The Design Leadership Community is meeting different design leaders in Sweden and listening to their stories about their career and leadership. The third interviewee is João Paulo Villa Mello, Design Leadership at Mentimeter with 13 years of experience both in Brazil and Sweden. In this interview, Terry Han is meeting João to talk about his journey as a design leader in Sweden as a Brazilian, and his tips and advice from experiences.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that experience is the ultimate manifestation of a business strategy, and this is what I try to show and tell every single day.João
Terry: Could you introduce yourself and your career path so far?
João: My name is João and as you could guess from my name, of course, I am not from Sweden. I’m from Brazil, and I’ve been living in Sweden for four and half years now. I’ve been doing design for around 13 years now, and I think it’s 6 or 7 years as a design leader. I worked for a bunch of Brazilian companies like Nubank and Conta Azul before I moved to Sweden.
I moved to Sweden in January 2019 to work as a lead product designer in a company called Forza Football in Gothenburg. Forza is a football app which is one of the biggest that we have there, and proudly the biggest one leading in women’s football. Working at Forza and working with women’s football and promoting it and ensuring that it gets as much attention as men’s football like that was amazing. I also worked at another company in Gothenburg called Winningtemp. Winningtemp is trying to help companies to understand employee engagement. I had the opportunity to build a small but super cozy and amazing team there.
Terry: When did you start to define yourself as a design leader?
João: Honestly, I never saw myself as a design leader or leader for a long time. Back in 2017, when I was working at Conta Azul in Brazil, my leader saw me as a leader. One day, he invited me to a meeting because the team was growing so fast he needed support to think about how to design the organization. At the end of the meeting, he told me that I was already contributing from a leadership perspective, and he thought that I would be a great leader. Because of that, I started to feel confident about becoming a design leader. And then, I was fortunate enough to have a design leader helping me transition from an IC to a leadership position. Thanks, Victor Zanini!
After that, my responsibilities changed. I was being invited to meetings that I wasn’t before, and I was now responsible for areas I wasn’t in the past. Also, it was a whole new thing that I had to take care of my team and their problems. I think those moments were when I realized that the responsibilities had changed, and I saw myself as a design leader.
So I needed to shift how I used to work and operate.
Terry: What has been the greatest challenge becoming a design leader from IC?
João: The biggest change is that you don’t design things anymore. You design experiences through others. So you need to think about the vision and the business much more.
It isn’t easy for me to distance myself from the craft, that is what I love to do, so I like to think about the experiences we are creating and how they can deliver the intended business results. As a designer, I’m a maker, and I love and want to make stuff. In order to cope with it, I direct my energy to building side projects or cooking, trying to keep my maker’s side satisfied. But it does not mean that I miss working as an IC, though.
Terry: How do you define a design leader?
João: I think it’s a bit tricky because you can be a leader from many perspectives and in different ways. In a managerial context, my perspective on design leadership revolves around crafting an environment conducive to effective design. It shifts the focus from designing interfaces to designing spaces where designers can excel. So you start to ask yourself the question like “How do I design the space where designers will be able to do the best work that they can while growing?”
And this often means that you need to advocate more than ever for design. You will engage in discussions to discuss the value of the design. You need to ensure that teams have the freedom to execute their ideas, contributing to a great end-user experience as well as establishing a UX strategy or an experience vision within a specific domain.
In addition, as a design leader, you need to create the alignment between people for a shared direction, outlining where and why we’re headed, and igniting excitement for this collective vision. Also, of course, it is important to care about the people deeply whom you lead not only professionally but also personally. Even though we are professionals, we are still all humans with feelings. So I think it is crucial that we care about the whole person that is there with you.
Terry: When observing your career trajectory spanning various industries, I’m intrigued by the potential benefits it might have offered. Could you elaborate on how these diverse experiences contributed to your development as a designer and design leader?
João: I never thought about the specific industries and how they’ve shaped me, but I think working at different companies helped me to see a lot of different things and know a lot of different possibilities.
From my point of view, each company tackles similar challenges in unique ways. Sometimes, these methods overlap, but more often, they are distinct. This has significantly enriched my knowledge base. Let’s say you’ve been to one place, be it for one year or 6 years. You only saw how that place approached it. Also, how you should handle issues could be different depending on the size of the company. My diverse experience taught me how to adapt mature processes to suit smaller teams or infuse agility from smaller entities into larger ones.
So I think having this dynamic career allowed me to experience different things and be able to be in discussions where often I wouldn’t be. This dynamic career path has enabled me to participate in discussions where design might not typically have a voice. I can contribute based on tangible experiences rather than just expressing my opinion. By referring to past solutions, even if we’re not replicating them, we can draw insights and new ideas.
Terry: As a design leader who is from outside Sweden working at Swedish companies, what do you think are your advantages and disadvantages?
João: Thankfully, so far, I have had the luck and the privilege to work in places that are open-minded enough to hear different experiences and different ways of thinking. So although I’ve always worked at Swedish companies, they were always extremely open and even willing to hire international employees intentionally to get help to solve problems with different perspectives.
I recall a specific example from a previous workplace about the organization of the product team. We had a very open discussion with multiple leaders at the company. So I shared my insight from my experience from Brazil, while a colleague from Sweden added their input. After hours of collaborative discussions and sketching, we formulated an organizational structure that was a mix of them.
On the other hand, of course, I sometimes face cultural differences at work. For example, As a Brazilian, I don’t avoid conflicts at all. I grew up in a culture that encourages addressing conflicts directly, and I find it healthy to engage in constructive disagreements. Conflict resolution is viewed as problem-solving rather than an unnecessary complaint. However, I met a lot of people who have different perspectives on conflict. Many people from other cultures, not only Sweden but also other countries, tend to avoid conflicts if possible. Therefore, I had to adapt my approach based on the culture I was interacting with, understanding the extent to which conflicts were accepted.
Terry: Actually, I heard some similar experiences from fellow non-Swedish designers. There is a strong culture here to avoid conflict if possible, and some foreigners have a hard time adapting to it. How do you deal with it?
João: One of my previous managers helped me to deal with it in a good way.
He gave me a piece of advice to be mindful of not being perceived as a troublemaker. He advised that while I might have valid points, it’s equally essential to convey them effectively. This advice significantly impacted me, prompting me to adapt my communication style to the situation I’m dealing with. I am so glad that this was like in my first job that I got this advice because that changed everything for me. From then, I started to observe more and tailor my communication to the context – a process that demands a lot of energy and thoughtfulness.
Terry: When it comes to the organization, how does your design team look at Mentimenter?
João: We are around 30 designers in total, we are divided into two product areas and a central design area. Our Core product area has one design director, two staff designers working on an area level, and five product designers embedded in different product teams. Our Commercial area, the one I’m leading it, has one design director (myself), one staff designer working on an area level, and three designers working embedded in different product teams. We are actually looking for another product designer to join us! Our Central design area, our Design Foundation, as we call it, has a design leader. And then there are two product designers and three UI Engineers working with our design system, one designer focused on accessibility, one design ops person, two content designers, two researchers, and one research manager.
At last but not least, we have a VP of Design leading the whole design department and representing us in the product leadership.
Terry: What do you consider to be the greatest challenge in leading a design team, and how do you usually solve that?
João: One of the most pressing challenges, which, I believe, has been, still is, and might continue to be, is advocating for the significance of design. It’s about demonstrating the value that design can bring to the table. Particularly during times like the current economic fluctuations, with trends such as inflation, layoffs, and broader macroeconomic shifts, it becomes very important to underline our value and contribution.
This challenge is somewhat tricky. People tend to perceive design as a matter of personal taste rather than a practiced craft rooted in its methodologies, tools, and even a scientific approach to some extent. To counter this, my approach revolves around showcasing the scientific foundation of design and how it translates into tangible value.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that experience is the ultimate manifestation of a business strategy, and this is what I try to show and tell every single day.
What I emphasize is the concept of ‘showing.’ Instead of just telling or attempting to explain, we need to exhibit how our involvement can contribute value consistently. It’s about a hands-on approach, physically demonstrating the impact we can make. When discussing with others, I try to avoid being overly theoretical and instead guide them towards my perspective. It’s like leading them to where I am, helping them connect the dots. For instance, if we can all see the current situation, can we also foresee the potential outcomes? If so, how can we preempt negative consequences?
This process involves steering individuals towards a shared understanding rather than forcing ideas upon them. As a visual thinker, I often visualize the solution. Whether collaborating with the team on prototyping or conceptualizing through sketches, I find that it bridges the communication gap.
Terry: How do you foster a collaborative environment, either within your team or across other teams?
João: As a designer and a design leader, I truly believe that design is a team sport. While there are moments of being alone where we shape our ideas and engage with the craft, in general, great things are built together.
It’s all about fostering an open design culture. It’s not only about opening up our Figma files to non-designers. It’s about creating safe spaces for candid feedback, open design discussions, enabling the team to voice concerns, express disagreements, and even offer critiques constructively. This helps reduce the barriers to feedback and promotes a culture where feedback pertains to the designs, not the individual egos. From a leadership perspective, it is all about creating a shared understanding and being as transparent as possible. Leaders should create clarity, everyone should understand where we are going and why, as well as having a space to voice their concerns and share their feedback, we then need to ensure they feel heard.
I can also give you an example of something interesting we did in the Commercial area. As we are responsible for the free-to-paid-to-enterprise journey, we decided to map this journey and connect each team and product designer to one part of the journey. This way they all know what part they are responsible for, but they all understand that together they build the bigger picture, so they should never lose sight of the experience we are building. This led to all teams understanding their roles in the journey and to collaborating more often, to ensure we are crafting a great user experience.
Terry: How do you keep inspired or updated with design leadership and managing others?
João: To break it down, from a purely craft perspective, I make it a priority to maintain a strong connection with the essence of design. My approach is to continuously engage with various fields – architecture, interior design, physical product design, and even subjects like history, art, philosophy, and sociology. This might sound like quite a range, but I believe that being a designer means nurturing an unquenchable curiosity and comprehending the world.
From the design leadership perspective, I often read books or articles or listen to podcasts from industry leaders like Peter Merholz, Kristin Skinner, Andy Budd, Kate Dill, Daniela Jorge, and many others, like Melisa Perri and Teresa Torres.
Also, I often try to read HR books or books covering the basics of people management or whatever. I like to read books and articles about other crafts, such as engineering. There is an engineering manager called Lara Hogan. She wrote an incredible book called ‘Resilient management’ and has written many great articles on her blog.
Terry: What advice would you want to give to someone who is just starting out as a design leader, or who wants to be a design leader as an immigrant in Sweden?
João: I’d like to recommend them to build their own professional advisory board, much like companies have their board of directors. It’s important that we have our own board of trusted colleagues and friends. Also, I had a lot of support from a coach, a mentor and a therapist. The coach and mentor help you in shaping your professional growth. On the other hand, the therapist helps you to deal with being a human being, especially as an immigrant.
Maintaining your well-being and self-awareness is vital – understanding why you react in certain ways or the triggers of your emotions is vital. Caring for yourself is first needed for you to extend care to others, which is essential for great leadership.
Having close friends who are designers and non-designers is also important, since being a leader sometimes could be very lonely, which is not the topic people often openly talk about.
At least, but not least, I recommend reaching out to other design leaders. It is quite interesting how we often think that our problems are exclusive to us. But after you connect to another person in a similar position and discuss with them, you would probably quickly realize that you have the same problems, and just knowing that it already can make you feel better. Being part of communities is often a great idea and will greatly benefit your growth and network. Consider joining a community like the Design Leadership Community.