Demystifying design leadership levels

I've always found it ironic that the field of design is dedicated to helping people understand various "things", when we make the field of design itself so difficult to understand! I've hired around 30 designers and around 10 design leaders, and I've found job titles are no exception to this. There's a plethora of design job titles out there with an enormous variation in responsibilities and job functions. Below are just a few I've run across:

  1. Vice presidents of design with an entire career spanning 3 total years
  2. Design leads that haven't managed or mentored other people
  3. Senior level designers that have "managed large ux departments"

There has been at least one attempt over the years to bring clarity to how design roles could be differentiated, the ux leadership model. While I've always thought that model was great and helpful, I thought it was due for a refresh and a different approach.

What follows below is my attempt at creating a design leadership hierarchy that more clearly differentiates design roles. As a fair warning, it's still a little loose and conceptual for me; it took me quite a while just to get this post articulated well enough to publish. 

That said, however, I think it is still worth sharing for discussion purposes and provoking thought. I'll begin by discussing leadership levels in general and how the leadership roles model I unveiled previously can be used to better understand the differences between them.

Size doesn't matter

When someone thinks about how to differentiate leadership levels, there is a tendency to think about those levels in terms of size; either through span of control (the size of one's team) or through authority (the size of one's budget).

I don't believe that either of those ways of framing leadership levels are particularly helpful at understanding why one leader is different than another. Leadership is about more than just being able to handle larger teams or larger budgets. When it comes to leadership, size does not matter!

Behaviors do

Instead, I think leaders should be differentiated in two ways:

  1. Their behaviors - the areas of business they are focused on and the actions that they take.
  2. Their personal development - the judgement they use to navigate the world.

In this post, I'm going to focus on their behaviors and will address personal development in a future post. 

In terms of behaviors, I've found it helpful to think of how typical leadership levels map to the leadership roles model. As I've diagrammed below, the 8 different roles align nicely with 8 different levels of leadership.

Design Leadership 1.png


Note that the above is an approximation. Things are, of course, much messier in the "real world".

  1. Entry, mid level and senior level staff are responsible for being experts in their field, the customers, and general work processes. Senior level staff gain the additional responsibility of mentoring team mates. Between self and team, this level is focused on "the who".
  2. Leads and managers are responsible for defining the project visions and then effectively executing those projects by accomplishing their goals for time, schedule and resource utilization - "the what".
  3. Senior managers and directors are responsible for optimizing, innovating, and executing process - "the how". They have to be able to step out of the individual project - the tree - to see the entire process behind each project - the forest.
  4. Senior directors, vice presidents, and above are responsible for the more ambiguous domain of purpose - "the why". They help define and execute a company's sense of purpose; it's business, product and market strategies. They then utilize the lower levels of leaders to determine tactics for the strategy and to execute them.

Why do we reward higher levels of leadership with increasing access to the more mysterious and ambiguous "how and why" areas of a corporation? I believe it is because those more ambiguous areas require more mastery and experience to be able to lead them successfully.


One of the reasons why more experienced leaders have accountability over "the why" is because to excel at leading requires us to have mastered the other levels of leadership. Navigating "the why" is challenging. It's an incredibly grey space that requires an intuitive grasp of all possibilities and a sound and practical judgment to determine a correct direction to take.

An intuitive grasp of all possibilities comes from experience; having "been there done that", one can map a new situation to an old and is able to see the big picture more quickly as a result. Sound and practical judgment comes from making mistakes; mistakes typically driven by being dogmatic and inflexible with the end result being the realization that perfection and theory don't work out in practice.

Like a developmental ladder, both of those require "earning your stripes" by mastering each of the levels of leadership and being placed in charge of increasingly ambiguous areas of business. For most of us, that mastery takes quite a bit of time. The below diagram shows typical years of experience listed for job titles in the industry.

Design Leadership 2.png


Vice presidents typically have at least 15-20 years of experience. Directors typically have at least 10-15 years of experience. Managers typically have at least 7-10 years of experience. Senior level staff typically have at least 5-7 years of experience. Entry to mid-level staff typically have 0-5 years of experience.

These timeframes are just approximations and shouldn't be taken as a measuring stick of advancement, as I believe the type of experiences we have can accelerate them. I worked as a consultant for Accenture for just a little over 1.5 years and I grew as much in that time as I had grown in the 4 years prior.

While I don't believe that pure time in the seat is the only rubric for mastery, I do think it is important. 10 years ago I was obsessing over the perfect process, business systems, and other operations. Now I've reached a point that I've loosened up a bit. I've learned to relax and sometimes allow rules to be broken. This wasn't driven by a deep awareness of myself or through advice from a book. It came from pure time; repeating work day after day after day.

Am I saying that all leaders must master their current roles before going on to the next role? No, but I think a lot of bad managers are bad because they haven't done so.

Have you ever had a boss that asked you to execute something you knew was ridiculous because they didn't have a grasp of the "real" work going on "beneath" them? Me, too. We need more leaders that have mastered more of the roles to prevent this.

Focus is key

Besides mastery of roles, I also think we need to have more focus on roles. Far too often I've seen situations where every job title is responsible for every role. In that climate, there's typically not one clear sense of direction for people to rally behind and that has a tendency for people to just focus on "getting shit done" - literally!

I believe that in today's world we can't afford to be making that mistake. Our leaders need to be able to focus the majority of their time on a subset of the roles they have mastered. The diagram that follows shows the roles that I believe each level of leadership should be focusing on if they are employed in a mid to large sized company. 

Design Leadership 3.png


  1. Vice presidents should be focusing their time thinking about the current performance of the company strategy and their area's contribution to that strategy (the administrator). Simultaneously, they should be envisioning the future and changing their operations to execute that vision (the innovator and change agent).
  2. Directors should be focusing their time executing the process they "own" (the ops manager) and should be optimizing it or changing it as needed (the innovator). They should also be ensuring their teams are delivering a quality product that meets the needs of the market (the creative director).
  3. Managers should also be focusing their time on delivering a quality product to the market (the creative director) through guidance and direction to their team - the mentor - while also hitting project objectives (the project manager).
  4. Finally, front line staff should be focusing their time perfecting their skills and executing those skills to the best of their abilities (the expert) while helping their teammates perfect their skills (the mentor) and achieving project objectives (the project manager).

How much time should they be focusing on those roles? It depends on the company and context, but I'd say at least 50% of it. Also, having a focus on particular roles does not mean a leader will never perform any of the other roles. A vice president should be willing, and able, to do whatever their frontline staff can do.

The reason why I pointed out the company size earlier is because things are different in a small company or startup. In those companies, you usually have a senior leader working the entire stack. I think it's difficult for leaders in that context to focus as much on the why, but I do believe they should still set aside some time to do so. 

Why do we need more focus?

In our ever increasing fast-paced world, being first to market is requiring faster and faster timelines. As I mentioned before, companies have a tendency to put "all hands on deck" in that kind of climate, meaning everyone is focused on execution.

Unfortunately, that creates a world where product is being built with very little thought towards why it's being built, how it should be built or even what is being built. Compounding this problem, knowing what to build is dependent on knowing how to build it and knowing how to build it is dependent on why we are building it. Each level falls apart without the support of the others. 

We don't spend any time thinking about why we are building something and then we immediately jump into figuring out what we want to build. For example, it has been extremely common for me to see products with minimal or no requirements at the start of the coding phase of a project.The result is we end up building a half-assed product that, at best, the market doesn't want, and, at worst, causes the market harm. 

In today's world of ai, big data, and everywhere computing, that type of reckless focus on results and execution is more likely to end up causing the market harm. A strong shift towards having a clear focus on "the why" is going to be more critical than ever to prevent that.

The bottom line is that these new technologies require a thoughtfulness that is unprecedented and unsupported in today's corporate dynamics that want to rush to market. Companies are going to need to adjust their approach by figuring out how to get to market quickly without compromising thoughtful reflection on "the why". One approach to help this will be to truly enable leaders to be able to focus as I've described above.

Applying leadership levels to design

Now that I've covered some of my thoughts on the levels of leadership, let's discuss how it applies to design. As I mentioned earlier, the field of design brings nothing but confusion to the differences between various design job titles.

The leadership roles framework I described above, however, can help us cut through some of that confusion by aligning design job titles to specific leadership roles. Below is my recommendation for how a few of the various design job titles could align to the leadership roles.

Design Leaderhip 4.png


A vice president of design, chief design officer and head of design are equivalent as are senior director of design and executive director of design. All should be focused on "the why". Focusing on "the how" are directors of design, which are equivalent to executive creative directors, and senior managers of design.

"The what" is led by managers of design, which are equivalent to creative directors, and design leads, which are equivalent to team leads, art directors, and producers. Finally, "The who" is led by senior designers, designers, and junior level designers, with the former two mentoring the levels below.

Getting around misalignment

Even if you disagree with my recommendation above, you can still use this framework to help you navigate the hiring process!

If you're looking for a job and notice a vp title at a promising company, carefully read the job description. If you notice the job description is all about project execution and mentoring without any mention of business process management or cultural change management, you know the hiring manager of that role is really looking for a design lead!

If you notice a manager level job posting and all it describes is cultural level change management, you're likely to be underpaid or ineffective. Why ineffective? Because this company will want you to work with vice presidents to make huge change, but will only empower you as a manager to do so. Good luck with that!

If you're a hiring manager, write your job descriptions appropriately. Don't ask for someone with 3 years of experience, a manager title, and a manager salary to be your cultural agent of change; pony up the cash and get an experienced veteran by your side! Conversely, don't hire a 20 year veteran and then ask them to "make comps" all day. You'll be losing that veteran as they will quickly get bored and frustrated with their lack of ability to effect the bigger picture.

Know thyself

I consistently hear and read about designers feeling misunderstood. I believe the reason for that is because design doesn't seem to understand itself! As designers, we have to use a Rosetta Stone to communicate with each other; how can we expect the market to understand us, too?!

If we want design to be successful, and not just the latest fad soon to fade, that will need to change. We are going to have to start having conversations with one another, settle on standards and, more importantly, use them.

My intention with this article was to spur some thought and insight into one model and approach we could use to begin aligning leadership roles to job titles, particularly with design; I hope I've been successful at doing so!