Parallels Between Design and Leadership

When Carl messaged me a couple months ago, I knew something was up. He said he wanted to get together and chat about some important, but good things. I thought he might want to have a face-to-face conversation about me transitioning to a Delivery Lead role. I wasn’t sure what Carl would want to talk about, but becoming a managing partner in Ann Arbor wasn’t what I expected.

In the interim time, I’ve often wondered why I was so surprised. Making a designer into a leader within your organization makes perfect sense. In fact, design is a great prep school for leadership within any organization. Why do I think this? Because there is an immense amount of skill crossover between being a leader and being a designer.

Jonah Bailey speaking to developers at Atomic Object Ann Arbor

Design and leadership require listening

Listening is key to the practice of design. Listen to users, to stakeholders, to culture, to the market. Be aware of your surroundings as you craft a solution to a complex problem. One of my favorite design maxims is, “You are not the user.” Leaving behind preconceived notions, implicit knowledge, and getting into the shoes of others is essential to good design.

One of the most important parts of leadership is listening. Listen before you act. Listen more than you talk. Doing so values other people and shows respect for human beings. Empathy can’t really be created without listening to and understanding others. And empathy helps us ensure that we’re answering the right question when we do speak.

Design and leadership require judicious transparency

Some in the design community believe that for design to be successful, it needs to be done in privacy. We toil away in darkness and mystery behind a screen, and then, “Presto!” We present a finished product to a client.

The truth is that design loves judicious transparency. The more that clients get involved in the design process and work side-by-side with design teams, the better the final product is. As designers, we know how to solve problems. But we don’t have the industry knowledge that our clients do. And we can’t. That’s hard-fought knowledge gained over many years. When we invite clients into the process to work with us, they become invested in the project. They gain trust in us as designers and in our process.

Design and leadership need divergence and convergence

Does that mean that we show them everything? No, of course not. Divergence and convergence are part of any design process. During divergence, we generate a ton of ideas. The possibilities seem endless! But a lot of the ideas that we come up with are really bad ideas. Or really expensive ideas. Or they don’t solve the problem at hand in a good way.

The danger at that moment is getting attached to a single idea. As experienced designers, we are aware that at this stage in the process, it’s time to date ideas, not get married. The danger for clients at that moment is to latch onto a good idea before we get to the great idea. I understand why a client would do that. It feels safe. It sounds easy.

So what do we do? We select the moments and times it’s best to have client intervention. These aren’t two contradictory things. It’s called judicious transparency. It’s transparency that makes sense for all involved.

Leadership is much the same way. At Atomic, one of our value mantras is “Act Transparently.” We keep clients in the loop on project management. We practice open-book management so that our employees are aware of what’s going on with our bottom line. Everyone at Atomic is eligible to be involved in the hiring process at one point or another.

But does that mean that everything is known? No. If I have to have a hard conversation with a co-worker, am I going to do it in the open with everyone else around? No. That’s not respectful or kind. We have to practice judicious transparency. It needs to make sense for everyone involved.

Design and leadership require problem solving

More than anything else, design and leadership are all about engaging in problem solving. Design frames a problem, looks at several solutions for that problem, and seeks to implement the best solution. Leadership stays open to potential difficulties in the organization, triages the difficulties and proactively seeks the best way to smooth over those difficulties.

As designers, we crave consistency. We want things to be on-brand. If one part of a UI looks and behaves one way, and another part looks and behaves differently, it’s like nails on a chalkboard for us.

As leaders, we want a company or team to be consistent. We want treatment of clients and teammates to be consistent. We don’t want everyone or everything to be the same. We want it to be consistent. We want it all to flow together and work nicely, regardless of circumstance. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have surprised me that Carl wanted a designer in a managing role.