Queen illustration What does a design leader do? How different companies describe this role can vary a lot. It indicates anything from managing a design team and helping shape the product strategy to mentoring designers, directing the visual design, and often contributing individually. It can be more strategic, more operational, or more artistic. Or a little bit of everything. Usually, whatever is necessary to keep the boat afloat.

A leader’s routine depends on the structure and the size of the organization. In small teams, they naturally do everything. In larger enterprises, hierarchy dictates a more specific division. Hence they engage in more strategic contributions and team direction than hands-on designing.

But regardless of the nature of their output, the way they think is universal. A leader understands the forces that transform the context in which they operate. When things change, they cause friction in the organization, product, and between people. A familiar example is when you design with one set of assumptions, and over time, you add a bunch of new features. At some point, your original solution turns inadequate, and you must redesign it. Or when people leave the team, and suddenly someone else is overwhelmed with extra work. The leader must observe and prevent the friction from becoming too harmful. It’s a deliberate work on understanding and intervening in the ever-changing context.

Understanding comes with experience. You start seeing deeper, get more comfortable with complexity, and gain the ability to spot the intricate bits of work required to ship software. As you mature, you become better at interpreting why your company does something. And it is clear to you how design fits into the bigger picture. The entire chain of events now makes more sense.

The leader’s main job is systemic analysis. To figure out how different episodes in the life of the company interact. To identify the forces that make things improve or worsen. To discover what’s preventing the desired outcomes. Whether it’s to make the team communicate more efficiently or to boost the spread of knowledge within the group. Or to solidify design consistency across the product. You can apply the same line of thinking from strategic questions to the level of individual design decisions.

When you think systemically, it gets ingrained in your output — In your emails, documents, flowcharts, design mockups, and prototypes. No matter what you deliver, to lead, you must understand.