Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a number of companies about design roles at director and executive levels. And maybe because such leadership is relatively new, I find most of them have been quite naive about such roles. Here’s how I put it in an email to a company I was engaging with (this was to lead a design team of about 25-30 folks):
Bringing on this kind of senior design role is hard, because there are a host of things to balance. You want someone who is:
- a brilliant design visionary
- a solid design practitioner (can role up sleeves and execute)
- a strategic thinker (can help set direction for product/brand)
- an inspiring leader (can keep the team engaged and hopeful)
- a detail-oriented critic (can suggest ways to improve the team’s work)
- a considerate manager (mindful of the professional needs of the team members)
- a teacher of design methods and practices, and when to use them
- a diplomat (can collaborate and communicate with product, engineering, brand marketing)
- dogged recruiter with a nose for talent
- an operator (working the organization and unblocking paths to success)
That’s a lot to ask for!
Of course, companies don’t want to have to choose — they want it all! But the reality is, even if someone can do all of these things, they aren’t going to, at least not with any regularity. There’s simply not enough time.
So, what most companies incline to hire in a senior design role is a Creative Director — someone who can deliver on vision, practice, and critique. Basically, a senior-er version of a great designer.
However, if what you want is someone to lead a design team, then such an approach would be a classic Peter Principle move. Because while it’s crucial that this person come from a design practice background (in order to understand the ins and outs of design work), the qualities that matter most — leader, manager, recruiter, and operator — are those that have nothing to do with design execution. Those other qualities, while definitely nice to have, are gravy, and will not be the core of this person’s role.
Something that seems to work well is to split ultimate design leadership across two roles, one more creative, the other more operational. Engineering orgs will have a CTO (super senior systems architect type) and VP of Engineering (responsible for engineering teams and their operation). Newspapers have an Editor-in-Chief and a Managing Editor. Design orgs could, and when they reach a certain size (greater than 30 or so), definitely should, have a VP of Design (the team leader I’ve described) and a Creative Director (or Chief Design Officer).
I’d love to hear of other leadership models for design that you’ve seen work well.