Introducing our new interview series, Talk with Design Leaders in Sweden. The Design Leadership Community will meet different design leaders in Sweden and listen to their stories about their career and leadership. The first interviewee is Peter Olovsson, Design leader & Design Leadership coach at SeventyOne Consulting. In this interview, Terry Han is meeting Peter to talk about his journey as a design leader and some experiences and advice for future design leaders. For convenience, Terry will be referred to as ‘T’ and Peter as ‘P’ during the interview.
So, when I get tempted to give a direct suggestion on a design solution, I would rather go more indirect, not correcting directly. Instead, make sure there is an even better system for feedback and quality in place.Peter
Terry: Could you please share your career journey?
Peter: My career journey began as a UX designer, primarily focusing on user experience and conducting research in an agency setting. As I gained experience, my scope expanded to include service design and adopting a more holistic approach. I then took on roles as a design lead, leading design teams and driving their work forward.
In recent years, my focus has shifted towards the organisational aspects of design. I’ve been involved in establishing effective design organisations, ensuring both value creation and collaboration. So, my journey has taken me from a strong background as a designer to a broader perspective where I create the right settings for working with design within the organisation.
T: Could you please provide an overview of your current role and responsibilities within your organisation?
P: Now I work as a consultant helping companies level up their design capacity. Recently, compared to before, I think a lot of organisations have a bigger design organisation prior to maybe 10 years ago. Nowadays, organisations have new challenges. For instance, how do you make sure you can collaborate if you’re a larger number of designers located in different areas of the company? You also have many different kinds of designers such as product designers, service designers and business designers and how can you help them work together and collaborate efficiently.
T: How do you define Design Leader?
P: Firstly, you work within the design space, whether it is mostly digital product design or service design. And then as a leader you could be a manager, that manages your team, or that you have some kind of other leadership role.
T: What kind of design leader do you define yourself as? Also, when did you start to define yourself as a design leader?
P: A couple of years ago, I transitioned from being actively involved in design execution while taking on leadership responsibilities, to focusing more on creating the optimal environment for design to thrive. This shift allowed me to have more of an indirect impact on the design process and end result while instead focusing more on organisational structures and common processes and tools. Trying to empower the designers to take ownership of their work within those established settings. The switch for me was a bit tricky.
T: What do you mean, tricky here?
P: Because you have to leave the work that can affect the end result directly. Yes, it is tricky for every role to be a leader, but I think it could be even harder for designers since designers are used to doing real hands-on design work and a big part of the job is creating things that do not yet exist, and we love it so much. But as soon as you become a leader, your focus is more on management, not design craft itself. And there is a risk that if it goes really bad, you might just go in and sort of correct other designers work. And that’s not a good way of working as a leader, I think.
T: Did you experience a gradual shift in the balance between practical design work and management responsibilities?
P: It happened more gradually. Especially from being a consultant, I got more interested in and working more and more with that.
T: As an external consultant, how do you navigate and comprehend the dynamics of a client’s organisation while ensuring a positive impact on their organisational structure and fostering collaboration? Moreover, how do you manage to maintain effectiveness in this role, even if you personally feel disconnected or dissatisfied with the work environment?
P: As a design leader, when assessing a project, I believe it’s important to adopt a system perspective. By zooming out and looking at the overall picture, you can identify various issues within the organisation. Through my experience, I’ve learned to recognize patterns indicating potential areas of improvement that might be lacking in their current practices.
For instance, I consider whether they have a well-established design system in place. Another example is evaluating if they have implemented effective research methodologies and organised their research repository in a structured manner. These aspects provide valuable insights into the maturity of their design processes.
By quickly assessing these factors, I can map the organisation’s current state and identify gaps that need attention. This enables me to provide tailored guidance and recommendations, leveraging my expertise to help them overcome their challenges and enhance their design practices.
T: As a design leader, could you please highlight a specific project that you consider a standout accomplishment?
P: One of my strengths lies in taking the design team and design community to the next level. It’s easy to initiate work on a design system, but how do you progress beyond that initial stage? This is an area where I have succeeded several times, which I am proud of. This also includes making sure designers have roles where they could make an impact and that they work in the right contextual groups alongside peers from other disciplines.
In other words, it’s about elevating the design perspective within the organisation, lifting it from merely being operational to encompassing operational, tactical, and strategic levels. This approach allows for creating an impactful design without necessarily requiring a large team. By staffing smartly, even a smaller group can make a significant difference.
T: What are the key qualities and attributes that you believe are crucial for achieving success as a design leader from your point of view?
P:To be a successful design leader, it is important to strike a balance. On one hand, you should be an advocate for design, representing its importance within the organisation. On the other hand, you must be open to different perspectives to gain trust and credibility.
Being a design leader involves not only emphasising the need for design, but also understanding how it fits into the broader perspective when developing products and services. It is crucial to discuss and address the overall business development process rather than solely focusing on increasing design involvement.
T: As a design leader, how do you navigate the desire to engage in hands-on design work while fulfilling your responsibilities in managing and leading a team?
P: I actually decided a couple of years ago that I shouldn’t be involved in the hands-on design work when working as a design leader. I don’t want to be like a stereotypical creative director. I made a choice that I’m not going to do that.
So, when I get tempted to give a direct suggestion on a design solution, I would rather go more indirect, not correcting directly. Instead, make sure there is an even better system for feedback and quality in place. You don’t want to end up in a place where you as a design leader solely should decide or make up what is good and what is not.
T: Can I ask you the background reasoning? Why do you think like that?
P: I believe it is a better approach. It is more scalable and effective. The notion of relying solely on one super creative person is not ideal. I don’t believe in that concept. Better results can be achieved when multiple individuals contribute their skills and expertise, rather than relying solely on the abilities of me as a designer, even though I am an experienced designer.
T: Given your insightful perspective, how do you maintain inspiration and stay updated on design leadership and effectively managing others?
P: The Design Leadership Community has definitely been helpful, since I can talk to other people in similar situations and learn from that. And then you have to be curious. I’m not the one who’s reading all the books, but you have to be reflective, and change the way you work all the time. The business is changing so fast. You have to be responsive and learn new things. If not, you can be stuck in a mindset and way of working from 10 years ago.
T: As a design leader working as a consultant at different companies, what are the typical challenges or struggles you commonly encounter in your role?
P:In larger organisations, establishing a solid base for design, including customer journeys, insights, design systems, and prototyping tools, is crucial to avoid redundant work and promote collaboration. It allows for building upon previous work and progressing forward, rather than getting stuck in repetitive loops. Trusting others’ research and recognizing when additional research may not be necessary can be challenging for many designers who enjoy that aspect of the design process. In mature design organisations, it is important to focus on leveraging existing insights for efficient delivery rather than continuously conducting extensive research. It’s about finding the right balance and understanding that not every design process requires starting from scratch or conducting a large number of customer interviews.
T: Final question! Many designers aspire to become design leaders, but may feel hesitant or doubt their capabilities. What advice or lessons would you offer to those?
P: Remember, there are different career paths within design, including the craft-focused path and the design leadership path. It’s important to see how it feels for you and if it aligns with who you are and what you like. You can be a senior designer working on complex business problems while still doing hands-on work. Explore and assess which path suits you best.
When considering design leadership, think about whether you want to be a manager and be involved in competence development and recruitment. Understand that management comes with additional responsibilities and challenges that you should be prepared for, but can also be incredibly interesting. Be open to trying out different aspects of leadership to see how they resonate with you.
T : What a great advice! What do you think is the most important thing for them to care about, being a great leader?
Consistency is crucial in design leadership. While you should be receptive to input, you need to maintain a consistent approach over time. You should also be prepared to face disagreements and challenges, knowing when to adapt and when to stay consistent. Approach your role with a positive mindset, emphasising the value of design and fostering inclusivity. Avoid a defensive or exclusive attitude and instead focus on being positive and clear. Strive to be resolute and consistent in a positive way, avoiding extremes or a negative approach.
In summary, my advice would be to embrace a design lead role, explore different aspects of leadership, be consistent in your approach, and maintain a positive and inclusive attitude.