Do less design to become a better design leader

Why making less and thinking more is the future of your design role

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As the year-end gets close I take time to examine the state of my professional and personal experiences. For fear of writing about puns and dad jokes, I will keep the personal stuff out of this. This year I look at the moments of success and validation alongside the challenges, failures and semi-disasters my team went through. But as I analyze the year one thing keeps creeping into my mind: what role does my position as a design leader play in my development as a design maker?

A background in fear 😨
As a designer, I have one big fear: moving into higher leadership and management responsibilities only to sacrifice the making aspects of design I so love. After years being an active design thinker, maker and doer—as a visual, UX and interactive designer—I’ve spent the last 5 years in more lead positions. This change in role has drastically influenced my daily process and even the things that keep me up at night. And meetings, so many meetings! With each year that passes my passion for being involved in design-making get stronger.

To think is to design 💡
It’s quite simple, unlike the (mis)conception that design only exists in the made object or artifact, I’ve learned that design is about understanding people and making decisions as to how best to serve them, while being continuously proven wrong. In a world where consumers demand user experience excellence, a nice-looking thing is not enough to guarantee user satisfaction or business success. These things get you through the door, but then what? Here, in this gap, I started to find my new place in the design teams I work with.

Before designers get to making things that customers enjoy, the need to understand users, test ideas and plan your product vision remains. The outcomes of those activities is design. Even if research insights, roadmap plans and team ideation activities are not customer facing, each phase is a crucial part of the process of design. Being part of these activities—and driving team collaboration—has kept me engaged with user and business needs and made me feel a more complete designer than before. Getting a product experience in the market and the hands of users takes a lot of work. How have I made it happen? Not alone.

Delegate to the experts (with a soul) 👻
As a Product Team Lead at IBM Studios Austin, I work to drive a team of talented people and help define where we’re going and what needs to get done to get there. Although talent is everywhere, it frequently comes along with a big ego.

Fortunately, having four such designers on my team has made my transition from maker to delegator easier to swallow. Now I’m at the center of an energetic group that are not only experts at their own craft (i.e. making) but who care about the user and the team process we built together.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to manifest an idea to the level of depth and simplicity as my designers do. The quality of the work they output amazes me everyday, and instead of feeling like a lesser designer I enjoy and cherish their work. That’s why each of them is here and where their expertise comes in. Making aside, I’ve been present when obstacles are uncovered, when user feedback sparks a bright idea and when a design is validated. Being at the center of this creative activity has helped me maintain my design soul and uncovered my true role as a design lead: to liberate and facilitate.

Worry about the vision 👀
Over time after many failures and lots of help from peers/mentors I realized that a good design leader should primarily communicate a vision, build processes and facilitate collaboration. These are the things I currently design and I’m passionate about.

When the opportunity for artifact-making appears then it’s a welcomed plus that I enjoy. Sketching is one of my favorite activities but more so when it’s part of a team ideation session. Since the goal is to generate possibilities and put them to the test—via critique or research—whether my sketch leads to a wireframe, a prototype or the end-product becomes of secondary importance. Instead, I focus on defining the why and when of the things my team will create, test and improve. Giving them this structure allows each designer to understand the role their artifacts play in the larger picture, making them invested in solving users pain points and driven to collaborate with one another.

Certain uncertainties ahead ❗️
At this point it’s been about two years since I made something tangible that directly went into production. Yet I’ve never felt more of a designer than I do now. In life and work, a leader’s job is to make room for others to excel. Hence planning milestones, working sessions, playbacks, sprints and releases—alongside management and engineering—are are key tasks for a design leader. This structure allows my designers to focus on the craft of making their best stuff, and it’s my job to give define that scope. Without this unified vision we’d be making things just for the sake of it.

This is the end… 🎵
As design tools becomes more refined they might take many repetitive tasks out of our hands.

My journey from sole maker to joint creator has been filled with doubts and second-guessing. But the benefits have been threefold: it’s reshaped who I am and how I work; has made me more rounded and empathetic; and has allowed me to work with others to make things that are truly unique, enjoyable, useful and beautiful.

And that is a designer’s job.

Esteban Pérez-Hemminger is a product team Design Lead at IBM Studios in Austin. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Puerto Rican, avid collaborator, pun aficionado and designer with a habit of failing. Currently: Senior Interaction Designer @ Google, Austin TX

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