally. Depends on your team/company/project/whatever...

    If you'll read only one book about managing creative teams, may I strongly suggest to pick Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull—the knowledge shared in that book is worth x-multiples of its cost.


    2 points
  • Peter DeltondoPeter Deltondo, almost 5 years ago
    1. Pass on everything you know. Your team will not just respect you, but love you for investing so heavily in them. People want to learn and grow, don't get wrapped up in all the admin work you need to do, continue to invest with them.
    2. Have both team and 1 on 1 lunches. I work remote now, but I still get together with my team members regularly. When I was in an agency office, I took a team member to lunch every Monday. We just hung out and got to know each other better, and I'd ask them how I can help them improve, what they want to improve on, and then I asked them how I could be better. Mentorship goes two ways.
    3. Protect your team. If your team gets stuck with a crappy assignment, or a need to work late, or on the weekend. You better be there in the trenches with them.
    4. See above again. You're gunna have to take bullets for your team, and they'll probably never know how many times you got hit for them. Always have their back.
    5. Partner people up. Have a project that plays to someone's strength and is completely out of someone else's comfort zone? Put the two of them on the project together. They'll bond together as teammates and both their skills will improve. One will be mentoring and teachings, the other learning new talents.
    6. Remember what got you here. Chances are you are a great designer, management takes you out of that roll. Try to stay in it somewhat to stay in the mix, relevant and passionate. Don't get bogged down doing nothing but admin work, sitting in meetings, and losing face time with your team. When you need help, get an AD or DL to assist with some of these responsibilities so you can lead and be a part of your team, rather than the task master.
    7. Never stop learning. This goes with #6, but it's vital you are always up to date on trends, techniques, programs, and new ideas. Keep time for yourself to always be improving.
    8. Give your team time to flex their muscles. At Mossio, we take Friday's for personal development. We work on a fun project to flex our skills, read books & articles about design, take Skillshare classes, learn new coding languages, design programs, etc. It has us always improving and growing. It also recharges our batteries and avoids burnout. A lot of employers can't seem to grasp this, so if you can't sell it to the owners, set up a night a month with your team to meet up outside of work and do a "dine and draw" or "personal case study" potluck. Anything to get people to do some rad stuff together.

    Hope all that helps!

    1 point
    • Jordan LittleJordan Little, almost 5 years ago

      It absolutely does, thanks!

      0 points
      • Peter DeltondoPeter Deltondo, almost 5 years ago

        One more thing and I think another person touched on this. Figure out the right way to talk to each person on your team. Each person has their own "language" you have to use. There are some people you can be direct and tell them what to do, or to simply change something. Others you have to guide them to the answer, things like "I like this, but did you think of trying something like "X", mock that up and then let's compare the two and decide together which works best". Some folks are thick skinned and wanna get down to brass tax and get things done, others may be a bit emotional or perhaps unexperienced in their work, and you have to speak to them differently to both build them up and get the desired end result you want.

        1 point
  • Mark JenkinsMark Jenkins, almost 5 years ago

    I wrote this last week and whilst it may not be directly related to Design specifically, I find that applying any of these will help get the best from people


    Especially when you show respect for the responsibility that you've given someone

    Hope that some of it might help :)

    1 point
  • Matt ScheurichMatt Scheurich, almost 5 years ago

    Speaking as one who suffered the wrath of a terrible lead designer in a former job, I'd recommend being conscious of your drawbacks and having a constructive attitude towards the projects, the team and the business in general is a good place to start. I'm assuming you have that already though!

    It's really no fun working for someone who can't take criticism, and whose primary form of criticism is in the putting down of others. Generally everyone is there (hired, even) to do a good job and contribute, and if they feel abused or wasted their efforts may lessen as motivations wane.

    Another piece of input I'd like to give is that most team members like to feel valued in the group for their individual specialties and talents. Find out what their specialties are to lean on, and also find out what they need help with or what they even identify as wanting to improve and exercise and provide resources or connections where necessary. Think like a coach, not like a dictator. People require encouragement and feedback to understand where they are within their group, so be generous with that — and also be open to receiving it too!

    1 point
  • Owen McFadzenOwen McFadzen, almost 5 years ago (edited almost 5 years ago )

    It sounds very natural. Group development goes in stages and it is important that you as the leader, and the team, know that. In fact getting to stage IV takes at least 6 months even if you are using all the tricks in the book.

    I recently finished the first course of my MA at Hyper Island where we focused on leadership and team development. In that course a lot of focus was put on the value of feedback (giving & receiving) and reflection. Practicing these two skills made a huge difference in the way we, as a group, built trust and grew into a team. From what you are saying (that all the skills are there), building that trust and productivity is going to make a huge difference. Your role as a leader will transform from a director to a coach as they progress too.

    Reflection is a great way to build trust. A really simple way to start using it in a team is the first and last step of each day is a check in & check out as a group. You stand together and ask ask something simple:

    • “How are you feeling?"
    • “What are you going to do after work?"
    • “What is the one thing you are going to do today?".

    I know it sounds a little hippy, but it really helps everyone understand each other, open up and builds the team.

    Another, more impactful was is to take a moment at the beginning and the end of the day to sit down and get people to write down there reflections and then share them as a group. Some example probing questions can be:

    • "What happened yesterday/today/during … task that affected me?"
    • "How did I feel about it?"
    • "What did I learn about myself/others/the team?"
    • "How can I use these learnings"
    • "Reflecting on this, what is the one thing I will do differently"

    Sit everyone down and go through the reflection for a week, each morning. Ask 2-3 probe questions and give them 10min to write down there thoughts and then let everyone share them with the group. As you and the team start to reflect you go through what Hyper calls, “The well of knowledge” .

    • Repeat You look over what happened (the headlines of the day).
    • Then you refer to those, the information.
    • Then the review, is an analysis of that information.
    • Lastly is the reflection, how did it affect you?

    The reflection stage is done “talking from the ‘I’” ie. "I felt that...". Make sure you ask people, if they don't answer it them selves, How did that make *you** feel?.

    Now everyone is starting to grow and get a little group focus going, get some feedback going on. Note, I said feedback, not evaluation. The point is to learn about yourself and others, not to do a task differently or someones opinion. After a task we write on a post-it:

    • “To... , One thing I appreciate about you is…”
    • followed by “One thing I would like to see more of is...".

    The idea is to be constructive, build people up and in the right direction. The post-its are then given to the person receiving the feedback and read out aloud to them. Feedback is a gift, after all. If you need to give some difficult feedback use Marshall Rosenberg's nonviolent communication. Start with a neutral observation "During the meeting you interrupted me" then express your feelings "it made me feel worthless" followed by your needs "I need to feel my opinions are valued by you and the other members of the team" and finally you make the request "so I would like to ask you give me space and allow me to finish".

    Giving feedback is great but the way you receive it is also important. There are 5 steps to receiving feedback:

    1. Discard
    2. Defend
    3. Explain
    4. Understand
    5. Change / Reinforce or Remain

    The best advice I have here is to hold onto your feedback post-its and reflect on them later. They are a gift and offer insights into your own behaviour, see Juhari Window

    The Hyper Island Toolbox has lot’s of great resources, activities and tools for you to find what fits your needs and hopefully build an amazing team.

    *takes breath... Sorry for the long reply, but I hope someone can use the tips.

    1 point
  • Kevin WhiteKevin White, almost 5 years ago

    Having a sense of ownership in what I'm doing motivates me. More involvement in meetings, research, and a solid comprehension are things that seem to help with that. Just some thoughts.

    1 point