The Design Leadership Community is meeting different design leaders in Sweden and listening to their stories about their career and leadership. The fourth interviewee is John Beijar, Head of Design at Knowit Experience. In this interview, Terry Han is meeting John to talk about his journey as a design leader at IT consultancy and Design Agency companies.
Beyond just technical and design skills — a design leader should possess a genuine interest in working with people and cultivating soft skills, going beyond the pixels, wireframes, tools, and methodologies.John
Terry: Could you introduce yourself and your career path so far?
John: I’m John. My interest in UX & Design started when I studied the master’s programme in Human Computer Interaction / Interaction Design at Chalmers University – and I have been working with Interaction Design, UX Design / Service Design since 2008.
I have always been on the agency side – working together with a vast number of different clients and different sectors over the last 15 years.
I’d say my career really started when I joined Creuna in 2012 as Senior UX Designer and became UX Director there after a few years and later also Head of Design & Communication. At Creuna was where my design leadership path sort of started.
Currently, I hold the position of Head of Design at Knowit Experience in Gothenburg. Knowit Experience is a full service digital agency and a business area in the Knowit Group, and Knowit Experience consists of around 1000 experts around Northern Europe.
In my role today, I still do hands-on design and project work alongside leadership and management duties.
Terry: Is there any special reason why you still do work on projects as a contributor, working full-time as a design leader?
John: The easiest and shortest answer is that I think that it keeps me up to date with new knowledge, trends, tools and all other things that are evolving constantly. The design space (among others) is always changing. When I started to work after university, UX wasn’t something talked about, it was more about interaction design and human factors engineering. And now many years later, we have all kinds of design disciplines and tools. Product Design, Service Design, UX Writing.. the list goes on.
And of course, I like the part of designing and creating products, and meeting clients and other partners. To see a UX concept become reality in the hands of visual designers and developers / engineers is one of the greatest rewards in the work we do according to me!
I want to think that still having one foot in the craftsmanship makes me a better design leader because I think that it makes me understand my colleagues´ challenges more – and that way I can support them better.
Terry: How did you get into design leadership?
John: I became involved in design leadership organically. For me, it all began around 2016 / 2017, when I became a part of the board of directors for the UX Programme at the vocational school Yrgo here in Gothenburg.
This was before I had any formal leadership role at my work. I also took on a teaching role during this time, interacting with students. What struck me was that my words carried weight with them. I realized that they saw me as someone with valuable experience and knowledge, which was a turning point. Before that, I just saw myself as a designer wanting to do good stuff.
Around that time, I also took on my first mentee, and this experience made me realize that mentoring and leadership were areas I wanted to explore further. Soon after, I was promoted to the position of UX Director at Creuna in Sweden, marking my first formal leadership role.
In the subsequent year, there was a reorganization at my current employer, and I was presented with the opportunity to become the Head of Design & Communication, and I decided to take on this role as a challenge and opportunity.
It felt like a natural progression for me, and I embraced the path of design leadership wholeheartedly since then – now also at Knowit Experience!
Terry: How do you define a design leader?
John: If you want to become a candidate for a design leader position, I think it’s good if you first have a few years of experience across various aspects of the design domain and exposure to diverse projects, as mentioned earlier. This is just my take on it – but I think that the experience helps further on when you are supposed to support other, maybe more junior colleagues.
Beyond just technical / design skills, a design leader should possess a genuine interest in working with people and cultivating soft skills, going beyond the pixels, wireframes, tools, and methodologies.
And most importantly — to be a design leader (or any leader role) you must want to see other people grow instead of yourself. Design leadership involves enabling your team members to excel and giving them the best chance to shine, even if you’re no longer in the trenches doing hands-on work or taking the credit.
Terry: There are a lot of types of design leaders like, and how do you see yourself? Like, what kind of designer do you like?
John: I want to think that I am a pretty empathic person, who try to always be ready to support my team and be there for them as much as possible. I try to prioritize actively listening to their needs and helping or coaching as best as I can.
While I’m of course available for any guidance they might want from me in their respective projects – I try to avoid getting into the design details, and instead ask more broad questions about their design — and maybe ask them to describe the problem and their solution in wider terms first.
Of course, I’m there to help if they want my advice, but otherwise, I want to see them learn and grow. Some things you just must do by yourself and learn from that experience – even if the solution wasn’t the best one. It’s not about letting them fail, but to try to get them to reflect on their work.
The soft aspect of design leadership is essential to me. And I try to convey the importance of inclusive design, universal design, and digital accessibility in our projects. I want to think of design as a powerful tool to make the world a bit better – and avoid deceptive design patterns and such.
One way to try to keep ahead – or at least up to date — is the education and mentoring part. I’m still active as a board member and teacher at schools. To be able to teach at a vocational school, you must keep up with the trends and the latest know-how. You better be up-to-date, even if the core methods of UX and user-centred design haven’t changed that much since Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman 😀
Terry: You have been mostly working at consulting companies. What could be the things you like about being a design leader at the consulting companies for any struggle?
John: What I like about being a design leader at an agency is that it’s so varied.
The agency environment offers an appealing variety in the work it presents – diverse clients and sectors, different projects, and various phases in the design process. This dynamism means that as a design leader, I can find myself engaging in strategic planning one day, delving into pixel-perfect design the next, pitches, and presentation — and everything in between.
However, the hard part of being a design leader at an agency / consultancy is that the designers in my team are spread out in different projects. They have so many different challenges, depending on the project and its phases. Some clients have ongoing work that spans years where we optimize the same solution, while others involve larger strategies, concept work or specific tasks, workshops, or methods.
Also – the designers at Knowit Experience possess a range of skills encompassing UX, visual design, motion design, art direction, brand design, copywriting, and more. And for me, as an engineer and skilled in UX Design, it’s of course impossible to be an expert in every detail. This is where I try to foster a culture in the team where we all can help each other. I don’t always have the answers.
This variance in competencies can also sometimes make it challenging to identify a specific theme for group discussions and shared learning. To address this, we’ve developed a practice of sometimes splitting the design team by skill during skill meetings. For example, UX designers might delve into customer journey mapping as a methodology, while the visual design team focuses on pixel-level details, animation principles, or typography. These sessions enable us to maintain relevance and engage with the finer details of our work.
One of the challenges is ensuring that our designers feel like they’re part of a unified team. This is somewhat complicated by our organizational structure. We organize based on skills, such as design, technology, and process, but we also have project and client teams.
We’ve implemented a short weekly design team meeting with all our designers every Monday morning. I think that these meetings are vital to foster a sense of unity and shared purpose in the design skills. It’s a meeting where we talk about the week ahead – what we are going to do and if you need someone’s help, you can always reach out.
And once a week, we have a Design Fika where people can come and show their design work. It’s like a design critique session, but it’s very laid back. It’s a good way to see what other people are working on, and you can get somewhat structured feedback on your design – even if we sit together at the office and the best feedback is the one you can get by turning around and asking a colleague for advice.
The Design Fika is also a good way to practice on describing your problem or describing your design in front of others in a brief way – since you only have a few minutes. Finally, I also think that It’s a good way for us to practice giving and receiving feedback, and also maybe rehearse before a larger external presentation.
Terry: How do you usually handle conflict or disagreements between client and design team if there is any?
When we engage with new clients, we try to follow a set of principles outlined in our “manifesto” It kind of defines the way our partnership with them should look like. Among these guiding principles, there’s emphasis on trust in each other’s competencies and openness to challenges. That we talk openly about things like ambitions, hurdles, and the importance of having fun together at the same time as we want to deliver a world-class solution together. We always strive to have a partnership relationship with our clients – instead of mere “customer and supplier”.
It’s crucial that we together with the client / partner have a shared understanding of what the project’s desired outcomes and ambitions are. When these objectives are made clear and agreed upon by both parties at the project’s initiation, the potential for conflicts to arise is quite low.
However, when such situations do arise, my approach is to begin by carefully listening to the concerns raised. Often, what might initially appear as a conflict stems from misunderstandings – or different ambitions in the task.
Terry: How do you foster a collaborative environment within your team and across other departments?
John: To foster a collaborative environment, one of the most important things is to have fun together. Laughter is a vital part of our work culture, I’d say. We find moments of joy when everything is flowing smoothly, but more importantly, we can share a good laugh even when things don’t go as planned. IMHO — when we have fun working, the end result becomes better!
As we’ve been working together for a while and getting to know one another, I’d like to think that our design team has become a place where vulnerability is welcome.
I want to think that the design team feel safe to ask questions, and ask for help, to admit when they don’t know something, and express their uncertainties. This is essential because it nurtures an environment where it’s okay not to have all the answers.
However, it’s also important to remember that, while we work closely, we are not a family; we are a professional team. Not everyone necessarily wants to socialize beyond work hours, and that’s fine. What matters most is that when we are working together, we have a good time and trust one another.
Since we are around 1000 people at Knowit Experience, we, of course, have a lot of experts not working in Gothenburg, and since I have been with the company for a considerable time, I often can suggest who someone in the team should talk to others in some other Knowit office, or who maybe has done some similar project before.
I encourage the designers to actively engage with our internal communication channels, such as our company-wide and local Slack channels. There is so much experience in the company if you just ask!
These channels are a great way to ask questions openly. If someone on the team has a question, there’s a high chance that someone else is wondering about the same thing, or maybe have done it before. By posting questions publicly, we ensure that everyone also can access the answers.
Terry: As a design leader located here in Gothenburg, are there any particular things you’re happy about or feel lack of?
John: Yes, it is of course a smaller city than Stockholm, but still, there are a lot of agencies and designers in Gothenburg. I like the size of it – it’s large enough but still somewhat able to grasp.
The design community in general is, from my point of view, very friendly. We are trying to help each other out. Gothenburg isn’t bigger, so you probably know a few designers at other agencies and companies. What goes around, comes around.
Terry: Is there any particular project are you proud of as a design leader?
John: One that comes to my mind is the work that we did for GöteborgsOperan – the opera house here in Gothenburg. GöteborgsOperan is a renowned institution with a well-established brand. A few years ago, I was the UX Lead Designer on this project. I learned a lot and the result became better than I could have hoped for.
It was all about teamwork – and the design team consisted of me as UX Designer, two graphic designers / art directors, and a copywriter.
Our mission was manyfold: first, to create a new website, which was a significant task on its own, and second, to ensure that this digital platform truly reflected the Opera House’s established and award-winning brand. Everything that they do has such high quality, of course what they do on stage – but also all their printed material and all their communication in general. GöteborgsOperan also wanted to reach a broader audience – and not only cater for seasoned opera visitors.
Since GöteborgsOperan is a part of Västra Götalandsregionen – we needed to adhere to the law regarding digital accessibility (DOS-lagen). I have since long been a strong advocate for digital accessibility – and this was a project where it really came to life. It was a fun challenge to design and build the best user experience that we could, but also always think of the accessibility aspect. We came up with some great solutions if you ask me. 😊
Our hard work paid off. We created an exceptional website that not only captured GöteborgsOperan’s brand essence but also catered to a diverse audience, including those with accessibility needs.
In recognition of our efforts, we received an award for best accessibility, and our platform received zero accessibility-related issues in the review by the organization Funka.nu.
We also won a prize for best design (Umbraco Awards). But maybe the best award was from Web Service Awards – where we won gold for best usability – voted by the actual visitors on the website.
Terry: How do you keep inspired or updated with design leadership and managing others?
John: Staying inspired and informed in design leadership, for me, involves two key aspects. It is both about maintaining my design roots while also taking on leadership and managerial roles.
In terms of formal leadership, there have been training programs and educations that I’ve attended as part of my career growth, both at Creuna and Knowit Experience.
In my position today, I have two formal leadership roles – Head of Design for the design team and manager for most of the designers but also other people at the company.
I believe the distinction between design leader and manager is important, and it’s something I continue to refine – but it’s not always easy.
I try to lead by example, and I get a lot of inspiration in this from my current manager, Måns – the CEO at Knowit experience, but also my former manager Tina – who also acted as my mentor at Creuna for many years – where my design leadership path started. Their approach to leadership has profoundly influenced me in the way I try to act today.
One key principle I’ve embraced is to give freedom and with that also trust the team or individual with the responsibility that comes with it.
I’d like to think that you grow as a designer and person when you get the trust to do what you are trained to do. That’s at least my own experience in the subject.
Terry: What kind of advice would you love to give to people who just started to work as a design leader or who want to be a design leader?
It’s a bit of a cliché, but I genuinely believe in the importance of maintaining your curiosity. The design industry changes all the time, and you are never fully learned.
One other important aspect is that your drive to learn and grow (and maybe become a design leader) should be fuelled by a genuine passion for the field, not merely a desire for a better title or position.
Lastly, I also recommend you seize the opportunity when it arrives. Don’t wait for someone to hand them to you or wait for that role or promotion to land in your lap.
Grab those opportunities when they arise, even if they initially seem a bit outside your comfort zone.
Learn as you go!