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Practical design leadership: An interview with Chris Avore and Russ Unger

Design leaders Chris Avore and Russ Unger lay out frameworks and methods to help managers run a successful team of designers.

A black and white photo of Chris Avore and Russ Unger and a mockup of their book, Liftoff!

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When Chris Avore and Russ Unger became design leaders, they were thrust into their new roles without much guidance. Like many other designers who suddenly find themselves in charge of people, they needed to figure out how to lead, build and grow a design team as they went along. Being thrown in at the deep end led to a lot of mistakes, and Chris and Russ learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Now established design leaders with extensive experience in managing and scaling design teams across startups and large organizations in both the private and public sector, they have written the book they wished they had when they first transitioned to management positions.

The result is Liftoff! Practical Design Leadership to Elevate Your Team, Your Organization, and You, a comprehensive guide for new leaders looking for advice on managing design teams effectively, and established managers who want to level up their expertise. It’s about improving your design team and how design is represented in an organization as well as honing your own self-awareness skills.

“Many times across the industry, if you are the best designer, you may be put in charge of other designers,” Russ explains. “It can be terrifying and you might think you’ll lose your design skills and stop being valuable, but we need more designers taking their design skills to the leadership level. Don’t look at it like you’re leaving design behind. You’re taking it to a new place.”

“We need folks who devote themselves to the care and nurturing of designers and understand their career paths as well as their needs. But there’s rarely a manager’s manual out there.”

- Russ Unger

An experience-driven approach to design leadership

Design has been maturing as an industry. It’s no longer a differentiator for businesses, but the expectation, and many organizations have been building design teams in-house. Unlike engineering, however, which has developed leadership and management structures over many years, design leadership is still relatively new. As a result, resources to teach how to lead teams in design are limited.

“Engineering has some great models for us to look at and apply to our own systems,” Russ points out. “We need folks who devote themselves to the care and nurturing of designers and understand their career paths and progression as well as their needs, whether that’s ongoing education or understanding how they fit into an organization. But, as Chris and I found in our research, there’s rarely a manager’s manual out there. We’ve got to do better and give people opportunities to learn.”

Liftoff! had been four years in the making, and Chris and Russ switched jobs a few times in that period. Chris went from managing one team in one company to helping teams all over the world improve their design maturity, while Russ adapted the skills he was using in federal government to help government agencies as they were modernizing their offerings and building out their own design organizations.

Their evolving experiences inspired the duo to take a flexible framework approach, which allows readers to apply the tips covered in the book to their own needs instead of attempting to be a “how-to” manual. One size doesn’t fit all design organizations.

“We saw a diverse range of perspectives at the organizational level,” Chris explains. “We didn’t want to write a book about what Russ did at GE and 18F [a digital services agency within the United States Government] or what I did at Nasdaq. We wanted to cover a lot of different experiences — for example, how an organization maybe didn’t understand the potential value of design, how design was perceived elsewhere in an organization, and how designers worked in a variety of unique environments.” This expansive view gives the book the breadth and depth of accumulated experiences.

What it takes to be a successful design leader

A critical factor of building successful teams is recognizing that it’s your responsibility as a design leader to make other people feel safe, taken care of and comfortable to do their jobs – even if that means you yourself are sometimes uncomfortable.

Russ admits that when he first became a design leader in the late 90s, he made it more about himself than the team. “I wanted to be a savior who solves everyone’s problems and thought of the team as mine, but those are both wrong approaches. It’s always ‘our’ team, never ‘my’ team, and we’re all stakeholders in it together. I needed to let go of my ego and better understand how to serve the team. It’s important to understand that a design team can form its own culture and often knows what’s best for itself as it expands or matures. My job is to listen and help facilitate decision making – for example, by communicating that raising your hand and asking for support or help is a sign of strength.”

Chris agrees that striking a balance between what’s best for the team and what’s best for the organization can be a challenge. In the shift from a practicing designer to a design leader, not all of the skills necessarily translate into the new role. As Kim Goodwin points out in the foreword to Liftoff!, a successful transition from individual designer to design manager requires a fundamental change in mindset.

“There’s a lot of useful overlap,” Chris explains. “For both roles you need to be able to unpack a problem from multiple perspectives and be good at conflict resolution. You also need to be intentional and self-aware of where you are in the design process and how you’re contributing to the broader product development process.” At the same time, Chris states, it’s the skills that a designer does not have in common with a design leader that are the most crucial when it comes to management.

This expertise needs to result in building and scaling a team that can meet an organization’s evolving needs and creating an environment in which that team can thrive and grow.