What makes a great design leader?

Great design leadership can be measured by looking at two things:

  1. The team. Is the team happy and performing well, and are we hiring and developing team members well?

  2. The results. Is the team delivering great design outcomes?

People are the most important part of any business, but the business and team won't thrive if the outcomes are bad.

So how does a design leader build a strong team and deliver great results? Here are four important roles a design leader can have whether leading a single design team or multiple teams: 

1. Manager

If a design leader is a people manager, often her primary responsibilities are building a strong team and creating an environment where the team can do incredible work. A great manager:

  • Nurtures their current team:

    • Are team members growing in their roles and careers? A design leader must set clear role expectations, find the right projects, and provide ongoing feedback and coaching. 

    • Are team members set up to do great work? A design leader must establish purpose, give guidance on how to work with others, and provide the right information and tools for team members to be effective.

    • Is the team happy and satisfied with their work? A design leader must listen closely to team members to ensure they feel fulfilled and have an environment where they can do their best work.

  • Builds the future team: A design leader must assess whether they have the right people for what the business needs, and, if necessary, advocate for help and hire well to meet those needs.

  • Is accountable for the team's results: A design leader is responsible for their team getting to great design outcomes. If outcomes are bad, they must take action. To help team members get to great outcomes, design leaders should define what great looks like, provide early guidance on how to approach projects, and give feedback on work as part of reviews or working sessions.

2. Design lead

There are many functions that must be established on a design team in order for it to perform at a high level, and often these functions must be re-established as the team scales. A design leader must ensure these are working well:

  • Hiring processes. Are hiring needs, role requirements, and interview plans clearly defined? Are interviews evaluating the right attributes? Are interviewers trained? Are the processes efficient and effective for hiring talented people who meet the needs of the business? 

  • Designer levels. Is it clear what success looks like for team members in their roles at their levels? Is the path to promotion well-defined? Does the team feel they are growing in their roles?  

  • Design critiques. Is there a strong culture of designers getting feedback on their work? Do designers feel safe sharing their work in critique? Are design outcomes better because of critiques? Do designers feel like they are growing because of critiques? 

  • Specialized teams. Are there dedicated efforts or teams to support functions like UX research, UX writing, design operations, and design systems? How strong are these practices? When is the right time to scale them? Do they partner successfully with the rest of the team?

  • Others include: design process, design principles, team vision and values.

3. Cross-functional lead

Design leaders must represent Design within the organization to make sure it can have the biggest impact possible for the business. This involves: 

  • Representing Design in planning. Design must be the strongest advocate for the user in serving the short- and long-term interests of the business. Design leaders can shape planning by advocating for strategic research or visioning projects, defining success metrics for UX quality, and ensuring that designers have enough time to do high quality work.

  • Educating others about design and its value. What is the perception of design among leadership? What is the perception of design across the organization? If it's misunderstood or not well-understood, design's voice and influence within the organization will be limited.

  • Helping to define the org structure. Is design set up in the org structure to be a strong partner to engineering, product, and other functions? Will the org structure enable teams to deliver holistic user experiences? 

4. Individual contributor (IC)

Sometimes design leaders take on IC projects. It might be because they manage a small team and their other responsibilities don't require much time. Or, in some cases, it might be because it allows their team to have an even bigger impact by focusing on more substantial projects. 

As a design leader, others will look to you as a role model, so if you're taking on IC projects, it's important to set a great example for others.


With all of these roles and responsibilities, how should a design leader prioritize? They should focus on maximizing long-term impact. That almost always means prioritizing the team, which will have a multiplier effect, over IC projects.

There's one other critical responsibility of design leaders: taking care of yourself. Design leadership can be exhilarating and deeply fulfilling, but its demands are unending, so balance is essential. If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to help others.

What do you think makes a great design leader? How do you see the various roles and responsibilities of a design leader? Would love to hear your thoughts.