Who has design leadership?

My website landing page once had a quote saying something like ‘You cannot not design’. Can’t remember the author, but the gist was everything is designed.
Most things are a sum of their parts, and someone, somewhere at some time decided how those parts connect. They designed it. Whether done well or poorly, it’s designed.

That’s how I feel about design leadership. All designers are design leaders by default.
We can do it poorly or we can hone skills to do it well. The choice is ours…

All designers are design leaders by default.

We lead by sharing a vision that persuades and instil confidence in clients.
We lead when we collaborate to include different perspectives and voices.
And our creative leadership inspires and challenges others.

Design leadership is a challenge to some – not every designer is a successful or intuitively design leader.
The good news is designer leadership skills can be learnt.

Defining design leadership

There are multiple ways to define design leadership. And there’s an ongoing discussion about how (and whether) it overlaps with creative leadership.

Design leadership is not about fame.
Design leadership is not about having your name on the door.
Good design leaders often have a mixed skills set:

  • They’re great at identifying people and skills, making collaboration not only possible but successful – design studios / agency owners are design leaders.
  • They’re practical: they understand commercial and technical constraints and user needs/wants – client service are design leaders.
  • They have a business acumen and can bridge the gap between business and design – business dev people are design leaders.
  • The communicate well, often and with clarity to help manage expectations – producers/studio managers are design leaders.
  • They’re talented and excel at what they do. Their work inspires others – creatives are design leaders.
  • They have refined soft skills – they treat others with respect and kindness – good humans are design leaders.

The so-what?

Design can be self-absorbing. We’re continually trying to improve our individual knowledge, skillset and profile.

A good design leader focusses some of that energy externally.

Good design leadership advocates for design by using knowledge, skillset and profile to broadcast the value of design to the unconvinced and non-believers.

It’s not easy, but the challenge makes us better designers, because it questions why we do what we do.
And that’s a good thing…

Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol

After 30+ years running a design studio, I accumulated a pretty special network of fellow designers. One thing most have in common: a dislike for the ‘business’ side of design. Most are impatient with any task competing for time spent doing what they love – designing.

Not me. I love that intersection between design and business. I built a career working with Ombudsman schemes, the Emergency Services sector and the Courts. My special power has always been an ability to use design to translate the difficult to understand or the unpalatable message.

I now use exactly the same skills with creative business owners. I translate the indigestible into bite-sized chunks of information. I share insights, introduce tools and embed processes to help others build confidence business decision-making skills. More confidence makes it easier to grasp opportunities. More confidence makes it easier to recognise a good client from the bad.

Outside DBC I have mentored with Womentor, AGDA and most recently with The Aunties.
And I’m a proud board member of Never Not Creative. Ask me about internships 😉

Always happy to chat, I can be contacted here.


For a short while, an archive of my design work at mbdesign.com.au.
My current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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