Define your design team—here’s an agenda for creating a charter

This year, I’ve helped 5 design teams draft their charter. At the outset of this work is a series of 4 2-hour group sessions (it used to be a one-day workshop in a conference room) to define different aspects of the team. Having done it a bunch now, I’ve developed a fairly strong agenda for conducting these sessions, which I’m now sharing publicly. Feel free to use it for your team!

Agenda for Group Sessions to Build a Design Team Charter

Embedded in that agenda are links to a series of public Miro boards for capturing the group work. I think (?) you should be able to copy the boards to your own account, and if not, they’re pretty easy to recreate.

Why draft a charter?

As design teams grow, they often realize that there’s a set of assumptions about they work they do, assumptions put on them by people outside design. These assumptions end up constraining the potential of the design team, and they find themselves focused on production when there is so much more they could offer.

I believe these charter projects have proven popular because they provide a platform for a design team to define itself, to set its own course and agenda. They help teams build confidence taking control of the kind of work they do, and how they do it. This empowerment, in turn, makes the teams more effective, as they feel greater connection to their work.

“If Design Were A Person” Activity

Most of the activities are fairly straightforward group work to arrive at some common understanding, with a divergent phase (generate a lot of ideas), grouping and organizing, and then a convergent phase (voting) to arrive at a result.

These activities tend toward the logical, verbal, rational. Working with design teams, I wanted to tap into the creative, pictorial, visceral. When I conducted these group sessions in a conference room, I would use the Design The Box activity to get people in that generative, lateral thinking mode, hoping to tap into stuff that’s subconscious. I tried bringing that into a remote session, but I find that drawing tools just aren’t sufficient in these platforms, and were getting in the way of creation.

So I changed it to a “If The Design Team Were a Person,” with the idea that we still have imagery, and there’s something subconscious that goes into the identification of that person, with a post hoc rationalization of the qualities of that person and how they apply to the Design Team.

That said, I’m not thrilled with the exercise. It works, and I’ve gotten good stuff from it, but I suspect it could be better. I’d love to hear from folks on generative, creative activities that they’ve facilitated remotely.

The Sessions Are Only The Beginning

The group sessions account for about a half to a third of the total effort in charter building. The sessions are great for getting ideas out of people’s heads, and the voting and discussion that happens places focus on the specific areas that are most resonant to the team. After the sessions are complete, then someone (or a small group) needs to take what’s been generated as input into the drafting of a charter, which is a process of distillation, wordsmithing, refinement, a lot of dead-ends, and occasional epiphanies—much like any writing work.

I’ve very much enjoyed facilitating these discussions, and if you’d like me to do so for your team, you can reach me through my website.

Emerging role in design orgs: The Super Senior Individual Contributor (Principal Designer, Design Architect)

As design organizations scale, many design leaders are realizing that they’re missing a key function—strategic thinking and creative direction that can make sense of the effort of a design team that is working across many products, or distinct parts of a customer journey.

In the book, we implore design orgs to deliver at all levels of conceptual scale:

Design executives (VPs of Design, Heads of Design) operate at the level of the Big Picture and often expect their reports (typically Design Directors or Sr Managers) to oversee Strategy efforts. However, Design Directors, who may have 10-20 people in their orgs, find that they’re spending all of their time focused on their people (managing down) or cross-functional relationships (managing across), and have little time left for strategic or creative leadership. And what time they do have is devoted to their specific silo, so there’s no view across the organization.

In my work supporting design executives in a range of organizations (massive financial services, big public technology companies, scaling pre-IPO startups), I’m seeing many of them are feeling the pain of not having anyone who is a) senior and b) focused on strategic and creative matters. And some of them are addressing this by establishing what I call “super-senior individual contributor” roles, people who are expected to lead work efforts, but not have the people management responsibilities. As this is an emerging role, things are not settled, but typical titles for these roles are Principal Designer or Design Architect.

The Different Types

In helping design executives shape this role, what I’ve seen is that not all super-senior individual contributors are alike. I have identified five distinct types. Before you open a requisition for someone like this, make sure you know exactly what you need.


Someone who can inform product and business strategy through research and design efforts, establishing a viable vision for future offerings. This person needs to be a strong communicator, persuasive, good with cross-functional relationships, a facilitative leader who is able to bring a range of people together.

Service Designer

This person is charged with integrating the efforts of teams across silos (whether those silos are departments, business units, phases in the customer journey, etc.) They bring human-centered practices to understand the journeys that users and customers are on, and work with marketing, product, front-line, and service teams to make sure what they’re delivering is coherent. While this role informs strategy, it’s not necessarily strategic, nor persuasive. This is a role for a systems thinker, able to handle complexity, strong with cross-functional and cross-departmental facilitation. I tend to see this person as more top-down, going from journey to the details, the complement to the…

Information Architect

Where the Service Designer orientation is top-down, the Information Architect operates from the bottom-up, inventorying and assessing the user-facing details across all products and services, identifying redundancies and affinities, and helping make sense of the inevitable hairball that is a company’s suite of offerings once it gets beyond a certain size. (A VP of Design at an enterprise software company I work with, where acquiring companies has been an express strategy, refers to the product mess as a “rubble pile.”) This is a role for your more introverted systems thinker, less interested in facilitating workshops, more oriented to documenting large systems and looking for opportunities to re-shape and streamline.

Creative Director

There is a kind of senior creative leadership that isn’t strategic, but instead is obsessed with establishing and upholding standards of quality. In the book, we identified this role as Creative Director (recognizing it’s a different application of the label than is common). This person is focused on design language, quality, and making sure that product design appropriately reflects and expresses brand. In a large team, they likely have a role in Design Systems. They ensure critique is happening as it should. That everyone, across design, understands what “good enough” actually looks like.

Big Project Team Lead

The prior roles were specialists addressing different aspects of that “Strategy” layer in an effort to cohere efforts across a large team. The Big Project Team Lead is more of a generalist, a super-senior designer given creative authority over a large scope of work, and directs (but does not manage!) a team of designers in seeing this work through. In many organizations, this is what is expected of Design Managers and Design Directors, but, as I wrote earlier, often those with managerial responsibilities don’t have the capacity to deliver the kind of creative and strategic leadership that a team needs. I’ve written at length about the Team Lead, so I won’t repeat it here.

Additional Thoughts on Establishing These Roles

These roles requires a ‘dual-track’ career ladder, where you can grow either as an individual contributor, or a people manager. From what I’ve seen, Principal Designer (Sr Manager or Director equivalent) is typically one level junior to Design Architect (Sr Director or VP equivalent).

Unless your organization is truly massive, I would expect that your Super Senior Individual Contributor will be a mix of some of the types above. The point is for you to identify where you have unaddressed gaps, and structure a job to fill them.

For too long it has felt that within in-house design orgs there was only room for managers and detailed product designers, and as an Old School UXer with a bent towards strategy and information architecture, I’m heartened to see more of these roles coming on the market. These roles will help design teams establish themselves beyond production and delivery, and expand their mandate toward uncovering new value for customers and the business.

I haven’t seen much else written about Super Senior Individual Contributors. The only other resource I know of is “Creating a dual-track leadership structure for large teams” by Scott Mackie when he lead design at Athenahealth. If you know of additional resources, please share them in the comments!

Enhance your design leadership: select videos from the 2019 Design Leadership Summit

Last October, I had the privilege of speaking at the Design Leadership Summit in Toronto. It was an excellent event crammed with great material. While every session is worth viewing, here are my top picks:

Though seemingly about user research, Jen Cardello’s presentation is gold for *any* design leader looking at how to establish and scale their team.

Though relatively brief (less than 20 minutes), Elizabeth McGuane’s presentation is probably the clearest articulation of the role and value of content strategy I’ve witnessed.

Talks on diversity and inclusion tend towards feel-good platitudes or finger-wagging about not doing enough. Jenna Bilotta delivered clear, actionable, and impactful approaches that you can take today to do better.

If you seek more inspiration and guidance, visit their complete Talks page.

“Leaders vs Managers” is pernicious and probably gendered

It’s not uncommon to see the following kinds of thoughts expressed on Twitter:

These are indicative of a broader sentiment that somehow “management” and “leadership” are mutually exclusive, with the former being top-down, controlling, and bad, and “leadership” is bottom-up, inspiring, and good.

This is pernicious, particularly in its crass appeal.

Leadership is necessary, but insufficient. “Leaders” don’t take the time to engage with individual team members and understand how they want to develop, coach them through handling obstacles, fight for the resources they need to do good work, or see through the details of crucial organizational matters such as crafting career ladders, developing skills assessments, and spearheading recruiting and hiring.

Managers do.

A good manager takes care of the people on her team, enables and empowers them, sets them up for success, and guides their progress. A good manager listens to her team members and helps shape their jobs to enable them to get the most out of their work.

Now, the world is filled with not-good managers. Micromanagers who are uninterested in their team’s development, who see management as a means to achieve or express power, who begrudgingly took the role because it appeared to be the only way to grow in their careers.

Just because there are not-good managers, we shouldn’t be dismissive of management.

Instead we need to identify and celebrate the good managers, call attention to how their efforts make our organizations (and industry!) stronger, and hold them up as models for others to emulate.

Sidebar, the gendered thing:

From what I’ve seen, this dichotomy of management/leadership is posited by white men. And in the dismissiveness towards management I sense a dismissiveness towards qualities of a good manager — nurturing, empathetic, patient — that are societally coded as feminine. And also a dismissiveness of management because white men, historically, haven’t needed good managers in order to help them succeed. For all our industry’s talk of “diversity and inclusion,” we need to recognize that it is not “leaders” who will make our workplaces truly welcoming of all types, but managers (and often the dreaded “middle manager”) in their day-to-day work engaging with their teams.

Peter and Kristin have gone independent! (separately)

A brief moment of self-promotion for the authors of Org Design for Design Orgs.

We are both independent!

As of last June, actually. It’s just taken a while for each of us to get our businesses together as we embark on our new journeys.

And, to be clear, Kristin and I are independent of one-another, too. We still teach workshops together, and may work with clients together, but we each have our own businesses.

Mine is called Humanism at Scale, and you can learn more at this clever URL:

Hers is called &GSD, and you can just reach out to her directly through our Contact page.

Your weekend reading: RUINED BY DESIGN

Mike Monteiro’s Ruined by Design is the perfect weekend book for any practicing designer and design leader. At a couple hundred pages of breezy, punchy, caustic, and funny prose, it goes by quickly (maybe 3 hours of reading time?), and that includes the time you will pause to reflect. Because you will occasionally put the book down and think about how it applies to your work, and what you’re doing (or not doing) to practice design in an ethical manner.

I’ve known Mike for over 20 years, and we don’t always (don’t usually?) agree, so reading his book was validating in that, through the distinct journeys of our respective careers, I found that he and I are in extreme agreement about the role of design (and it’s responsibility to humans and the planet), the power of designers (to drive organizations to engage in more ethical practices), and the need to seriously consider some form of professionalization for the work (licensing, certifications, and unions), the last because it has become clear that designers’ efforts can have massive societal impact.

Mike even wades into the ‘Everyone is a designer’ morass, and I will quote him at some length:

“Everyone who influences the final thing, be it a product or a service, is designing. Yet if you were to click through and look at the replies to [Jared Spool’s] tweet, what you’d see is the evisceration of Jared Spool in defensive bite-sized little vitriolic thoughts still covered with the spittle of ego. Even more sadly, it quickly turns into a discussion of titles. We are happy to give away all the responsibilities that come with the job, but please don’t take our titles!”

In a world of design books that mostly rehash what we already know, Ruined by Design is important for how it advances our community’s broader conversation in necessary ways.

Design orgs, and the design profession, needs to get its shit together before expecting others to do so.

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” – John 8:7

How you run your design org is doing more to inhibit its potential than anything else within your company

An impetus for writing Org Design for Design Orgs was a realization I had when taking over design at Groupon. The design team complained that they weren’t respected, listened to, or otherwise able to make the impact they felt they deserved. Yet what I saw was that the broader company wanted the benefits of great design, and in fact it was the design team getting in its own way (through poor recruiting and hiring practices; unsophisticated design approaches; unhelpful cross-functional relationships) that was inhibiting their impact.

This has been a common theme throughout my career — no one blunts the potential for design better than designers themselves.

It’s a reason why the book focuses on design organizations specifically. Many designers and design leaders expect the rest of the company to roll out the red carpet for them, but even if they did that the design org would just stumble along it, because it is poorly run. Design leaders need to focus on what they can control, where they have authority, and that’s in their own teams. It can be a distraction to get caught up in the Bigger Problems of the company, and that distraction can turn into a convenient excuse for not sticking to your knitting.

While the rest of the organization likely has a number of shortcomings, it’s too easy to point fingers at others and not do the hard work of getting your own shit together. There’s no reason design organizations cannot model operational best practices. And, it’s easier to persuade others when you’ve made it clear that you know what you are doing.

Now do the whole design profession

What holds true for design organizations also holds true for the emerging design profession. Designers are really good at pointing out the faults in other functions (product management and marketing in particular). But we, as a profession, need to look within and resolve some difficult issues before we freely cast aspersions elsewhere.

This post was in part inspired by this tweet:

As some respondents immediately said, “what about product managers? engineers? etc.” Let those professional communities resolve their own shit. We’ve got enough to do to. And we will have a longer lasting impact if we establish meaningful professional standards that lay productive ground rules for how design-as-a-profession is engaged.

Thoughts on Hiring a Design Leader (director-level and above)

April 2018, I suddenly found myself out of a job—included in a round of layoffs that shut down the office I worked in. As there was no long drawn out descent preceding my being let go, I wasn’t burned out, and, in fact, found myself energized. I dove into the job market, looking for opportunities to channel these energies productively.

After numerous discussions as a candidate, including 4 or 5 day-long onsites with different companies, I came away with the distinct impression that most (nearly all?) do not know how to hire design leaders. And it’s not just me—conversations with many peers suggest that this is a widespread phenomenon. Recent evidence includes this moderately viral Twitter post:

First: Understand What You’re Actually Hiring For

(For this post, I’m focusing on director-level and above roles, including the nebulous “Head of Design.” While much of what follows applies to hiring anyone, there are elements discussed specific to the more senior roles on a design team.)

The foundational issue affecting hiring design leaders that is that the role of design leadership is poorly understood. This is to be expected: for the vast majority of companies, real-deal design leadership is a totally new role. The hiring manager for such a role (often a head of Product Management) has never hired for this role before, has only a vague sense of its importance (as part of a product-engineer-design triumvirate within product development); and there’s no one internally to turn to to get help.

The hiring manager falls back on what they know about design, which is not sophisticated or nuanced. It’s often along the lines of: “Design is the execution of visual interfaces, and so I want my head of design to be good at executing visual interfaces.” Or, “We need a creative visionary to inspire the team to greatness.”

This is probably the single biggest shortcoming I’ve seen in how companies profile design leaders — as creative visionaries with shiny portfolios. What this doesn’t take into account is that design direction is at best a third of a design leader’s role, and often less than 25% of the work they actually do. Most design directors-and-above are:

  • Creative leaders (providing direction for their team in framing and solving problems)
  • Managers (recruiting and hiring designers; growing their designers through 1-on-1s and other professional development practices; conducting difficult conversations with team members who are struggling)
  • Diplomats (engaging cross-functional peers in helping them understand how design works; where design can be most valuable; coordinating practices and processes; advocating for giving ‘space’ for design to be done right)
  • Champions (managing up with stakeholders and executives; serving as a 💩☂️ to protect the team from executive cluelessness and misbehavior; sticking up for good solutions in the face of resistance from senior leadership)
  • Operators (working with internal functions such as HR, finance, and facilities to make sure the team is getting the resources they need to succeed, the compensation they deserve in the marketplace, and the career paths they warrant as they grow)

It often turns out that creative direction is the least important aspect of a design leader’s role, as that can be delegated to capable design managers or senior designers, whereas the management, diplomatic, champion, and operator activities are the ones truly specific to the leader.

And so when a company hiring a design leader insists on seeing a portfolio before having a conversation, or decides not to hire someone because, regardless of their organizational aptitude, their prior work doesn’t appear “inspirational,” it’s a symptom of how the company simply doesn’t appreciate the work that needs to get done.

What’s most disappointing is how hiring managers who should know better fall into these traps. Recently I had a VP of Product, who was ex-IDEO, tell me that: “I’m looking for someone with a longer track record at consumer product companies.” It’s hard to know what to make of a statement like that, because it suggests that it doesn’t matter that the person has built and lead successful design organizations in multiple contexts. By calling out “consumer product,” this VP of Product seems to think that the head of design will be hands on in directing the work day-to-day, responsible for the look-and-feel, and that their team exists to execute on their direction. This is not at all how design actually happens.

Second: Run your recruiting processes right

Looking past the fact that many/most companies don’t really know what they want in a design leader, the mechanics by which they then recruit and hire them are also poorly managed.

The Catch-22: Hiring a design leader without a design leader

Most companies approach hiring a design leader like they do any other role—as a joint effort between a hiring manager and a recruiter. However, the hiring manager often doesn’t understand the role (as described above), and the recruiter is primarily there to manage the process. The duo stumbles ahead, resigned to their cluelessness. This doesn’t have to be. Finding the right design leader is too important to conduct in a haphazard way. If you don’t have someone internal you can turn to, then bring on an external consultant to help manage the process.

By which I don’t mean to simply rely on an external recruiter. Recruiters can be helpful in sourcing and doing an initial vetting of candidates. But, for director-level-and-above roles, most leadership recruiters are new to design, and don’t understand the idiosyncratic particularities of what the role entails. And there is a dearth of design-focused leadership recruiting who really gets it.

Instead, seek consultants, preferably folks with recent experience running in-house teams, to provide guidance through the process.

Conducting hiring interviews responsibly

A cursory Googling reveals that practice and process of hiring interviews are a mess. This is particularly problematic because these interviews end up being the leading factor in making a hiring decision. It is possible to run a useful hiring interview process. Some (non-exhaustive) guidance:

Use phone screens judiciously. Bringing someone on site for a day of interviews is a big investment for everyone —the candidate and the interviewers. Make sure it’s worth the time by conducting solid phone screens. The whole point of the phone screens is to qualify the candidate (and for the candidate to qualify the company) to determine if it’s worth everyone’s time to bring this person on-site.

Conduct 2 screens. The first screen is done by the hiring manager (or the external consultant supporting the team) and ensures that the candidate understands the role, appears to meet the basic requirements across the role (such as the 5 elements listed in the role definition section earlier), and demonstrates strong communications skills through how they articulate their experience. If the candidate passes the first screen, then a second screen (performed by either a peer leader or a senior person on the team to be joined) digs deeper into the candidates skill set to evaluate whether this person is suitable for the role. The second screen also simply provides an alternate perspective before making the commitment to bring someone in.

Structure a cross-functional, range-of-experience on-site interview day, including a portfolio presentation, but try to keep it to no more than 5 conversations… AND NO DESIGN EXERCISES. During their on-site, a design leader should meet 4 or 5 people, representing a cross-section of folks they would work with — including their hiring manager, someone who would report to them, a functional peer, and a cross-functional peer (e.g, a product manager or engineer). The day begins with the candidate presenting their work history (kind of like a portfolio, but less about ‘stuff they’ve designed,’ than key work experiences they’ve had) to the entire hiring panel, so that it doesn’t have to be repeated in each separate interview. 

Avoid exhaustive interview practices. Interview panels see diminishing returns once you get past 5 interviewers, and it’s important to be mindful of the time investment being made.

Give each interviewer a specific and distinct area to address. A common failing of interview days is that there is no coordination across interviewers, and so folks just ask whatever they’re interested in. The goal is to paint a complete picture of the candidate, which is why the panel represents a set of different relationships. Make sure each interviewer knows what they’re expected to focus on.

Make sure a direct report is on the interview panel. I have been stunned by the number of times I’ve interviewed for a managment position and no one who would be reporting to me was involved in the process. It’s shameful, and sends a miserable signal to the team that their views are not worth considering.

And this should go without saying, but the example from the Twitter post above suggests, sadly, otherwise: no design exercises. I’ve written at length about why they make bad interviewing practice.

Be explicit about what you’re looking for ahead of time. The judgments made about a candidate during an interview should not be arbitrary. There should be a clear understanding of the criteria under consideration, what you’re looking for, and an instrument that enables a fair assessment of the candidate against those criteria.

Be empathetic and recognize a range of communication styles. For many candidates (including myself!) interviews are stressful situations. You’re being grilled. You feel like you’re being judged. You want to demonstrate your capability. The anxiety ahead of time may have affected your sleep. Given these situations, candidates are not often their best selves. For me personally, I get in my head, over-excited about the subject at hand, and come on too strong. Others may trip over their words, not look you in the eye, fidget, etc. This is why it’s so crucial to have articulated a set of criteria to gauge success (point 3)–you have to be mindful of the potential impact of personality to inadvertently sway a decision.

Balance what transpired in the interview with thorough reference checks. For all the folly that transpires during the recruiting process, none perplexes me more than how few companies routinely conduct reference checks. Who better to know how someone performs and behaves in the workplace than people who have worked with that person? That companies will give more weight to a series of 45 minute interview conversations with what are essentially strangers, than someone’s actual coworker experience is mind-boggling. I have directly felt this pain, as more than once after an interview process, I was told that they were not going to go forward because I came across as domineering. I grant that I come on strong in those situations (as explained before). I also know that in every internal 360 review I’ve been part of, my communication style has never been an issue. And I don’t want to make this about me — I’m using my story as a case in point, and know that countless others have had similarly troublesome experiences.

That’s not all, but it’s enough for now

There’s plenty more than goes into successful recruiting and hiring — writing a job description and placing it well; sourcing candidates; pulling together a strong offer. Recruiting and hiring is a bear to contend with (detailing the process was the single longest chapter in our book), and most companies just don’t appreciate what it takes to do it right.

For those that are looking to hire design leaders—what are the biggest challenges you’re facing? Please let us know in the comments below. 

Unpopular Opinion? Consider ResearchOps before Researchers

Many years ago, Jared Spool wrote about the importance of “exposure hours” for project team members:

The number of hours each team member is exposed directly to real users interacting with the team’s designs or the team’s competitor’s designs. There is a direct correlation between this exposure and the improvements we see in the designs that team produces.

Earlier this week, I attended the Enterprise Experience conference, where Melissa Schmidt and Adam Menter from Autodesk shared the work they did in conducting a mass user research effort taking advantage of Autodesk University. I don’t have the details in front of me, but basically they enabled hundreds of “exposure hours” for their product teams, and then developed an analysis/synthesis structure for them so they could derive useful insights from what they saw. (This might expose the geek in me, but it was the best thing I saw at the whole conference.)

The presentation spurred an “A-ha!” moment for my that will likely not endear myself to my UX research friends: That standing up a ResearchOps capability is more important and impactful than hiring UX researchers. The hassle of planning, coordinating, preparing, and paying for research is a huge barrier to product teams getting exposure hours (perhaps the single biggest barrier), and so if I’m serious about making my company more customer-centered, I would consider hiring a Research Program Manager and Research Coordinator before hiring a UX Researcher.

If you’re asking yourself, “What is ResearchOps?” and “Really? Another ‘Ops’?”, I suggest browsing this Kate Towsey’s deck here, and I’ll share her definition:

ResearchOps is the mechanisms and strategist that set user research in motion. It provides the roles, tools, and processes needed to support researcher in delivering and scaling the impact of the craft across an organization.




The Most Important Role In Your Design Org: Team Lead

Discussions of design leadership tend to look upward, toward the executives and directors who sit atop the organization. And while those folks are indeed important, their efforts overshadow what I’ve realized is the most impactful role in a design organization: the “lower-middle management” of the Design Team Lead.

Defining Team Lead

To make sure we have a common understanding, let me illustrate. Here’s a design organization close to 50 people, lead by a VP, who in turn has Design Directors (DD) reporting to her, and they in turn each have three Team Leads (TL) reporting to them.


A Team Lead is, well, just that: the leader of a specific design team. In this model, each design team has 4-7 team members, spans a range of skills (strategy, research, content, interaction design, visual design, prototyping), and works cross-functionally across a contiguous chunk of the experience, illustrated here in a generic e-commerce example:


There are 5 squads dedicated to different aspects of the e-commerce experience. Each squad has a Product Manager (PM) and some usually around 6 to 8 Engineers (E). Instead of designers embedded in squads, they work across a range of squads (we explain that in Chapter 4 of the book). The Team Lead does double duty as both a leader, peering with a Director of Product (DP), and a Director of Engineering (DE), and working with a squad (here Search/Browse).

What’s crucial to recognize is that Team Leads are the creative leaders closest to delivery. The members of their teams are doing the detailed design and content work that will be shipped. Because Team Leads have to have a handle on everything their team members are doing, they are in the challenging situation of spanning the range of conceptual levels from Strategy through Structure to the specifics of the Surface, as shown here:

scope3Team Leads may find themselves in subsequent meetings where they’re at the 1,000ft level of discussion strategy, to the 1ft level of pixels and copy, to the 50ft level of a solid flow and structure. They must navigate these discussions without losing their place or getting the bends.

Coach, Diplomat, and Champion

Given this range of activity, Team Leads must excel in three archetypes of the design leader: Coach (managing down); Diplomat (managing across); and Champion (managing up and out).

As a Coach, a Team Lead does what it takes to get the most out of the team. They recognize that the team is not an extension of themselves, but a unit of individuals where, when orchestrated well, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. The Coach establishes the parameters for success, creates a Big Picture vision that directs the team’s efforts, provides guidance in technique, and holds team members accountable when they don’t measure up.

As a Diplomat, the Team Lead often finds themselves in challenging discussions where other functions are asking the design team to behave in a way that is suboptimal. The Diplomat must assume positive intent on everyone’s part, and educate non-designers to help them understand the nature of Design’s contribution, how Design works best, and how to integrate it in the flow of cross-functional work. The Diplomat needs to strike a balance of being a cross-team player, with some flexibility in their approach, while not being such a pushover, or get-along-to-get-along, that they neglect their values.


As a Champion, a Team Lead manages up and serves as their team’s evangelist and protector. Executives and other stakeholders will regularly ask the team to do more than they have capacity for—the Champion must be comfortable with the word, “No.” Executives will fly in for the dreaded “swoop-and-poop,” and the Team Lead can either step aside, and let the crap hit their team (demoralizing them), or they will step up to be the 💩 ☂️, protecting their team’s good work and showing they have their team’s collective back.

Leverage is Power

It is because of all that pivots around them, from the details of delivery to the connecting with big picture strategy, that Team Leads are the crucial (literally, at the crux) role in a design organization. Look at the cross-team diagram above: 6 designers are working with 30-40 engineers, which suggests design efforts have greater leverage. That leverage means a successful Team Lead amplifies their team’s abilities and wields influence throughout the broader organization. But it also means that a weak Team Lead creates a black hole, dragging down not just their team, but their whole part of the organization.

Team Leads Are the Pivot Point for Scale

If you’re in a design organization that’s growing, Team Leads are important not only for the reasons listed above, but two more that are essential for successful scaling.

The first is easy to explain: Team Leads are your front line of hiring. They are motivated to make their teams great, and strong team leads will excel as hiring managers. It was because of the strong team leads I hired that I was able to scale my Groupon design organization from 25 to 55 in 18 months.

The second is a little more conceptual. As the organization grows, and their efforts are spread across more and more teams, Team Leads are essential for maintaining coherence across an increasingly complex experience. Continuing our e-commerce example above, let’s say the company has grown, and there are more product squads:


In our cross-functional diagram earlier, I showed how the design team works across a contiguous aspect of the experience. That should remain true as the org scales:

experienceWe can’t expect every designer to work with every other designer. But, as the arrows suggest, we can ask these three Team Leads to coordinate with one another ensuring coherence across all these squads.

Support Your Local Team Lead

Hiring Team Leads, or promoting people into this role, must be done with extreme care and high expectations. There’s too much at stake to place someone in this position who isn’t ready yet. Senior leadership (VPs and Directors of design) must expend extra effort to recruit, train, and support Team Leads.

That effort, though, will pay off. A transformative experience occurred for me when I was at Groupon. After spending 9 months recruiting and hiring high-quality design leads around whom I could build teams, I found that how I spent my time shifted. Before, I expended much of my effort on recruiting and hiring, management, and operations. I didn’t have the bandwidth for the kind of creative leadership the organization expected of me. Once we had those leaders in place, I could shift my focus to areas that warranted the attention of a VP — strategy and vision; specific high-value hires; incorporating other practices such as creative technology. Basically, with strong Team Leads, the organization can almost run itself.