The growing pains of design leadership

Leslie Knope from the TV show Parks & Recreation

I’ve been in a design leadership position for nearly two years now. At its best, it’s a fulfilling role where the impact of your work (and that of your team and colleagues) can be seen at scale. At its less-than-best, it can be laborious, with levels of admin and political chicanery that you swore as a younger designer you would never sink to.

It’s interesting to reflect on how the role has evolved over the last year-and-a-bit. It feels more ‘official’ now, and I think this is commensurate with design as a profession becoming more established as a strategic organisational capability at the NHS. Basically, we’re starting to grow up. Since the investigative work begun by the multidisciplinary teams in the NHS Alpha and Beta phases, ‘designer’ is now on the NHS payroll, with gradings and levels of responsibility. We have a ‘Head of Design’, who is a clear-minded strategist with a cogent message about the value of design. It’s real.


But all this impact and recognition for design, comes with an overhead on those of us who are the organisational face of the profession. More expectations. More accountability. More demands on your time. More meetings. More “Dean, have you got a minute?”. Which is a challenge for those of us still finding our feet in a large organisation, whilst also making the transition from design practitioner, to design leader.

From lead designer to design leader

Or there’s the leadership route. I joined the NHS to help redesign and prepare a 10-year-old website for the organisation’s future plans. But in doing so, I saw the huge opportunity for design to make an impact on health and care. I’d already been wondering how much longer I could feasibly be toiling over the design of my umpteenth ‘cog’ icon, when there were designers half my age (and salary) who could do just as good a job. So it was the leadership route that was the next step for me.

But that means letting go of certain things. Unless you’re superhuman (which I definitely am not), you won’t be able to keep up with design software, code, practical techniques, and such. You won’t be able to (or need to) get right into the design detail of your grid measurements, or class names. There will be practitioners in your team who are perfectly capable of doing that, and you will have to trust them, so you can look to other matters. Your instincts and experience as a designer will never leave you, but some skills will atrophy over time. And that’s fine.

Creating consensus

Being the baddie

Justifying the seat at the table

But you can’t just sit back and relax on that seat at the table you’ve been given. You need to keep advocating, keep worming your way into conversations. You also get to keep employing a skill any good designer has — asking ‘why’. Why have commissioners asked for this? Why isn’t there budget for that? Why isn’t there a user researcher assigned to this team? As someone who’s generally an introvert, being the annoying ‘why’ person is draining, but part of the job. If you don’t keep pushing, you’re letting down your team and profession, and ultimately, the users of the NHS.

Edit: I forgot to credit Ade Adewunmi for telling me on a design leadership course, “We don’t need designers who are also leaders; we need leaders from a design background”. This was a pivotal point in my thinking about my career. Thank you Ade, and Rebecca Kemp for running the course.

Lead designer. Personal website:

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