A few months ago, I left my role as lead designer at a tech services company. It was time for something different and I wanted to take one step outside of just "design" and see what else I could do. I took the job as Head of Design for a small product design studio, nuom. I guess that makes me a design leader now. I've always felt uncomfortable with that term. It makes me sound like Jim Jones or Charles Manson or something. I'd make a terrible cult leader. I've got the outfits, but not enough conviction I'm right about anything.
There's something weird about a lot of terms we use in our industry. We can't just say 'manager' or 'boss' like everyone else. We have to say 'leadership'. I think we'll do anything to keep pulling the wool over our eyes that this isn't just a job and we're not just another group of people making money by selling things. Anyway, I am one now. I lead a small team of 3 designers. Hardly a huge jump into the deep end but was a scary enough prospect that I felt it's something I definetly should do. I'm one of these people who have some kind of fetish for putting myself in anxiety-ridden, pressurised situations and then complaining about it.
I took the job because I loved the fire and passion that Martin, the founder of the company, had for building great products. He'd been running his company like every other digital agency for a while. When COVID hit, he felt like it was time to work stuff that had a little more impact and felt more natural. I also took the job because I knew what good design should look like. I had a lot of opinions about what other people were doing wrong and how to fix it. Fuck knows if I was right.
But being a design leader is more than just being that person who talks about how we should do design. I'm not just responsible for what work I do but also for helping other designs do their work. Their goals are my goals. Their fustrations are my fustrations. That requires a different set of skills beyond "design".
That said, design is in dire need of leadership within most companies. As a discipline we are locked in this purgatory where we are crying out to be taken seriously but struggle to communicate our value to anyone. I think this is because, among other things, we don't really understand what our job is. I don't think it's particularly our fault. Education on the subject is pretty poor and as an industry, we've not really taken design into account until quite recently. There's no established blueprint yet.
Like I said, I've got a lot of opinions on what that role of design is for in a organisation. A lot of them will be written here on this blog. But for now, I'm figuring out what this design leadership thing is. Working in a tiny team, outside the Silicon Valley and London bubble is unchartered territory. There's a lot of great, amazing mentors out there but the path for my team will be different to a Facebook, a Google or even a Monzo. When I've got something solid, I'll report back.