Leading Design: Getting practical

I’ve written about the value of the community aspect to the Leading Design conference. There is really nothing like the reassurance and inspiration you get from hearing from industry peers and leaders. Design is still a relatively new discipline for many organisations, so we also need practical tips on how to make it work. That’s what I took from the second day and the workshops at Leading Design.

Org charts matter

UX / Design is positioned in different departments according to the organisation. This relates to a number of factors including the type of business, its size and how the design function is perceived. Older organisations often talk about the ‘digital transformation’ they are undertaking or have completed, whereas startups generally see technology and design as crucial elements from day one. One clear message from the conference is design needs to have a seat at the boardroom table and a senior advocate. A UX Director or, as is becoming increasingly common, a VP of Design. Without this, it falls between different departments and can end up being more of a service than a strategic partner. We need to have goals we can understand and leaders who can drive change. Peter Merholz’s Org Design for Design Orgs is a great resource on many of the topics I talk about here.

Management goes in multiple directions

Several speakers mentioned the different roles that design leaders have to fulfil. Like most managers, they have to manage downwards to guide the team, across as part of cross-functional groups and upwards to their own management. This can seem overwhelming. The rising sense of panic over your Outlook calendar is real! One recommendation was proactive diary management. Set aside half a day for management stuff advised Ben Terrett. Not (just) for regularly scheduled catch-ups, but also for the thinking around people development and strategy. Taking control of your time sounds simple but it can be easily forgotten under pressure. Another tactic is improving how we work with other departments. Collaboration involves moving away from an agency model to a partnership where we are all accountable. Kim Lenoxadvocating being part of the solution and staying optimistic about people’s intentions. It’s surprisingly difficult when managing a team not to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture. But this rarely helps you to achieve the wider business goals.

DesignOps — a new role?

There was a lot of talk about DesignOps, which is a role that seems to be emerging. As design teams are growing fast in many companies, there are tasks which need to be done to keep everything working smoothly. Scheduling projects, getting the right equipment and tools, identifying process efficiencies to name a few. With up to approximately 15 designers, the leader can just about stay on top of this and/or the team can self-manage. With larger teams, introducing this role helps to allow the leader to focus on strategy, recruitment, career development and ensuring the team’s output is of a high quality. I don’t think our industry is in complete agreement on exactly what DesignOps is yet, but I expect to hear more about it as it seems to offer great potential.

Diversity and uniqueness

As we grow bigger teams, we will be designing new career paths and we need to encourage further diversity, rather than recruiting from the same backgrounds every time. Diverse teams simply work better. There are so many skills designers can bring to projects: storytelling, facilitation, and a different angle on problem solving for example. We need to hone which ones add most value for our organisations and learn how to promote them. And finally, we need to preserve the uniqueness our people have — ‘Keep design weird’ as Peter said.