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How to lead innovative and inclusive teams, with independent design leader Rachel Gogel

Gogel shares how she builds inclusive workplaces, empowers her team to build their best work, and models the behaviors she wants to see.

A headshot of Rachel Gogel treated with a lilac wash over a gradient blue and teal background. It reads "Rachel Gogel" on the left-hand side.

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Many designers face two paths at some point in their career: they can continue to produce as the creator, ideally controlling their own schedule and clients, or lead creative teams as full-time management. But blurring the two? That’s a unicorn designers can chase for years.

Rachel Gogel, an independent design leader, who has done work for Airbnb, Meta and Departures magazine, built that unicorn for herself. In 2020, she left her role as the creative director of a San Francisco-based design firm to become her own boss and has been leading design teams in this new, remote world ever since.

“I've been able to build and lead teams in a very embedded way and oversee and influence work, without being full-time,” she tells Rob Goodman, host of Wix’s Now What? podcast, in a recent episode. “I really feel I'm testing out these new ways of working in real-time.”

In the episode, Gogel shares how she builds truly inclusive workplaces, inspires designers to create their best products, and models the behaviors she wants to instill in her teams. Below, you’ll find some of our favorite takeaways for designers. Listen to the full episode here:

Model the behaviors you want your team to adopt

You know creatives need to recharge to produce their best work. So, model that. “I've been in certain setups at work where your boss is not necessarily leading by example and then your direct reports essentially feel guilty if they go off course,” Gogel says. This means taking a real lunch, going on vacation, and turning off the camera once in a while. Or, as Goodman summarizes in the podcast: “Be the change you want to see at work.”

It can also help to think of yourself as more of a coach and less of a manager. “Management can trigger the idea of micromanaging,” Gogel says, but coaching means showing up in a different, more supportive way.

Another thing coaches do? Make people feel part of a team, including contractors and freelancers. Gogel believes onboarding practices should be more inclusive to people with less conventional roles (which, let’s be honest, is the future of work). “Take the time to onboard contractors just as much as you would a full-time person,” she says. People do their best work when they feel seen.

Empower your team

“Successful collaboration depends on trust, psychological safety, and the open exchange of diverse ideas,” Gogel says. How do you create that space as a design leader? Gogel believes in empowering people at different levels by making them owners of different tasks and projects. “If you empower more junior members, or people across every level, to feel trusted and empowered to own different parts of these tasks, you'll notice that they become confident faster,” she says.

To do this, you’ll also need to create space for deliberate and honest check-ins that acknowledge people’s struggles and good intentions. This is what Gogel calls “human-centered leadership.”

Don’t make inclusivity an afterthought

“Accessibility and inclusion should be baked into all work that you touch from the beginning, not a requirement that’s checked off once the project is complete,” Gogel says. As a designer working on creative campaigns, that means being inclusive in the people you portray and in the cultural references you include. “If we're not thinking about these elements, then we're not thinking about the full experience,” she says. “You have to design with people, not for people.”

Listen to the full episode now: