Some key lessons from the Leading Design conference

A few weeks ago I attended the Leading Design conference at the Barbican in London. As the name suggests the conference is all about leading design teams, overseeing design direction and instilling a culture of design within an organisation. There was a mixture of talks, workshops and panel interviews with design leaders from companies such as Google, Facebook, Spotify, Pinterest and Deliveroo. It was an opportunity to hear from some industry leaders, chat with peers about how they do design and to find out more about where design is currently at and heading.

I certainly went away with lots of things to think about, and lots of new ideas to try. Here are some key lessons that I took away from the conference.

The Leading Design conference was at the Barbican, arguably London’s poshest concrete jungle

Design work should be aligned to business goals

Whilst this certainly shouldn’t be a revelation, a number of speakers reiterated the importance of ensuring that design work is aligned to business goals and of thinking about how to demonstrate the value of design within an organisation. Simon Rohrbach, former head of design at Deliveroo spoke about how his priorities as a design leader had changed from being design first, to company first as he realised that his job is ultimately to make the company successful by making the design team successful.

Build and test your ideas like a product

Kim Fellman, Design Experience Manager at Pinterest spoke about how her team utilise product thinking when tackling organisational challenges, such as how to improve team moral, how to better retain staff and how to recruit great designers. Not only do they use common design techniques, such as workshops, interviews and experimentation to tackle challenges, but will always capture what they hope to happen if an initiative is successful, how they will measure this and any support from outside the team that they’ll need.

Where people sit is surprisingly important

A number of talks touched on the importance of not only who you have in a team, but where they sit. There was a fascinating talk from Bob Baxley, who used to be head of Product design at Pinterest about lessons from the 1969 lunar landings. This included a look at the configuration of the mission control room and how related disciplines sat together so that they could work through problems as a group. Nicole Burrow, Design Director at Spotify spoke about how they had moved designers from being sat with their product teams, to being sat with other designers (but still very close to product teams). This was to improve designer collaboration and to avoid designers becoming too isolated.

Spotify now sit designers together, rather than isolated within teams

It’s important to look after yourself, not just your team

Jason Mesut, a leading design consultant spoke about the importance of not only looking after ‘the team’, but also yourself. Too often leaders and managers put all of their energy into their teams without considering their own needs and wellbeing.

Jason has put together some thought-provoking self-reflection exercises and visual frameworks that individuals can use to reflect on their career to date, to map their skills and to define their future professional development. An example of one of these exercises can be seen below.

The soft shaping framework for reflecting on important softer skills

More details of the exercises can be found in Jason’s shaping designers and design teams series on Medium. It’s worth noting that although the exercises are primarily for designers, there are many, such as the ‘ Make your own leading card’ and ‘ Map your career timeline ‘ that non-designers will find equally valuable.

Recruitment should be an ongoing thing

Cap Watkins spoke about what he’s learnt from recruiting lots of designers over the years. Cap reiterated not only that recruitment is, “just a lot of hard work”, but also that’s it’s much more than just the occasional telescreen and interview. Recruitment should be an ongoing initiative that includes activates such as blogging, events and local meetups to help attract the best talent and to raise the profile of an organisation’s design team.

Being a designer in a company that doesn’t get design, can be empowering

Dan Makoski, Chief Design Officer at Lloyds banking group spoke about the challenges of being a pioneer designer at a company that hasn’t previously invested in design. Whilst on one hand this can mean a lot of educating and generally getting buy-in for design, on the other hand pioneer designers will have much less historical baggage to deal with. This can be very empowering and can mean that there is often the opportunity for trying out new and innovative ideas. He spoke about some of the ideas he’s been championing at Lloyds, such as bringing customer’s ‘life moments’ to life through a comic book for Lloyds staff and setting up an in-house storytelling team.

DesignOps is much more than Design systems

It’s fair to say that DesignOps (a.k.a. Design Operations), the DevOps of the design world has rapidly moved from an emerging term and idea to a must have function in many organisations. Whilst Design Systems are still a big part of DesignOps, there is also a focus on freeing up designers to be able to get sh*t done, rather than having to spend their time on all the other stuff that gets in the way. Jacqui Frey, Director of Design Operations at MailChimp spoke about how DesignOps at MailChimp doesn’t just cover their design system, but also includes recruitment, onboarding, planning, training, career development and co-ordinating production across the designers.

Managing is hard, but rewarding

Christine Pizzo, a Digital Design Senior Manager at Accenture spoke about the challenges of management, especially the challenges of managing millennial designers (a millennial is someone born between the early 80s and mid 90s). Moving from practicing to managing is a transition that all managers face and one that is increasingly commonplace within design as design teams grow. Christine reinforced the need to create meaningful and respectful management relationships; to motive and inspire employees towards personal and company goals and to create frameworks that help support collaboration and productive results.

We all know the difference a good (or bad) manager can make. Whilst at one level management is very similar irrespective of the discipline, it’s good to see design management emerging as a distinct field. There are definitely unique management challenges for disciplines, and this is certainly true of designers.

The first 90 days in a team/org are critical

A number of talks touched on the importance of the first 90 days within a new team or organisation. For example, Nicole Burrow, a Design Director at Spotify talked about how their design team have set-up a Trello board to help structure the onboarding process. Randy Hunt, Head of Design at Grab talked about his own experience immersing himself within his new team, company and its customers during his first 90 days of the job. Onboarding new members is a challenge that all teams and organisations face and one that is critical to ensure that people can get up and running as quickly as possible.

Design is becoming a must have, not a nice to have within organisations

When an organisation like Lloyds banking group invests heavily in design, you know that design has hit the business mainstream. It’s no surprise that demand for experienced designers and design managers currently outstrips supply.

Whilst design has been a must have in some industries for a long time, it was clear to see that it’s increasingly becoming a must have in business full stop. The design industry is having to grow to meet this new demand and it’s exciting to see new disciplines such as DesignOps, design management and design leadership emerging and maturing.

If you like this article then please recommend and share it. You can find lots more articles like this on my blog: UX for the Masses

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Former techy turned UX Jedi from the UK. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

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Neil Turner

Neil Turner

Former techy turned UX Jedi from the UK. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

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