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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.

A team of designers working together in an office setting

Creating a solid, effective recruitment process

A lot of organizations give their design leaders the freedom to customize their hiring process, which Chris and Russ call that the foundation of how a team works. Finding the best candidates to join a team is the most important part of the design manager’s job, and has the potential to create lasting positive change. It includes everything from creating performance profiles to screening candidates with consistent and well-defined interview guides and reviewing portfolios to the actual interview and the onboarding of successful applicants.

“If you want to have a diverse team, you have to have a diverse talent pool of candidates with varying skills and backgrounds,” Russ recommends. “This means you need to make sure that you use language that isn’t exclusionary when you write your job description. It also means you have to have an actual interview process. When I’ve interviewed for new opportunities, it became clear that some managers had only looked at my resume at the start of the interview and didn’t have a standard set of questions that they were operating from. That’s not only insulting to your candidates, it’s also a recipe for adding more bias to your process. It’s important to remember that you’re very likely not the only organization they’re interviewing with and they’re evaluating you and your hiring process as well.”

It’s one of the reasons why Chris and Russ think design exercises – sketching on a white- board, or even wireframing or visually designing something on the spot, as part of the interview – are frequently problematic. Assigning similar tasks to be completed at home and presented back to the hiring committee is just as tricky, as candidates tend to have other commitments when they’re job hunting.

Instead, Chris and Russ suggest using an efficient interview guide with established questions and metrics to objectively score applicants, which reduces bias. They also advise involving the team in the hiring process and enabling them to guide the decision, while design leaders should take a facilitator role, as the team generally has awareness of its strengths and weaknesses and what’s needed to bolster it. Another benefit of having a couple of people from different backgrounds conduct the interview, rather than one individual with all of the control over the process, is that it automatically establishes checks and balances too.

A scoring prompt for interviewing candidates for a design position, rated from 0-3.
A scoring prompt providing the interviewer with the question, notes, and a three-point scoring system.

One area that’s often neglected is how to effectively onboard new employees into the organization.

“Again and again there’s silence in the time frame between an offer being made and your new team member starting,” Russ explains. “That’s a missed opportunity to make them feel welcome and set them up for success in your organization. Make this process really smooth, let new hires know what’s going on in the organization, who their team is, what they’ll be working on, and assign an onboarding buddy. This will make the new employee feel connected and understand how to contribute and be valuable in the organization from the start.”

Retaining and graduating design talent

Following the onboarding of new team members, design leaders next need to retain and nurture talent. For this, Chris and Russ recommend making sure that team members feel appreciated and respected in the organization and have a clear understanding of their career path. If they see themselves growing, advancing and learning, it makes it more likely for them to stick around. It also helps to create a strong connection to the work and the value behind it, which can be more difficult if you work at a company that might be a less obvious choice for a design career.

“When I was leading teams at Nasdaq, we were building tools that designers would never use,” Chris recalls. “So we created human connections to the work by having designers conduct interviews with the folks who do use these tools. It helped them understand how they could improve the users’ lives a little bit.”

However, to be a good design leader, it’s also important to be comfortable with letting the designers you support pursue new opportunities, even if they’re outside of the company. It’s an effective life cycle that ensures your team regularly gets new perspectives and new ways of thinking to replace the person who is leaving.

“Talent hoarding should be a crime,” Russ argues. “We have an obligation as design leaders to help people find their next jobs. It’s an amazing pedigree to graduate team members. In a previous role, I was lucky to be able to help somebody who was looking for a new role. I made a connection, it worked out, and I have watched her really take off. It gives me so much pride and joy. Of course I hated losing her from our team, but I love how she has become such a great and inspiring leader.”

Photos of handmade infographics created using colored skittles
Design leaders employ a variety of methods to map where their team members want to improve their skills or spend their time. This example shows how Jason Mesut uses color-coded Skittles in professional development workshops.

“Talent hoarding should be a crime. We have an obligation as design leaders to help people find their next jobs. It’s an amazing pedigree to graduate team members. In a previous role, I was lucky to be able to help somebody who was looking for a new role."

- Russ Unger

Building diverse and inclusive design teams

Another key to leading a high-performing design team is diversity and inclusion, a topic that’s being covered upfront in Liftoff! Acknowledging that, as two Caucasion men, Chris and Russ are far from unique in design leadership and management, they wrote it with help from industry experts such as Erin L Thomas, Lisa Welchman, and Gail Swanson.

If design leaders don’t intentionally make diversity a priority, Chris argues, it can be really easy to just go along with the flow of what the rest of the organization is doing. This, in turn, can expose you to a lot of risks either through homogenous groupthink, stale ideas, or inadvertently ignoring a big part of your customer base that designers should be actively trying to understand and empathize with.

“The statistics show that diverse teams perform better, are more innovative, and benefit from good conflicts and healthy, psychologically safe environments,” Chris highlights. “In the design process that could be the key factor, especially in the discovery and ideation phase. You don’t want five people with similar backgrounds and a similar education all thinking about the same possible solution.”

Russ and Chris explain that building an inclusive team can be challenging, and leaders need to consider a broad spectrum, which also includes neurodiversity, beyond the starting points of gender and race.

For example, if you decide to host an event after work, you might be excluding parents and caregivers, especially if they have a lengthy commute. “Diversity and inclusion isn’t about making friends and building your social network,” Chris points out. “It’s about achieving the best performance possible.”

“At 18F, our aim was to build a team that represented the whole breadth of America,” Russ adds. “That's difficult to achieve, and more difficult if diversity, equity, and inclusion are treated more as announcements and topics instead of being a constant thread throughout the organization.”

A team of designers working together in an office setting

Resilient design leadership to effect positive change

As each organization is different, ever-evolving, and has a unique culture, a design leadership standard does not exist. Sharing design leadership experiences with other designers and learning from each other’s insights is therefore immensely valuable, and Liftoff! makes a great starting point.

There’s a positive momentum to effect meaningful change in the industry. More organizations understand the ROI of design, and design leaders are now slowly but intentionally altering their management practices. If you get your leadership and culture right, your team and design in general can make a difference to the success of an organization at all levels. This, ultimately, will lead to better digital products and services, and ensure your team members are happier and high-performing. At its best, your leadership may even elevate the influence of design to new heights and take it into a new era of product development.

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