The undercover design leader

Laura Yarrow
4 min readJan 16, 2020

Using the term “design leader” has got out of control. Can we all please, just calm down.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be a design leader, either overt or undercover — i’m far from it. These are some observations of the community I find myself orbiting. Also, this is probably a bit ranty.

tldr; Design leadership is a state of mind, not a label you can stick on as you wish.

These days, you can’t go five minutes without hearing the word “design leader” or “design leadership” tossed around, like it’s something you purchase in a box and plug in. “Design leader” is the design communities version of developers self labelling themselves as “ninja developer”.

These days, everyone is — or is aiming to be — a bloody design leader. But what about those quietly going along, doing great work completely under the radar without the need for all the pomp?

The word “leader” itself conjures a bit of a skewed and dare I say it, old fashioned vision of someone tough talking, in charge, even aloof — at the helm of a ship barking orders at the underlings. Leadership is different, but that might be a tangent for another day. So what is a “design leader”? What is different about leading specifically in design? And what is the difference between someone who proudly proclaims themselves — regardless of what they’re actually doing— as a design leader, or not?

Signs you’re an undercover design leader

You are an active practioner. You’re hands on, and getting them dirty. You’re taking out the trash. This is important so you don’t become removed from the inner workings of your place of work. How can you teach, and give meaningful feedback without doing this? Process, strategy and internal experience may be your thing, and as such you need to be immersed in those things to understand where you can make a difference.

Despite that, you constantly flip between being a details oriented person and keeping the big picture in view. Being able to hold the two outlooks simultaneously is what makes you unique. One eye on the present and the other on the future at the same time.

You’re not shouting about the work and activities you do— in your eyes you’re just doing your job. Getting the work done, forging ahead and not bothered about publicising that fact to anyone. You may have no social media following, and that’s fine with you.

For you, the world of design extends far beyond the aesthetic. You’re interested in what makes design good, and who uses those designs. You’re interested in the people that design touches, and the societies and cultures that affect how they use a design. For you, design is not just design. It’s psychology, social sciences, behavioural sciences, anthropology — the list is endless…

…but that’s no problem for you because you are a voracious learner, the more you take in of those subjects, the more it inspires your future work.

You have a “lift as you climb” mentality with other people. Nothing brings you more joy than seeing others succeeding in their work, and helping them get there is what makes your heart sing. You care about other peoples careers and skills progression, and want to help them get to where they dream of being. For that reason, you may be engaged in mentorship, coaching, and running informal learning sessions either in or outside of your organisation.

You understand the power of connection (or perhaps safety in numbers!), and may be active in your local or wider design community. You utilise that community to not only help others, but seek assistance for yourself when needed.

Rather than giving specific instructions on what you want someone to do to get from a to b, you are more like a gardener. You are tending a fertile land for others to grow in, bloom and flourish. You are guiding, not telling. You are using an empowering approach with peers and those that look to you for advice to figure it out for themselves.

What you’re not doing

An undercover design leader is not always the boss or manager of a team. They’re most likely to be the ordinary, average Joe with a passion and drive that cannot be taught.

You’re not a celebrity or thought leader in your field. You don’t put out arbitrary opinions on social media just for the likes. You wouldn’t be undercover if you did, would you?

You’re not just talking the talk, without walking the walk. As I said earlier, you get your hands dirty and keep your skills current.

You’re not in it for the glory, publicising your book, latest public speaking engagement, or attention.

So what?

Design leadership is such a trendy term these days, everyone wants to be one, and not all those who claim to be one are probably as useful to the community as they think they are. A lot of the points made above indicate being involved in the “doing”, insatiably passionate people doing what they love, staying current, and passing that knowledge onto others around them. I don’t think a lot of self-proclaimed “Design Leaders” are doing this, but there are many Undercover Design Leaders that are.

My point? From my observations, being a Design Leader — undercover or not — appears to be more about your state of mind, than a label you can easily stick on yourself and say you’ve achieved it. The problem is, there are too few barriers to sticking those labels on.

Do you think you are an Undercover Design Leader? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments, i’m eager to know your experiences and opinions 😊👇



Laura Yarrow

UX and tech geek. Observer of humans. Crisp connoisseur. Yarn fondler. Undercover Northerner.