6 Traits Of Great Design Leaders

Being a good designer is only a start.

6 Traits Of Great Design Leaders
Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images

Countless companies advertise their design bona fides. Fewer live it. As the business world shifts focus from engineering and marketing to design and user experience, design leaders play an increasingly crucial role in shaping their companies’ future. But what exactly does a design leader do? And what makes a good one great? Here are six qualities that the best design leaders share.


1. They are people-people.
Design is a team sport, and the best design leaders know how to assemble great design teams, then and guide and inspire them. They ask more then they tell, laugh more than they disapprove. But they also provide straightforward feedback. One of the core values at Pixar is to always critique the work. Don’t slam the creator, critique the work, so the creator can do even better work.

2. They are fanatical about process.
The list of design processes out there can be nauseating: Agile, Sprint, Waterfall, Stage gate, Scrum, ISO, and more. A great design leader can adapt to any of them and toggle between processes depending on the context.

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3. They’re deft connectors.
Every single touch point in a company is designed, and it falls to the design leader to connect the dots–to create a seamless experience that stretches from the products a company puts out into the world right down to the employee onboarding process.

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4. They’re constantly thinking about the future.
Design leaders are futurists. They’re constantly thinking about how to solve the problems of tomorrow–not just coming up with clever solutions for today.

5. They give a brand meaning.
Design leaders help bring meaning to a brand. They tirelessly ask questions like: How do the products work? How do the services perform? How does the user respond? How does the innovation solve the problem, and is this the right problem to solve? How does the brand become relevant to individuals? Design is about creating relevance, and design leaders understand that.

6. They simplify.
Design leadership is as much about simplifying things as it is about making new things. That includes both products and methods. Great design leaders put simple processes in place and encourage teams to find simple solutions.


If the definition of design is solving problems, then the definition of strategic design is solving the right problems. That’s what great design leaders can do for your company. Read more about the characteristics of design leaders here.

About the author

Thomas Lockwood is founding partner of Lockwood Resource, an international recruiting firm specializing in design and innovation leadership, and past president of DMI, the Design Management Institute. He is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in design management, and is recognized as a thought leader in integrating design and innovation into business and building great design organizations.