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The inner workings of the masterful Design Lead

~ by Alan W


It is easy to get lost in translation when we talk about titles and roles in the design world. As the ‘Design Lead’ role has found itself entering a commodity state, we have to ask ourselves what it takes to stand out from the crowd. How can we facilitate the emergence and growth of the extraordinary Design Lead.

Here are some learnings from Design Leads that mastered this feat:


Craft motivators not people pleasers

They have the ability to inspire the design team of specialists to push themselves to be their best through their sound mastery of design craft. As they are able to execute themselves, they have the hands on experience (and battle scars) to truly help them execute to the standards required. They therefore never put their team in “doomed to fail” situations as they bring a very realistic expectation through real life know-how. They are able to get their hands dirty when required and in such instances they teach and inspire in this co-creative experience. Their finger is always on the pulse, ear to the ground, never losing touch with the realities in the team. These Design Leads never completely leave their craft - how can one preach otherwise?


Orchestrate design coherency not proliferated or silo’ed design

These Design Leads have developed the ability to synthesize design specialists in their team (e.g. the UI designer, the UX designer, the UX writer, the Service Designer, etc.) in perfect harmony. All specialists are singing the same tune and are synchronized in how design flows in and out of each specialist area to deliver designs that are sound. This is because they understand and appreciate these design areas of expertise and what each of these parts bring to the whole design delivery. And they go one step further, they masterfully orchestrate this by keeping design in check with requirements (from business/project stakeholders, business analysts, business & design advisors) and following through alignment with development/technical teams. They leave no stone unturned in their management of the full design process end-to-end.


Optimizor creators not drill sergeants

This wise Design Lead knows how to drive outcomes to the highest standards with their focus on ‘getting the job done’. They are bookwize and streetwize and able to get to the finish line without compromising their people (designers), the design, the business/project/sprint objectives, whatever it takes. As they are designers themselves they are au fait with solving complex problems and creating solutions that aid efficiency and effectiveness whether this involves addressing ways of work, developing toolkits, or using systems and tools or help drive efficiency and effectiveness. They are governance creators and in doing this, they aid their design team to focus on their craft with ease.


Realists not idealists

These extraordinary Design Leads have the uncanny ability to be real in every sense of the word. They do not overpromise and just as importantly they do not under promise either. They are crystal clear on expectations from design and are just as clear with their expectations from their designers. They always ask questions to guarantee this consistent state of clarity. Because they operate in this way, they can answer any questions arising from the designers in their team, as well as questions from external stakeholders (development, business analysts, etc.) on their designs. They bridge gaps in communication and understanding, bumps are smoothed out close to when they crop up.


Being an extraordinary Design Lead has many more special ingredients. In this fast maturing role, what makes one stand out continues to evolve just as quickly. There is inspiration all around to draw on from the Design Leads around us, see your peers as sources of inspiration not competition, this in itself will take you places in the journey to extraordinary!


Editor’s note: Are you an extraordinary Design Lead? Please share your insights on the role and your experiences, we’d love to publish your views and advise. Or perhaps you know of a special Design Lead, give them a shout out by nominating them as an extraordinary Design Lead. Get in touch at design@dna.co.za



Work with Alan W


“Solving niche challenges founders face”.

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