From contributor to owner: Tips for moving into design leadership

How to ease the desired, but tough transition

Readymag blog. Tips for moving into design leadership

Transitioning from a hands-on, creative-focused role to a design leadership position is like moving from playing an instrument to conducting the orchestra: they both demand a whole new set of skills on top of what you already have. Below, design executive and startup advisor Marissa Louie and Head of Design at Hygraph and founder of Productdisrupt Darshan Gajara share tips on how to make such a transition smoother.

Readymag blog. Tips for moving into design leadership. Darshan Gajara, Marissa Louie
Darshan Gajara, Marissa Louie

Designer vs Design Lead: What’s the difference

While design work mainly revolves around personal creativity and craftsmanship, design leadership demands a broader perspective that encompasses guiding a team, aligning creative efforts with business objectives, and making decisions that impact the overall success of projects and initiatives. The biggest aspect of design leadership is guaranteeing that engineering, product management, and design are balanced when it comes to shaping roadmaps

Another crucial difference is that leaders are hired to remove roadblocks for their team members during all stages of work. This way, a design leader has a comprehensive knowledge of processes in the organization, and proceeding from them, articulates purposes and sets goals and KPIs for the rest of the team.

What qualities to develop

“The first and foremost quality of a design leader is the ability to build enough influence and social capital to do impactful work,” says Gajara. “Design Leads should be able to get people excited about design and give design an equal seat at the table,” Louie adds.

Tip: Start training to build social capital in advance by developing a rapport with your colleagues. Put design on everyone’s radar by connecting with members on other teams and advocating for design as a function, profession, and mindset. Design leaders really have to show their counterparts where the true value of design is—and make sure you’re pushing back where necessary.

Tip: Being able to present ideas, design concepts, and project progress clearly and persuasively is essential to gaining support and understanding. Pump your communication presentation skills with regular in-house practice. Request feedback from peers or mentors and use it to adjust your approach to resonate effectively with different audiences.

Learn how to wrap information into convincing pitches and win your audience from our Guide to Presentation Design.

How to get hired as a Design Lead

When interviewing candidates for design leadership positions, there’s one top non-negotiable personal quality for Gajara—he seeks people who take ownership of their work. “I would ask candidates about a challenging situation they’ve had and what they did to overcome it. What I really want to know isn’t whether they have problem-solving skills, but whether they’re an empathic person who strives to be fair and balanced,” Louie adds.

Tip: Show potential employers that you’re in the right stage to go into management by refocusing your portfolio on your leadership skills. For example, If you helped find a solution or helped get a project to its end state, you can show that in your portfolio. “I’m always looking for examples—stories about the impact people have made on their design teams. How exactly do they communicate with these people? What values do they hold?” says Gajara.

Tip: Another good idea is to make your portfolio clearly and straightforwardly indicate the scale of your professional and personal ambitions. “I want to get a sense that candidates for leadership positions aren’t just experts in design, but that they can achieve meaningful impact at scale. Are they someone who gives back by volunteering or mentoring? What are their ambitions?” Louie explains.

Find more ideas to upscale your design career.