Over the past 8 years I’ve seen numerous friends, colleagues and clients—along with many regular UX London attendees—move from design practitioners to design leaders. Some have taken up leadership roles at agencies or small design teams in traditional companies. Others have risen through the ranks of the tech giants to land senior positions at companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
The journey to design leadership is rarely, if ever, an easy one. More often than not, these people were put in charge of under-resourced teams in cultures ambivalent—and sometimes outright hostile—towards design.
There were occasional success stories, but these came with their fair share of failures, some more public than others. It’s always a challenge trying to bring design thinking into a dominant business or technology culture. Many designers felt excluded, their hard-earned insights going to waste on mere embellishment.
The rise of the design leader
Some design leaders managed to gain favour with their CEOs and CMOs, bulldozing their way to success. Many more adopted the language of technology and business, and learned to play the game; talking the language of big data or adapting processes like Agile and Lean with a user-centred bent.
Progress has been slow and steady. Design teams have grown and the power of design thinking regularly crops up on the covers of Harvard Business Review. You could argue that today the best design degrees in America are coming from business schools rather than traditional design institutions. It feels like corporate America—and by extension the rest of the world—has finally woken up to the power of design.
Companies like IBM have been re-inventing themselves as design powerhouses. We’ll see how that goes, but the sentiment is certainly positive. Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic, even the UK government got in on the game, going as far as winning the prestigious Design of the Year award.
It seems like every major business is currently talking about digital disruption. Some are even putting their money where their mouth is, building up internal digital capabilities. Often these capabilities are technology driven, but more and more organisations are bringing design in-house.
Supporting talented leaders
With this trend comes a huge demand for talented leaders. People who can lead teams of varying sizes and skill levels in increasingly complicated projects to develop company-wide design systems, produce design propaganda, and represent design at the highest level in the organisation. Heads of Design are becoming VPs of Design, and VPs of Design are becoming CDOs or CXOs.
Unfortunately few design leaders receive any sort of training or coaching. Instead they look around to see what their peers are doing, while trying to channel the best—and avoid the worst—traits of former managers.
In recent months I’ve spoken to several newly minted design leaders who admitted to feeling out of their depth. Unsure how to structure their teams, nurture their talent, and protect the quality of their work. They want to have a bigger influence on organisational strategy, but that’s difficult to do with ten or twenty developers to every one designer, and a team too busy doing "business as usual", to demonstrate any higher order value.
With this in mind, we’ve decided to take a punt; to bet on the fact that there are enough design leaders willing to make the trip to London, to make a design leadership conference viable.
Our aim is simple. To help you become a better, more effective, design leader. We’ll do this by exploring approaches, sharing experiences, and discussing common strategies and techniques. We’ve assembled an inspiring selection of designers from across the globe. People who have led design teams at companies like Twitter, Spotify and AirBnB, along with more traditional organisations like John Lewis, Monotype and The BBC.
Some of them are relatively new design leaders. They’ll share the challenges they faced making the transition from practitioner to leader. Others have been running design teams for years. They’ve built up an impressive playbook of techniques.
Called Leading Design, this event takes place on the 24th-28th October 2016. We think this event is necessary. We think the time is right. We hope you do too.