In March 2021 we hosted Leading Design Festival. Themes started to emerge throughout the month. We were joined by Andy Budd, the curator and host of this year’s festival to discuss the main themes he saw emerge.

Rebecca Groves
Rebecca Groves
21st May 2021

1. The Importance of Individual Contributors

A theme that we explored throughout the festival was the importance of the Individual Contributor (IC). Peter Merholz talked about the importance of these designers, claiming that they have the most important role in the team.

A lot of talented designers get promoted to leadership, with the expectation that they will inspire their team with their exceptional craft skills. However management is a full time job, and player coaches are often the first to burn out or become a bottleneck. So in most cases, these designers step away from craft, creating a gap in inspiration and mentorship. This is a gap that very experienced practitioners can fill. But only if they are allowed to remain individual contributors. We shouldn’t automatically force great designers to become mediocre managers in order for them to be able to progress in their careers. And if you are going to jump tracks from an individual contributor to a manager then you need support.

Key takeaways from this theme:

  • Leadership is different to management.
  • Great designers don’t always make great managers.
  • Design leaders need to have teams made up of Heads, Directors, and Senior ICs.

2. Managing People

We heard how challenging it can be to manage teams. One of the best ways to support your team is through effective 1-2-1s, something Abi Jones talked about in depth. They are an opportunity for leaders to support their teams. If you treat 1-2-1s like status updates you end up being a project manager instead of a design leader. You need to invest in your teams and their success, which takes time and deliberate practice.

We also explored the importance of clear communication. As leaders we have to over-communicate. Having some kind of team mission statement or charter can help align teams to the wider company mission. Take a company-wide mission and turn it into a manifesto for your team.

A few speakers talked about the concept of having some sort of “readme” or “manual of me” file, explaining your motivations, working preferences and idiosyncrasies to your team.

Key takeaways from this theme:

  • 1-2-1s need to be a deliberate practice, not a to-do list.
  • You need to make sure that as a leader there is alignment between the input you are getting from your executives and peers and what you share with your teams.
  • Know your own idiosyncrasies.

3. Getting The Support You Need

One recurring theme was just how physically and emotionally taxing leadership can be, and this past year has been no exception. There is often an assumption that gaining status in an organisation makes your life a lot easier. But it can also be isolating.

Alistair Simpson talked about the loneliness of leadership. This theme was echoed in several other talks, including Lola Oyelayo Pearson’s talk about leading in hostile environments. Lola talked about how hard it is being the only one of your kind in an organisation. For instance being the only design leader in a company full of engineers. And how in those sorts of situations you find yourself constantly having to justify your own presence. That’s something your cross functional peers rarely have to do.

Alistair talked about the importance of getting external support, be that friends, coaches, therapists or a personal trainer. While Aaron Irizzary talked about developing your own personal board of advisors.

Key takeaways from this theme:

  • Being a design leader can be very lonely. Often you are the one of your kind.
  • If you are burning yourself out then you are doing your team a disservice.
  • You need a robust support network to help you manage a high-stress, high-profile role.
  • Sometimes you need space to work on yourself, not always for your team and company.

4. The (Temporary) Cessation of Abundance

One of the reasons the past year has been so hard for many leaders is it’s the first time they’ve had to deal with large scale redundancies.

While this is a fairly common part of the business cycle in traditional organizations, many start-up founders, design leaders and team members are experiencing this for the first time. We got so used to operating in a world of abundance—ever increasing markets, funding and headcount—that a lot of us were unprepared for the opposite situation to happen.

We heard from Audrey Liu, Christine Pizzo and Stuart Clarke-Frisbey about how they were forced to let some of their teams go. Audrey talked about our tendency to over-index on the people who are leaving, but reminded us that we also have a duty to those who are staying. Stuart touched on how this reduction in staff numbers forced him to redesign his org, and how he started sharing scenarios with his senior team in order to get them comfortable with a range of possible outcomes.

It’s worth noting that when you’re forced to make cuts to your team, this will have a dampening effect on morale, and in all likelihood will lead to more team members leaving. You may find yourself having to recruit shortly after a round of redundancies.

At Clearleft we’ve noticed an increased demand for agency design services as teams have shrunk, recruitment has temporarily been paused, but work is backing up that needs to be done.

Key takeaways from this theme:

  • Downturns can be part of the natural business cycle and shouldn’t be seen as a failure.
  • Experiencing a temporary lack of abundance can be tough but it is also an important opportunity for your growth.
  • You can use this as a period to resettle and refocus.

5. Earning Your Seat at the Table

Lastly we heard from a whole range of leaders about how design isn’t owed anything. Design leaders need to earn their seat at the table.

We heard from Stuart Clarke-Frisby about how he raised the profile of design inside booking.com by proving design was a profit center rather than a cost center. But it doesn’t have to be all about profit. We heard how Doug Powell encourages his leaders to share other metrics like the ratio of designers to developers, open head counts, etc. This maps nicely with some of the things Stuart was saying about scenario planning and the importance of managing executive expectations.

We heard how Katie Dill asked her CEO for an executive position, and was told that she wasn’t ready because she hadn’t invested enough in building relationships with her cross-functional peers. So she set about doing just that. She explained her view that there were three types of leaders. Design Leaders, Product Leaders, and Business Leaders. In order to earn a seat at the table you need to level up from one to the next.

Once you have a seat at the table, your attitude needs to change. Rather than being there to “fight the corner for design” you’re now there to run the business. You might have to make decisions that aren’t in the immediate best interest of the “design team”, something Lyndsey Thornton from Shopify explained.

Key takeaways from this theme:

  • A seat at the table can be a political statement: we should be treating design leaders the same as engineering leaders.
  • The drive to have a seat at the table can represent the drive to be recognised and legitimised.
  • A seat at the table has to be earned.
  • When we have a seat at the table we need to think about the needs of the business, not just the needs of the design team.
  • When you’re at the table your first team is the executive team.
  • At the exec level your role isn’t to surface all of the needs of the design team, but to lead the business through design.

A huge thanks to everyone who played a part in the festival’s success. A special thanks to all of our contributors and to our sponsors: Google, Amazon Design, Salesforce, Sketch, and Mailchimp.

You can also watch the full video of our conversation with Andy