5 min read

The Design Leadership Toolkit: A guide to inspiring the next wave of design thinking

Lead product designers need some essential skills in order to become good leaders. This will not only benefit them and their teams but also the organizations that they work for or even when it comes to presenting their work to external organizations. To deliver great products that become successful in the market, designers not only need great design skills, they also need that extra push to take design to a higher level and transform the output of their work.

There are some essential skills common to all great leaders like the ability to listen, empathy, and a passion for excellence that apply to design leaders too. However, leadership in itself is a very broad area of knowledge and includes many other aspects that are essential such as communication skills or resource management. Design leadership goes beyond confidence, creativity, and talent, they need to be able to inspire the next generation of designers and design leaders with their experience, hard work and talent.

Let’s look at some pillars of leadership in relation to design thinking and how they can be used to maximize the success of the products and services designers build.

1. Develop the ability to listen to your team and your clients

To build a product with a team requires great listening skills. The lead product designer should take the initiative and make an effort to listen to their team members, and create a safe working environment where everyone feels heard. Not only their team members, but design leaders also need to listen and communicate clearly with their clients. Before the lead designer moves on creating new solutions, they need to focus on the problem at hand. Understanding what your clients’ needs and expectations are, is crucial to create design that is based on knowledge and understanding.

Since no two clients are the same, designers cannot be selling pre-packaged solutions.

2. Trust your team

A good leader needs to hire the right kind of people to be a part of their team and trust them to do their jobs well. If they get caught up in micro-managing their team, it will be difficult for them to come up with creative ideas and manage their own work. For them to be able to trust their team they need to establish smooth processes and provide their team with all the tools and resources they need to be able to solve problems on their own. If they trust their team, the team will also feel motivated enough to do their best work. Don’t get caught up in trying to prescribe solutions and spoon-feed your team. Stand back and trust in their ability to do their best work.

3. Create a common purpose

Understanding and creating a common purpose that the entire team is aligned to is one of the most important roles of a design leader. Only when the team understands the underlying reasons behind what they’re doing will they be motivated to contribute freely and add value in their domain. A team leader also needs to ensure that his team’s individual goals are aligned to the common purpose. 

The goal needs to be articulated clearly and purposefully so that everyone can understand their role within the team in relation to the goal and how their work can help the organisation achieve the goal as a whole. This is where storytelling comes into practice. A good storyteller will be able to communicate the purpose in a meaningful and motivating way to inspire their team to do their best work.

4. Ask the big questions

Create a culture of creativity in your team by encouraging everyone to ask big questions and invite them to solve them by thinking of how to make them real. When everyone is allowed to dream big and come up with creative ideas by asking important questions, it motivates everyone to dream bigger as an organization. Design heads need to take the lead by showing their team it is okay to ask those questions and that it is encouraged to dream bigger.

5. Facilitate collaborations

Everyone on the product development team has the potential to achieve great things. It is the role of product design leaders to create a common understanding between the members of their team and maximize their capabilities. Being at the intersection of users, business, and technology, product design leaders are placed well with their visual, verbal, and people skills to have the right perspective and recognize possible collaborations that can happen.

It is essential to communicate this purpose outside the team as well to all stakeholders. If the stakeholders understand the meaning of your goals and purpose, they can become valuable allies in the pursuit of your product design. If you take the time and effort to communicate your goals, even the most hostile stakeholders can become valuable allies.

6. Keep a balance between structure and flexibility

Once everyone on the team is aligned to the goal and understands what they are building together, the design leader can start creating a process that will make it easier for everyone to achieve their goals. It is the job of the design leader to provide their team with the right structure, tools, and guidelines to their team but also leave some room for their team members to add their own contributions. 

Their team consists of talented smart individuals who are creative in their own way and if you bind them to extremely strict processes, they will not feel empowered enough to add value in their own way.


There are a lot of elements that go into good leadership, but above all, a good leader needs to empower themselves and their team and lead with responsibility. There are certain leadership skills that are cultivated by trial and error but leaders need to persevere through the difficult times and operate with a growth mindset.

Leader is visionary and extremely detail-oriented and those are the skills that will help them succeed.

Published by Manik Arora



Manik Arora Co-Founder