DCDW: The Evolution of Design Leadership and the Responsibilities it Demands


DCDW Design Leadership panel promo graphic with speaker headshots

DC Design Week (DCDW) is an "annual celebration of DC's creative community: an ever-growing body of professionals, makers, and voices working across disciplines." On Oct. 5, MetroStar's people hosted a panel during the virtual design event discussing the evolution of design leadership and the responsibilities it demands. 

Human-Centered Design (HCD) has become a ubiquitous skill present in most IT teams today and is a skill found within all levels of an organization. However, these skills were not always present, and the transition didn't happen without friction and negotiation between cross-functional teams over the years. In this discussion, the group explored what they have learned during their experiences integrating HCD into traditional IT environments. Read their condensed answers from the panel below. 

Meet the DCDW Panel Speakers 

MetroStar employee headshots

Understanding Design Leadership From Professional Experience 

How do you feel design leadership has been incorporated, or not, during your professional experience? 

Jason: I think that many agencies don't bring designers and developers together early enough in the planning phase of a project. One of my pet peeves is that a digital design has been signed off, and then it gets dropped off on the developer's desk, without talking through the plans together. That leads to questions unanswered. Implementing strong design leadership and cross-functional teams will help alleviate these issues. 

How do you build relationships between designers, developers, and customers? 


  • Set up regular touchpoints. Encourage people to see each other's faces every now and then. We're all humans going through this together.

  • You must educate your customer on the design process so they know the importance of the choices you make. Teaching, educating, and learning are great ways to succeed. 


  • You need to have leaders sit at the same table from the start. This will build trust and transparency, and trust has to be built to create projects that are well-done and done on time. A lot of the success we've had at MetroStar is based on being cross-functional from the beginning. 

  • Developers tend to have their heads down in code. Developers need to take a step back and understand why designers have made certain decisions and why those decisions will help users.  


  • Internal design reviews are your friend. Make sure you are checking in weekly or more, and ask all team members for feedback.

  • You have to understand where people are coming from within their roles. Each person has environmental factors pushing them to make certain decisions. You need to understand why each team member is pushing for a particular thing. This will help you to become agile, but also know when to push back. 

  • If a deadline is not feasible in a specific timeline, then that is when you need to utilize your negotiation skills. You should never go into a deadline meeting thinking someone's needs are crazy.  You must know how to make it work for everyone while understanding the environmental factors pushing people to make deadline choices. 


  • Designers, you are often the voice of the customer, so if you don't speak up for them and their users, then who will? As a leader, you can not be scared to push for your points, but you have to know when you need to push and when you need to let go. It takes time. 

  • At the end of the day, once your team has made a choice, you have to deliver on your promises. This delivery will create more trust between everyone. 

DCDW quote from Iva Hutson.

Looking at Design Leadership Throughout Time 

How have you seen design change over time?

Michelle: The sophistication of design has changed and grown so much over the years. Design has evolved and continues to evolve. It's a living thing. Data and research are the keys to making it work, as they help inform stronger design decisions.  

Asha: Other people's understanding of design and design leadership has changed over the years. Design has become, even more, the stage in a process where concepts are solidified, and people can wrap their heads around an idea. It is such a powerful tool when used correctly. 

What skills does a good designer require when embarking on a leadership path?

Jason: Many designers I have worked with had print backgrounds, but print design doesn't always translate to digital well. You'll have to learn new technical skills as a UX designer, but a tool used across both is your ability to understand people. I have seen a sudden emphasis on bringing people-focused data to the forefront of design decisions during my career. You must understand the science behind people's user journeys and why they interact with elements in the way they are. 

DCDW quote from Jason

How to Succeed as a Design Leader

What do designers, who are interested in leadership, need to know? 

Michelle: Shadow, whenever possible, to see how a leader strategizes. You'll always need to be able to educate others about processes in the future. Learn how to talk about your plans with others. Those are key characteristics required to become a leader.

Iva: Being a talented technical designer doesn't always translate into leadership. The roles have different skill sets. You need to be able to think about the future of a project or product. Your focus becomes about your team, their wellbeing, and the long-term strategy and success. It can be a jarring mental shift. 

Asha: The higher you move up in your career, especially in this industry, the more management-based your role becomes. Be prepared to reframe your thinking and your values. Learn to speak the language of management.

Listen to the DCDW Panel

The recording of our panel will be shared in the AIGA DC recordings archive for AIGA members to watch. You can register for a membership on their website for $50 a year.

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