photo by Rodrigo Kugnharski

“Not seeing Roddick’s game in some time it now occurs to me how locked into his own fundamentals he is. He can’t really ‘create’ anything. No wonder he walked away from the game early. It must not be a very interesting position to bring satisfaction.”

That was a comment left on a YouTube video of a tennis match featuring retired American tennis player Andy Roddick. As much as I’d like to get into a discussion about his fascinating career, I share this quote as a thought-provoking sentiment on the relation between creativity, job satisfaction, and leadership.

Try looking at all sports through a creative lens and you might be as amused as I was:

“Wow, Federer’s forehand around the net post was so creative.”
“Look at how innovative LeBron’s no-look pass was.”
Son Heung Min’s long range strike was so inventive.

We don’t typically describe sports this way, but the ability to create opportunities — for oneself or others — to score is a creative skill that sets one apart in any field. The creative field, once pursued primarily by artists, now sits at an intersection with business and technology, and the ability to create stunning interactive experiences has become the holy grail of business-oriented career builders. To put it bluntly: it is very prestigious to be a product designer.

As one who has gone through a lengthy journey in this area (lengthy by millennial standards), I feel compelled to pen some insights I’ve gained on effective design leadership.

Create Something

At the heart of Design Thinking is the idea that a designer’s problem-solving approach can be codified and replicated by anyone, and this requires ignoring (or at least, diluting) the “art” aspect of design; because, we suppose, art is specialized but design is not.

Further, the concept of craftsmanship, or hand-crafting a solution feels more out of place than ever in a digital marketplace. What we lose when we box out the artistic aspect of design is the rigor and the discipline that comes with crafting something. The so-called problem-solving approach of a designer originates from their ability to marry vision with rigorous execution.

Styrofoam cup sculpture, “Untitled” by Tara Donovan. A design leader should know how to execute, not just come up with ideas or comment on the ideas and work of others.

I feel that if one truly wants to stand out as a leader of designers, it is to be creating and executing constantly, not simply ordering, directing, and giving feedback on the work of others. It is true that leadership is necessarily more managerial, strategic, and less hands-on, but I feel that design should proactively reject the notion that “strategy” and hands-on work cannot go hand-in-hand, and strive to fan the flames of craftsmanship in all they do.

Accept Accountability

Another reason to create something is to experience taking ownership of the creation. Being able to champion your idea to various people is an important skill and requires you to accept accountability for your idea; especially in those moments when your audience isn’t understanding you or if the idea fails. This is one thing an artist cannot escape — they are always accountable for what they create (though they aren’t always required to explain themselves). This is a special skill for designers and should not be lost in leadership.

Learn to Write

As a technology, writing has many merits. It complements verbal and visual communication. It’s sturdy and can stay put. It’s cheap. It’s easy to change or reproduce. And it moves faster than ships or airplanes. Writing makes it possible to propel knowledge and intent forward through time. — Nicole Fenton, Words as Material

If there’s one skill that I never thought would be so central to a design career, it is writing. The sheer number of e-mails and messages we send to one another every day should convince you of the importance of writing for anyone who desires to lead. As a designer, you will find that learning to write well will make your design solutions clearer and more focused, and will play a significant role in mobilizing others around a clearly articulated vision.

I think of design as a process of articulation. We join together to express an idea in a coherent form. We bring ideas to life. We connect the dots or build bridges for our users. That often means being specific about what a product does, who it’s for, why it matters, and how it works. — Nicole Fenton, Words as Material

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