Over the past few years, Iâ€™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. Hereâ€™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 teamâ€™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 donâ€™t want to have to choose â€” they want it all! But the reality is, even if someone can do all of these things, they arenâ€™t going to, at least not with any regularity. Thereâ€™s simply not enough time.
So, what most companies incline to hire in a senior design role is a Creative Director â€” 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 itâ€™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 â€” leader, manager, recruiter, and operator â€” 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 personâ€™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 Iâ€™ve described) and a Creative Director (or Chief Design Officer).
Iâ€™d love to hear of other leadership models for design that youâ€™ve seen work well.