Hiring Design Leadership

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.

Design’s power is in its leverage

As we shift from an economy of products to services, the role that design plays, and how it’s situated in the organization, must shift as well.

How It Has Been

In ye olden days, in-house product design was typically organized as an internal services function. There would be a group of designers, and they would receive requests from throughout the business for Things To Be Designed. Designers would then work to deliver on that request, and, when finished, would then move on to the next thing, which could be for a totally different part of the business.

For designers, the upside was that they could work on a wide range of projects, and they got to group together with other designers. The downside was that they were seen purely as tactical makers, with little influence over how business decisions were made. And, because they would work on things for such a brief period of time, it was easy for the members of the product team to dismiss a designer’s suggestions, since designers weren’t seen as being committed to that part of the business the way they were.

A more recent shift, spurred by digital product design, is for design to be decentralized such that there are designers embedded in product teams, working alongside engineers and product managers, and reporting up through that product team. The upside is that designers are included throughout the product development process, their commitment is appreciated, and their voice is taken seriously. The downside is that designers may find themselves working on a fairly narrow problem for a long time, they aren’t easily able to engage with other designers, and they can feel lonely “fighting for the user”.

In a services world, this embedded model features an additional drawback from the perspective of customer experience. Design problems are solved in isolation from one another (because designers on different product teams don’t interact), and so what gets shipped can feel fractured, or “Frankensteined,” as a customer moves through some experience, unknowingly being passed off from product team to product team.

A New Model Emerges

At Groupon, we operate under a new model, one that I’m hearing other digital/internet native businesses are using as well. I’ll call it the Centralized Partnership model, which endeavors to deliver the best of both models, and is suited for the coherent delivery of services.

At Groupon, all design is functionally centralized. Though we technically live in the Product organization, we also support marketing, lines of business, and internal needs. (I am of the opinion that the typical division of design, where you have a design team in marketing and a design team in product, is stupid. In a service world, you design for a customer’s journey, which weaves between marketing and product touchpoints. Those designers need to work together to ensure coherence throughout.)

Though centralized, we are not an internal services firm. We have design teams (Platform Design, Local Marketplace, Goods, Getaways, Internal, Core Merchant, and Merchant OS) that are dedicated to certain collections of products or features. So, our Platform Design team works on anything that underlies the entire Groupon experience, such as personalization, social, checkout, gifting, and user-generated content. Senior members of that design team have partnerships with the product managers of those features. And that team is dedicated to support those features, leading the product managers and engineers on those teams to respect the designers’ views. But by not working from within those teams, the Platform Design team maintains a holistic view of the Groupon customer experience, and can ensure that design decisions across those features are consistent and coherent.

This Centralized Partnership model has an interesting additional advantage, one that took me a while to appreciate. The entire designed output of Groupon flows through this one team. We have around 50 folks in the Design Union (what we call ourselves internally), and they touch everything across the business, interfacing with many hundreds of developers, marketing, and operations people. That’s leverage! We serve as the glue that holds things together. And, often, we’re the first to realize that two different teams, who otherwise aren’t interacting, are working on the same, or related, problem, and need to work together.

The more that design is seen as contributing to organizational strategy, and a competency to be outsourced at a company’s peril, this leverage should prove increasingly influential. We’ll know we’re on the right track when companies fear that design has concentrated too much power in too small a team.