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“Head of Design”: Defining this role

I’m co-writing a book on building in-house design teams. I’m also currently in the job market, so I’ve been thinking about, and talking about, the role of “Head of Design,” which you’re starting to see pop up across Silicon Valley. Here’s what I wrote to define the role.

Head of Design

For design to realize its potential requires focused, empowered leadership. “Head of Design” has emerged as a title for this role, which works regardless of whether they are considered a manager, director, or VP.

Whatever the level, the head of design is the “CEO” of the design organization, ultimately accountable for the team’s results. That impact is the result of how they handle three types of leadership:

  • creative
  • managerial
  • operational

A Head of Design provides a creative vision not just for the design team but the whole organization. They establish processes and practices for realizing that vision, and set the bar for quality. They contribute to the development of brand definition and experience principles, and ensure that those are appropriately interpreted through the team’s work.


Their managerial leadership is realized through the tone they set for their team. What kind of work environment do they foster? How are team members treated, and what opportunities are they given to grow? How is feedback given? How do they hire, and who does that bring in? The sum of these decisions defines the Head of Design’s managerial style.

Operational leadership is a combination of very little things and very big things, all in the interest of optimizing the design organization’s effectiveness. The little things are what the rest of the team sees, in terms of how communications are handled, which tools are supported, how work is scheduled, how team meetings are run. The big things tend to happen behind the scenes, and involve interactions with a company’s core operations teams such as finance, HR, IT, and facilities. These include opening requisitions for headcount, adjusting salaries to ensure market competitiveness, establishing employee growth paths, acquiring the necessary hardware and software, and claiming physical spaces.

A common mistake made by company leaders when hiring a Head of Design is to favor creative leadership qualities over the managerial and operational. They bring in a creative visionary with big ideas and a beautiful portfolio, but often those folks don’t have the patience or mindset for the mechanics needed to actually make an organization run. Team members struggle without good management, flail without tight operations, and the team proves far less effective than they could be. Admittedly, it’s a challenge to find an individual skilled in all three forms of leadership. Remember, this role is the “CEO” of the design team, and as such, managerial and operational excellence are crucial.

As the team grows, the Head of Design will not be able to perform detailed duties across these three areas. This is when you bring on Design Managers and Directors (for people management), Creative Directors (for creative vision), and Directors of Design Program Management (to run operations). With these lieutenants in place, there is still plenty to do. At that point, a Head of Design focuses on:

Recruiting and hiring. Always. There may be nothing more important in the organization than identifying talent and getting them to join the team.

Living the culture. Addressed in depth in Chapter 7, the culture of a design team is essential to its long-term success. A Head of Design not only establishes the team’s cultural values, but demonstrates them every day through their actions.

Process and practices. Working with design managers and creative directors, establish a methodological toolkit, and make sure it is shared, understood, and used throughout the team.

Vision. Developing a “north star” for the company is not a one-time act, but an ongoing process of refinement and evolution.

Represent design for the organization. The Head is the primary voice of design inside and outside the company, sharing its work, evangelizing its success, articulating its vision. And sometimes this representation means fighting for design in the face of policies, procedures, and bureaucracy that limits the team’s potential.

 

  1. As a current “Head of Design”, I don’t struggle with the creative nor operational, but I struggle with the managerial aspects within the organization itself. I always revert to feeling if I crank out enough work, everything will take care of itself. Looking forward to reading your book and talking with you more about it.

  2. You’ve pretty much nailed it here … Need to socialize this!

  3. Peter, I’m heading an in-house design team right now for the first time and your blog posts about design management and teams is guiding me so much. There is crop of UX designers that are now elevated into leadership roles, with not a lot of resources to go off of and I’m finding your writings very valuable! Can’t wait for the book!

  4. Good piece, and I hope you find the gem of a position you are looking for soon. The managerial aspect seems a little static and rote, though. Each designer is on a trajectory that has perhaps included a stint in your organization. I think the head of design should be someone who goes beyond big corp concepts of ‘professional growth’ and demands the most that people can achieve before setting them free to do bigger and better things, highlighting the expertise that perhaps isn’t yet manifest in their current role. Like Linda Ronstadt set the Eagles free from being her backup band to create the top selling album of the 20th century (sorry for the 70’s reference, but just watched the documentary)

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