Change the World: Become a Leader

Do you want to be a better design leader? 5 qualities you can cultivate to become a better design leader.

There has never been a better time to sharpen your leadership skills. Design is more than sharing your ideas, it’s about planting leadership seeds that grow good qualities in team members and raise the bar in design. Leaders think ahead, make mindful decisions, and celebrate success as a unified team. When you lead your team forward, you ignite a passion for design. There are many ways you can foster leadership qualities as a designer, here are five key skills you can cultivate.

Practice empathy

As Erik Therwanger outlined in his book The Leadership Connection, we are all in the people business and it is our job as leaders to not only train our teams in leadership thinking but also develop this skill ourselves. A good designer may tell the world about their ideas with little genuine regard for their audience, in an effort to prove their talent. A design leader has more than talent; they practice empathy - the ability to empower others. André Fu describes himself as a “facilitator” who manages the relationship between property developer and hotelier, in his case. In a 2016 interview for Clad Feature, he says: “My role is to translate the vision we share into an experience,” (Dewolf). Being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes - or practice humility and empathy - shows that behind your talent, there is a person. In today’s world, there is nothing more appealing than working with professionals who go past just listening, but really understand their client’s needs. 

Image 4-2Uday Gajendar--known for his brazen and revolutionary style--believes that  empathy isn’t about listening and fostering the needs of his clients before his own; instead, he has found a way to integrate empathy with leadership - a killer combination. His own empathetic leadership style was born from, in his words,“sympathetic mentors along the way who guided [him] with their own wisdom and lessons”, according to a 2016 interview with Fluxible (Kankesan). Empathy is not unidirectional. An empathetic designer should be able to accept influence as well as be the influencer. It is paramount that designers apply bottom-up and horizontal management skills across their teams as well as the more traditional top-down leadership style. In other words, a designer should have enough empathy and emotional intelligence to know when the right moment is to impose her own ideas and when she should listen with intent and react in line with her team’s suggestions.

How can you integrate empathy into your design style? When your clients and team have suggestions, listen carefully and consider their potential value. By immediately disregarding the ideas of those you manage, you run the risk of coming across as the kind of designer that needs to prove their own value, which--as interior designer Joanna Gaines said--makes you a competitor rather than a leader. In an interview with Nicole Ziza Bauer for Darling magazine, she said: “[... ] I’ve seen over the years when these actions are from pride and I don’t think that inspires people. It makes people either want to compete with you or not like you at all” (“Joanna Gaines: ‘If I Could Tell the Younger Generation Something, It Would Be…”). Cultivate empathy by asking yourself: How would I feel if I were in my client’s position? Would I accept these suggestions if I were the client? What are the needs of my team? How can I make sure my team has the opportunity to express their needs?

Communicate Clearly And Actively

The ability to articulate the reasoning behind the design process is a key selling skill and can be synonymous with success. A unified team comes from clear communication; a designer that can convey their knowledge and instill trust in their team and clients is a leader. Excellent communication reduces misunderstandings not only with regards to the design process but also on a personal level, which in turn leads to a stronger bond between designer, team, and client; paving the way for a smooth-sailing design process, from beginning to end.

There are a number of tools such as Slack, InVision, and ConceptShare that allow for better feedback and communication. The strength of these platforms lies in their ability to streamline your communication process in one easy platform accessible by clients, team members, and design managers. These tools minimize time-consuming phone calls and help to avoid losing messages in your inbox,  leaving more time to get on with the job. If you’re still just using email and the occasional link to a file, these tools will definitely help.

Another useful tool is Toggl, where you can set expectations for dates and deadlines; it  is especially useful in the design field where there may be many changes along the way. It’s a visual overview of who is doing what and when, helping design teams achieve an organic and collaborative process.

Be open and adaptable

The characteristics of a design leader are molded around their interpersonal skills. Empathy and excellent communication make open-minded and adaptable leaders. Openness and adaptability depend on perception, intuition, and the ability to foresee potential changes both in the market and on a global scale.

Adaptability is a key component of success for a designer or an architect. A good designer may have ample knowledge and skills, but a design leader understands the need to develop strategies that anticipate and solve problems that will inevitably arise. Dennis Hambeukers said that a project where “...there is very little input from stakeholders and the client is presented with a fully developed solution” (Hambeukers), may seem optimum, but it is quite the opposite. A design leader knows that the process is wrought with flaws and many reevaluations along the way; co-creation--creating “with” rather than “for”--allows optimal solutions to emerge. What we must remember is that it isn’t necessary to show everybody how great we are. We need to combine our emotional intelligence with our hard and soft skills, be transparent about the design process and realize that there are times when we may have to erase and repeat. 

Image 6-1This practice fosters trust, positions us as a leader, and showcases our ability to adapt to unforeseen situations. This, in the eyes of our teams and clients, is a highly desirable ability but, how do we nurture  it? We can make it clear from the beginning of the project that there will be periodic evaluations along the way where the input of the team and the clients will be taken into consideration and open to discussion. Rather than receiving a brief, presenting a finalized project and expecting everybody to be on board, you can demonstrate your openness as a design leader by incorporating consistent analysis and opportunities for formative assessment and retro-feedback throughout the duration of a project; it is, at the core, checks and balances.

The design process is a team effort between the client, the designers, and design managers hence the importance of making the conscious decision to lead. When you view them all as a team to personally lead and nurture, productivity will be much higher than if you view them as competing forces; tensions amongst stakeholders  hinders the creative process. This is a trap many designers fall into and you can escape it by understanding how you are perceived by others and being mindful of your openness and adaptability.

Become a Life-long Learner

Learning and incorporating new knowledge into your approach is invaluable; everything is in constant flux. Trends change. Times change. People change. A designer that bases their approach on what they learned in college can only ever, at its best, become a good designer. A design leader appreciates the aspect of change that defines their vocation and uses it to their advantage. In an interview with Dreams Magazine, interior designer Martin Lawrence Bullard said that the one design rule he lives by is “... we are never too old, or too young, to learn. Knowledge is power and for an interior designer we must constantly be open to new knowledge with curiosity and passion at its core. It’s the only way to stay fresh and creative” (Rytenskild).  

To be at the forefront of the industry, design leaders must always be searching for ways to better themselves. By reading constantly and reviewing the latest projects and products in the industry, you can enhance your expertise. We must also leverage the use of technology and its influence on how we work in today’s world and reinvent ourselves as often as circumstances may require.

[Check out our list of the top 10 books to inspire architects and interior designers]

Be courageous

“I never follow trends, trends are to be made, not followed” (Rytenskild), Martin Lawrence Bullard stated in the same interview with Dreams Magazine. The crux of design is the courage to stand out and do something that nobody has done before, all the while using your communication skills, your empathy and your adaptability to create magic in the design plans that will eventually come to life. Courage is central to design because new ideas may be met with opposition, resistance, and even hostility. 

Choosing to lead is in itself a courageous decision. Not for the faint of heart, courage is a virtue that a leading designer needs to refine; without courage, the status quo goes unquestioned, change is prevented, and nothing new or remarkable ever happens. 

Courage is not just about defending a novel idea or out-of-the-box thinking, it’s also about standing by your principles as an integral role model in your field. While it is crucial to be open to influence from your team, your peers or the industry itself, there are times when the courage to stand by your values - both personal and professional - will make the difference between being a good designer and a leading one. 


Writer Dani Shapiro in a podcast interview with designer Debbie Millman outlined the difference between confidence and courage. “Courage is more important than confidence. When you are acting from a place of courage, you are saying that no matter how you feel about yourself or your opportunities or the outcome, you are going to take a risk and take a step toward what you want. You are willing to allow yourself to be vulnerable – in showing your art, starting a business that might succeed or fail, having an opinion on something, being in a relationship. You are not waiting for the confidence to mysteriously arrive” (Cowan). 

This suggests that courage is not the same as imposing your ideas on others, even if you are a good designer. An excellent designer has the courage to make a statement, but also to admit that they could be wrong. Courage is a cocktail of empathy, openness, communication, and humility.

How can you be more courageous as a designer? You and your team need to embrace vulnerability, and this is where the other four aspects that make a leading designer come into play. Without the other four, genuine vulnerability is not possible. Courage is not a bold statement of personal belief; true courage needs to come from a solid team and their unshakeable support.

Excellent designers all have - empathy, communication, adaptability, a penchant for learning, and courage - and these traits help design leaders stand out from the crowd. In all work environments, and the Creative Industries in particular, these , are essential traits which we should all aim to foster.


Sources Compilation

Cowan, Katy. “Debbie Millman on the power of courage over confidence, embracing criticism and overcoming fear.” Creative Boom, 25 October 2018

Deane, Nancy. “‘Produce, Produce, Produce!’ Style Star Emily Henderson Is Basically Our Life Coach Now.’ Heymama, www./ Accessed 04/05/2021

Dewolf, Christopher. “Interview Andre Fu.” Clad Features, Accessed 04/05/2021

Hambeukers, Dennis. “Radical openness is key to design thinking but a big leap for most designers.” Service Design Notebook, 25 July 2016

“Joanna Gaines: ‘If I Could Tell the Younger Generation Something, It Would Be…” Darling, 19 February 2018

Kankesan, Denoja. “Speaker Spotlight: An Interview with Uday Gajendar.” Fluxible, 22 August 2016

Palmer, Alex. “The difference between good and great designers.” UX Mastery, 9 Aug 2016

“Philanthropy is work: an interview with Milton Glaser.” UCDA, Accessed 04/05/2021

Rytenskild, Skye. “5 Minutes with Martyn Lawrence Bullard.” Decor and Design Mel/21 Accessed 04/05/2021

Shirey, Jenny. “Courageous coaching for designers.” UX Design, 6 March 2020

Shukla, Mauli Isha. “The Future of Design: Adaptability, Not Perfection.” Medium, 14 November 2017

“The Art of Design: An Interview with Martyn Lawrence Bullard.” LA Dreams

The Art Of Design: Interview with Celebrity Interior Designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard Accessed 04/05/2021

Therwanger, Erik. The Leadership Connection. Balboa Press, 2018.

Wood Glasser, Maggie. “4 Traits of a Highly Adaptable Person.” LinkedIn, 16 June 2020

Zalla, Mary. “Five Fundamentals of Great Design: Courage.” Landor, 20 August 2015

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