What Is Design Leadership?

brian mcconnell
3 min readNov 10, 2021

The vocabulary of product design is full of phrases and terms that we all assume we have a shared definition of. We use terms like management, culture, communication, and leadership in and across design teams, but they don’t always mean what you think they mean. When you dig a little deeper to really understand what people are saying, you find that we’re all speaking a different language. What one person considers culture, another person calls Process. Management can be a taboo word among designers and an aspirational goal at the same time.

Matters get even fuzzier when we start using variants of a word in different contexts. “Lead” can be used as a verb, when you lead a project. It can also be a noun when you’re described as a Design Lead or Lead Designer. I’ve always believed that calling someone a design lead on a team of one is a misnomer. How can you be leading if nobody is following?

The term “lead” and “leadership” has been a hot topic of conversation recently among my peers and me as we work on an update to our product design career guide. We’re considering leadership as a core competency we want to develop among our designers and it’s forcing us to think critically about what that means. Do the designers on our team understand what we mean when we talk about leadership? Do our cross-functional partners in product and engineering have a similar understanding?

I usually find it helpful to try and break down these terms to the most elemental form possible. Then I add context to build a richer, more nuanced understanding. The most basic definition of leadership that I understand is this:

Leadership is taking actions that improve the well-being of others.

How does that apply to a designer’s day-to-day? Does this framework apply to project leads as well as capital L Leaders? How do the expectations differ between leading work and leading people? Does this definition help early and mid-career designers understand their career progression? Can they apply their experience in one context to new situations and help them grow & adapt?

There are two main applications of leadership in our design practice: leading work, and leading people. In service as leading the work, or acting as a project lead, there are several key responsibilities for the lead:

  1. Defining the design process that you and others will follow.
  2. Represent the team to stakeholders and peers. Acting as a point of contact for cross-functional peers.
  3. Coach & mentor junior designers.

How well does this definition hold up if you’re a solo practitioner; the fabled Team of One? Can you still be a lead if you’re alone? Some people might say that the sole practitioner is still guiding other people — clients, stakeholders, peers — forward through the application of design. A designer who is facilitating a solution with their peers is leading them in some regard.

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