In my journey to understand designer careers and shapes of design teams, I noticed that even though the role of a mid-weight designer (Lead Designer/Design Lead/Design Manager) is held in high regard, orgs tend to define the title and responsibilities quite loosely. I spoke to several hiring managers, designers, hosted twitter spaces and did desk research to decode what it means to be a Lead Designer. Spilling some beans from my findings here:
What do orgs really expect from their Lead Designers?
- Lead Designers should be able to create Psychological Safety in their projects. i.e. Junior designers and non-design colleagues are heard and are able to share radical ideas without judgement from others.
- Leads are individuals who were initially consumers of the org culture, and later go on to become custodians of the culture. They act as the social glue between the old and the new, small teams to larger teams.
- Orgs look to this role, primarily, for craft guidance and mentoring. Someone who champions quality, can operate well in the product delivery lifecycle and has been doing it for some time will be better at helping others than someone who is still figuring things out.
Secondary responsibilities may include assisting with hiring, business development, thought leadership etc. Some orgs attach project management duties to this role, while some expect Leads to manage people too.
- Orgs expect Lead Designers to guide product strategy and business discussions by bringing the user's PoV, and apply their creativity to solve hairy problems.
- Designers who set an example to others by articulating their designs well, lead conversations with facts and data, yet are able to express the emotional aspects of what is being created to designers/non-designers alike are a desired addition to any design team.
What red flags do orgs look out for while filling a Lead Designer position?
Hiring teams specifically look out for signals where:
- articulation and rationalising designs is a problem
- individual gets defensive when asked uncomfortable questions
- portfolio and application leaves much to be desired
- readiness and confidence of taking on more challenges is lacking
How do people grow into the Lead designer role?
Orgs prefer promoting internal talent over bringing in fresh talent because
- internal talent has familiarity with the the org's people, processes and products
- orgs encourage high-performing designers to take up additional responsibilities when there's nobody else suitable to do the job
- orgs may use promotions as a way to retain talent
They look outside when:
- teams need to scale to meet product or service requirements
- specific subject matter expertise is desired
- existing talent falls short when delivering design
If you're looking to get promoted, or have recently been promoted to a Lead position, hope this was useful! If you're heading Design/Product teams, maybe this will help you set right expectations in your own org. If you have any questions or suggestions, I'd love to hear from you! DM me at Twitter, Instagram if you want to talk more.
Update: Read Part 2: Challenges faced by Lead Designers of this article here.