Julie thought what would make her a great design leader was being great at design. Now she realized it’s about a well-honed design eye, skilled translation, business understanding, data fluency, and a good process.
After a year of waiting and longing, I was fortunate to attend the Leading Design Festival this week and hear from a group of wonderful design leaders. After we have all been working remotely for a year, it’s great to reconnect with the design leadership community and engage in inspiring, insightful, and authentic conversations.
To kick off the festival, Julie Zhuo gave a talk on The Many Facets of Design Leadership. Here are my key takeaways from it.
Julie mentioned in her early career, lots of her assumptions about design leadership were wrong. She thought what would make her a great design leader was being great at design. But after years of experience, she realizes the pie is much bigger than that. This resonates deeply with me, just like people say — what gets us here won’t get us there. As we step into design leadership roles, we need to master other skills in order to be effective.
1 A well-honed eye for design
At a certain point in our design leadership journey, we are less focused on design execution and producing the artifacts, but it’s still critical to have great eyes for design.
We need to know what great designs look like. This will determine how we measure whether our teams are doing a great job, decide who to hire, and make good judgment calls on which direction to go. This is how we set and hold a high bar for design.
2 A skilled translator between business and design
Design is having our moments. We are at a point that the industry knows they need great design to form competitive advantages, and they know we need more designers. However, they may still not fully understand design, or really what designers do, or how to empower design in an organization.
But designers are often not helping because we are obsessed with our design jargon. We use abstract terms that many people have a hard time understanding why they matter.
As great design leaders, we need to learn how to translate these languages into words everyone can understand. Julie gave a few examples,
“Make the page breath better”
“Let’s make this page easier for someone to visually scan and process so that they can consume the information quickly.”
“We need to cut clutter”
“Let’s reduce the number of choices someone has to make so they can do what they came here to do faster.”
3 Business understanding
As design leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure our teams consistently deliver great design.
When we are a junior designer, if we deliver a bad design solution because we are given a bad design brief that was so narrowly constrained, it is okay to say “The brief sucks, and this is what I was told to do.”
However, as we grow into a design leader, especially into design executive roles, those reasons stop mattering. The key is to have backbones and pushback in situations like this. We need to hold ourselves and our partners accountable. This reminds me of our Leadership Principles at Amazon:
Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
So, how do we do this? Julie’s advice is to “unpeel the layers of opinions on the why”. For example, when someone gives you a design brief,
Ask: “Why this is the brief? Why are we doing this?”
If the answer is: “Because metrics X, Y, Z matter.”
Then ask “Why metrics X, Y, Z matter?”
Until we get to the heart of the business, which is how our organization will be viable in the long run. “What are our business goals? How we position ourselves in the market? How do we show up in the competitive landscape? How does our work fit into the success of our business as a whole?” …
Once we understand the business well enough, we are able to push back on the bad ideas and suggest better alternatives.
Designers don’t get a seat at the table because design is important. Designers get a seat because they understand and own the problems of the broader organization and company, and they can proactively shape how design is used to solve these problems. — Julie Zhuo
4 Data Fluency
“Great design is built upon solid and accurate assumptions about people and their beliefs.” Data helps us build this solid and accurate foundation.
Julie mentioned a great quote from her friend, Chandra Narayanan, former Director of Analytics at Facebook.
Diagnose with Data. Treat with Design.
Questions we should ask ourselves:
What problems are we trying to solve?
How do we know it is a problem? How big a problem is it? What is the cost of the problem?
How do we know whether we’ve solved the problem? Did our work have the impact that we were hoping for?
Julie mentioned 3 things design leaders need to do on this front to ensure we are building great design and products:
- Ask the right questions
- Dig into the context of a data interpretation
- Define how we’re measuring “good”
Julie also mentioned don’t battle intuition or anecdotes with factual numbers at scale. Typically, factual numbers win. But what we can do is to be fluent enough to understand whether the set of numbers that we’re looking at is answering the most important questions. Is the data presenting a comprehensive view of the truth or not? Are we interpreting the data in the right way?
Julie just published an article on LinkedIn on this topic.
5 A good process
There is no formula for great creative work. But we can create good conditions for creativity to happen.
A good design process creates a healthy environment so that designers can consistently design great things. For example,
Sense of Safety
Daily Creative Challenges
Studying others’ work