The design leadership journey

An interview with Mia Blume, CEO of Design Dept.

Who do some of the most respected design leaders turn to when they need advice? Mia Blume, CEO of Design Dept., an organization committed to leadership development for designers. Mia has led design teams at IDEO, Square, and Pinterest. I recently caught up with her to discuss the journey of becoming a design leader.


BRADEN: You coach a wide variety of design leaders. As you’ve gotten to hear their stories, what has surprised you the most?

MIA: Great question! Three key things come to mind.

One, it never ceases to amaze me how many leaders—despite their level of experience—struggle with managing their time in a way that aligns with the impact they want to have.

Two, we’re all navigating similar problems but we continue to think our experience is nuanced. Hiring, building healthy relationships, communicating in tough situations, scaling the impact of design. So many of us are solving the same problems. On the one hand, it’s good to know that we’re not alone. On the other, it’s clear our community needs a lot more support in this space and a lot less talk about design systems (no offense to systems). I guess this is job security?

Three, we’re still talking about the damn table. Let’s stop talking about it, and actually show up. But back to point two, I think people don’t know exactly what that means and so they’re looking for someone to tell them. The good and the bad news is that no one knows exactly, but we get to show them.

JK, Four. So many designers see management as this terrible email and calendar juggling role. And while it can be, we believe at Design Dept. that management is a creative practice and that so much of what we know as designers can be applied to a leadership position. Culture is a systems design problem. Change is an experience design problem. And once leaders see this potential, I can see something change within them (or most of them).

BRADEN: You mention that designers struggle to spend their time in a way that aligns with their goals. What do you think is getting in the way?

MIA: We’ve got a saying at Design Dept. that sums this up: Design or be designed. I think so many of us work in environments that are optimized for collaboration and attention catching that we have to have even more intention about our time now than we ever had. For instance, the convenience of a shared calendar is a wonderful tool, but now we have to guard our time strategically. As a result, it’s so easy to become reactive to others’ needs rather than stay aligned with our own objectives and needs.

BRADEN: You say that as designers, we can apply our existing design skills to leadership. I’m curious, what assets do we as designers bring with us when we start on the leadership journey?

MIA: I believe the five key things that designers bring to leadership are creativity, vision, storytelling, empathy, and systems thinking. So much of business leadership is creating a shared vision and solving problems at scale along the way. Whether it’s designing an organization and culture to serve the business’ needs (systems design) or leading your team through change (empathy and experience design), we’ve got some powerful tools to help us create experiences that allow people, creativity, and businesses to thrive. We just need to learn to apply them in a new way.

And by the way, it’s not uncommon for non-design leaders to seek out training and coaching in these areas. We’ve got a huge head start.

BRADEN: I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of your work. Last month I finally got a copy of Within Magazine and I just couldn’t put it down. Of course it’s beautifully designed, but it’s the stories that I fell in love with. What inspired you to start a project to help designers share their experiences?

MIA: After completing our first Within retreat in the spring of 2018, I felt I had to make it. The women at the event shared so much wisdom and vulnerability in that space that I felt like the world needed to hear. Of course, not everyone could be invited to a retreat and it would have the same impact. So, I explored ways to share these stories of leadership and design with more people beyond the retreat. And, frankly, I had an itch to make something beautiful. So, magazine?

BRADEN: Yes, It’s amazing. Thank you for the time today. Any final thoughts for design leaders out there?

MIA: Very few people have a formula for what design leadership/management should look like. Like many challenges, it’s also an opportunity. So take this opportunity to intentionally design how you show up as a leader. The leaders that do, in my experience, are the ones that thrive over the long run.

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