How to Lead a Design Team: Things to Do and Things to Avoid

by Olha Bahaieva

7 min read·

There are many ways to be a great design leader. Leadership is not just about making decisions and giving orders, but it also includes listening and understanding what the company and team members may want or need.

Companies that excel at design grow revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry peers. So why aren’t more companies joining their ranks?

Melissa Dalrymple, Sam Pickover, and Benedict Sheppard in McKinsey & Company

McKinsey & Company interviewed 200 senior design leaders and found that 90% of companies weren’t reaching the full potential of design.

Working as a design leader, I use many techniques and strategies to make my team productive and happy. It's crucial to be connected to the team, not only on a professional level, but on a personal as well.  

I tried different strategies, and every new experiment taught me what design lead should do and shouldn't. Let's analyze this in greater detail!

Tips for Leading a Design Team

How to lead a design team properly is based on several straightforward actions that should be part of the skill set of any team leader. Here's how:

Talk With Your Team Clearly

Communication is key—keep that in mind. In fact, clear communication is your primary goal as a manager.

The worst thing that can happen is for designers to ask for additional information from you as a team leader and not receive a direct answer. 

This is why you need to build your communication with your team with clear directions, expectations, and milestones. When you have a set of requirements, you can clearly explain what you expect from your team—you're a great design leader.

Design leaders should also teach/guide the design team how to properly communicate with other team members, especially developers.

Give Feedback to Your Team

While communication is critical, there is another thing you need to master—feedback. Great team leaders understand that feedback can benefit or destroy the progress of the UX/UI designers team. 

Imagine a situation where every stage of your design process is reviewed, and you have pros and cons for future iterations. When you and your team communicate, use a feedback strategy.

Analyze your teamwork and provide your opinion with evidence for each of your statements. Don't give orders, but explain why your team needs to improve.

Designers are curious, so they'll ask you to explain your position every time. Additionally, your team members need to grow professionally. In both situations, feedback is vital.

Propose a Career Path

Every professional needs a career path. As a lead designer, you need to think about how you're going to help your fellow designers. Luckily, there are various ways to do so. 

You can propose courses to gain tech knowledge, enroll your team in design challenges to boost creativity, or ask them if they want public activity. Speaking, writing, and becoming the next YouTuber or design influencer might sound exciting for them.

Here's a psychology trick that can help you create a career roadmap for your team: remember the days when you were a junior designer. What did you want the most? Chances are your designers want the similar thing as you once did.

The good thing about seeing your team grow is that you grow with it, too. So this is a task not only for your design team but yourself as well.

Create a Priority List

You have a high-volume project, and your team is excited to start working. However, before getting down to work, you need to have a solid plan in place. 

Some of you might say that you need to design a product, and that's all. The discouraging news is that not everything is as simple. 

For example, let's say you're creating a product from scratch for one startup. They don't have anything developed yet, but they already have an amazing product roadmap.

Does it mean you and your design team need to do everything from the product roadmap? Of course not. This is why you need to create a priority list to start from the essential features and finish with the less important ones.

In most cases, startups need an MVP that is a pretty limited version of the final product. Initially, businesses start from the small product and improve it over time. 

The priority list is a great helper and time-saver to design products and use your design resources effectively.

Things To Avoid

Here are four things you should avoid doing when managing a design team:

Ignore Problems

When you face a problem, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. If you hope that it'll go away or your team will forget about it, this is wishful thinking. It's not only a bad habit for a design leader but an irritating behavior for your team members.

When other designers have problems or need your support, it's your very first responsibility to manage their problems effectively. 

Unlike managers who don't understand anything about design and can't handle these issues, you have everything you need to start resolving your team's questions.

Even if your team somehow handles all questions by themselves in a short-term perspective, they can't do the same indefinitely. It'll cost them many stresses, and they can eventually leave your team, which can be devastating.

Forget Your Team

Let's imagine the following scenario: there's an urgent task and you assign it to your team. Your job is done and you can relax.

Not so fast: this is another mistake you should avoid doing. 

Just because design leaders don't design products themselves doesn't mean they don't need to support the designers who work on building the product. So, if you stop answering ongoing questions, I assure you that you won't see a final product. Not today, not tomorrow, not even in a year.

Your team won't make final solutions without you. They might not have such responsibilities, but you do. This is why you need to check in with your team daily and ask how things are progressing.

Be an Overly Demanding Boss

Remember one thing: you're a leader. I've seen many team leaders behaving like overly demanding bosses. They give orders, follow strict deadlines, and are not respectful.

This type of behavior is common among people who believe they're superior. They believe they're design leaders who have the power to behave as they want.

It's no secret that employees value humanity the most. If you can't behave respectfully, they will complain and another design lead will take your place. 

Provide Feedback to Selected People Only

Providing feedback is excellent. But do you give feedback to all members of your team or selected ones? If you don't provide enough feedback to many people, ask yourself why.

It would help if you treated your team equally, regardless of whether they're junior or senior designers. They are all vital to the team and deserve your help. Not helping everyone on the team can only lead to stagnation. 

While prioritization is essential, it doesn't affect people's questions because all questions need answers. This is your job and your primary task as a design leader.

Final Thoughts

Leading a design team is a huge responsibility, and you need to know how to manage your team. It includes strategies for product design, your team productivity, and other things.

No matter what your team is working on, it would help if you did things that stimulate your creative teammates and avoid things that reduce your team's progress. By focusing on the team and their success, you are also improving the cross collaboration between the design and the development team, a step forward to finishing a project successfully.

I've shared things that you can include in your daily work to improve your leading positions and things that can be destructive.

Make your design lead role enjoyable for you and your team to see immediate results and productivity from your fellow designers.

FAQs

Q: What does a design leader do?
The design leader oversees a project from ideation to product launch. They are responsible for controlling and helping other designers during the product creation cycle. Along with planning each product design stage, it’s important for a leader to answer any ongoing questions to meet a deadline.
Q: How do you motivate a design team?
To help your team find motivation, it’s essential to designers see the results of their work. One of the ways to motivate a design team is design contests where professionals work on one task and each of them sees the result along with reward and public recognition.
Q: How do you lead a project design?
To lead a design project, it’s good to think strategically. This is why creating a list of features along with prioritization and deadlines work the best. Following weekly goals, the team is always on the track to the final result.
Olha Bahaieva
Olha Bahaieva
Senior UX/UI Designer

A six-time winner in international design contests, Olha has more than eight years of experience in UX/UI design. She is the Lead UX/UI Designer at Dish, a top Medium design writer, and a public speaker. She is also a design course author with over 1M views on Education Ecosystem and the founder of the UX Designers Club on Medium.

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