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Path to Design Leadership: Unveiling the True Essence Beyond the Dream Role

Author: Carl Heaton
He is our senior instructor and originally from Manchester UK. Carl teaches our Web Design and Online Marketing Courses.
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Embarking on the journey towards becoming a design leader is often accompanied by the allure of a six-figure salary, association with a reputed company, and an impressive job title.

However, as many have come to realize, the pursuit of this dream role can sometimes lead to unexpected challenges that overshadow the glittering exterior.

This article delves into the candid narrative of one individual’s experience in the coveted Head of Design position, uncovering the ugly truths that lurk behind the glamour, and exploring the diverse skill set required to thrive in the realm of design leadership.

The Illusion of Success:

At first glance, the dream role appeared to be a pinnacle of achievement. A six-figure salary, the prestige of working for a renowned company, and a title that resonated authority—it seemed like the perfect recipe for professional success.

Yet, beneath the surface, a different reality unfolded. The once-coveted position came with a hefty price tag, including a glaring absence of work-life balance, a chaotic product direction, and leadership that bordered on micromanagement.

Awakening to Reality:

Amid the pursuit of success, a wake-up call arrived in the form of a simple question from a junior designer: “Have you even taken a break today? It’s night.”

This seemingly innocuous query served as a catalyst for self-reflection. The clock on the wall became a poignant reminder that the dream role was not the idyllic destination it appeared to be; instead, it was a mirage masking the toll it took on personal well-being.

“Great design is not just a solution; it is the elimination of the problem.” – Masaaki Hiromura

Masaaki Hiromura, Creative Director at Tokyo Creative

The Turning Point:

Acknowledging the incongruence between the dream and reality, the individual made the courageous decision to submit their resignation. Despite external validation and professional accomplishments, the realization dawned that this path was not aligned with their true aspirations.

A return to freelancing and mentoring marked a significant shift, leading to the rediscovery of genuine passion and purpose. (Checkout our article on finding remote work)

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, Co-founder of Apple Inc.

Tips for Recognizing Your Turning Point:

  1. Regularly assess your well-being and work-life balance.
  2. Pay attention to feedback from peers and colleagues.
  3. Trust your instincts; if something feels misaligned, it likely is.

Rediscovering Purpose:

In the aftermath of departure, a journey of self-discovery unfolded. The establishment of [UX Playbook](#) and the cultivation of a community became vehicles for continuous learning and growth.

“Design is not just what it looks like. Design is how it works.” – David Carson

David Carson, Graphic Designer and Art Director

Practical Steps to Rediscover Your Purpose:

  1. Identify your core values and passions.
  2. Explore diverse projects to find what truly excites you.
  3. Connect with a supportive community for inspiration and guidance.

The emphasis shifted from external validations to internal fulfillment, and a deeper sense of purpose emerged. The pursuit of success transformed into a pursuit of joy, purpose, and the legacy one leaves behind.

Examples of Crucial Skills:

The path to design leadership requires a multifaceted skill set, extending beyond traditional design abilities.

“Design is intelligence made visible.” – Alina Wheeler

Alina Wheeler, Design Author and Brand Consultant

Practical Tips for Developing Crucial Skills:

  1. Enhance communication by practicing active listening.
  2. Develop strategic thinking through case studies and real-world scenarios.
  3. Foster collaboration by initiating cross-functional projects.
  4. Hone conflict resolution skills through workshops and training.
  5. Stay adaptable by regularly updating your knowledge of emerging technologies.
  6. Inspire and mentor others by sharing your experiences and insights.

A Message to Fellow Designers:

This narrative serves as a testament to the fact that success extends beyond monetary compensation and job titles.

“The role of the designer is that of a good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.” – Charles Eames

Charles Eames, Designer and Architect

Empowering Advice for Fellow Designers:

1. Prioritize your well-being over external validations.

2. View career changes as opportunities for growth.

3. Continuously seek joy, purpose, and personal fulfillment in your work.


The pursuit of a design leadership role may initially seem like the realization of a dream, but the journey often involves navigating through unforeseen challenges.

This article sheds light on the hidden realities behind the glamour, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing personal well-being, joy, and purpose in the pursuit of professional success. It also highlights the diverse skill set required for design leadership, encouraging designers to hone their abilities in [communication](#), [strategic thinking](#), [collaboration](#), [adaptability](#), and [mentorship](#) as they strive towards becoming successful design leaders. The path is challenging, but with the right skills and mindset, designers can navigate it and create a fulfilling legacy in the world of design.

Design Leadership Checklist:

    1. Self-Reflection:
      1. Evaluate personal values and aspirations.
      2. Reflect on work-life balance and well-being.
    2. Communication Mastery:
      1. Articulate a clear vision to the team and stakeholders.
      2. Foster a shared understanding of design objectives.
    3. Strategic Thinking:
      1. Align design initiatives with overarching business goals.
      2. Navigate complex challenges with a strategic mindset.
    4. Collaboration Skills:
      1. Cultivate an environment that fosters cross-functional collaboration.
      2. Ensure diverse perspectives contribute to the design process.

Further Reading:

Explore these recommended books and articles to delve deeper into the world of design leadership:

First, please listen to this amazing book from Invision


  1. Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams
  2. Design Is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton
  3. Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan
  4. Smashing Magazine – A website with a wealth of articles on design, UX, and web development
  5. A List Apart – A journal for people who make websites, covering web design, development, and content
  6. Interaction Design Foundation – Offers a variety of articles and courses on interaction design and UX
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