Menu Search
Jump to the content X X
SmashingConf London Avatar

We use ad-blockers as well, you know. We gotta keep those servers running though. Did you know that we publish useful books and run friendly conferences — crafted for pros like yourself? E.g. our upcoming SmashingConf London, dedicated to all things web performance.

Assuming Leadership In Your Design Agency

There comes a point in the career of many Web designers where the logical progression in that career is to take on a leadership position. A logical step or not, when a designer “assumes” this type of a position, there is often another “assumption” happening at the same  —  that wizard-like proficiency with HTML and CSS, coupled with a number of years in the industry, equips someone to take on a leadership role. This is, of course, not always the case.

Over the past few years, I have gone through this transition myself, moving from a Web designer to a Creative Director to my current role as the Director of Web Development. During this transition, I turned to the blogs and other resources that I had found helpful in my career to that point, looking for tips and lessons that would help me in my new role. I quickly realized was that while there are countless articles to help you become that aforementioned HTML and CSS wizard, there are precious few that deal with the move from designer to director.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

In this article, I will share some of the lessons I have learned over these past few years. These are not earth shattering truths and many of these lessons are common sense, but these are the lessons that helped me along the way, and that I found myself needing to be reminded of most often, as I moved from team member to team leader.

Leading by Leading Link

Typically, someone who has risen from a Web designer to a director has done so because they excel in the technical aspects of the job (design, HTML, CSS, etc.) and also at solving problems. Because they are skilled problem solvers, it is easy for a director to want to solve the problems for those they are supervising, rather than leading them to solve the issues for themselves. The concept of “leading by doing” isn’t always the best solution, however. I think John Maeda, the President of the Rhode Island School of Design, says it best in his book, Redesigning Leadership4:

“Leading by doing ceases to be leading when there is more doing than leading.”

For someone who is used to rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty to solve a problem (or as dirty as HTML and CSS can really get your hands), this lesson of leading others to solve problems for themselves is one you will likely need to be reminded of often (I know I was).

Redesigning Leadership

To learn more about leadership, I highly recommend reading John Maeda’s book and visiting his blog.

How do you start letting go and allowing others to solve problems for themselves? Simple  —  you trust them and give them a shot. The solution they find with may not be the one you would have come up with, and you may need to direct them through a few extra rounds to get to the solution you would like, but the result is that you will help them get to that solution eventually!

This learning will pay off the next time they have to solve a similar issue, because by leading others to find solutions for themselves whenever possible, and really trusting them along the way, you will make your whole team stronger and free yourself up to do the other important work that is part of your new role as a director.

No Room for Negativity Link

If you have risen to a leadership position in an organization, it’s very likely you have commiserated and complained with the rest of the team on a number of occasions about everything from client feedback to project deadlines or budgets to general workplace frustrations. That has to stop.

Your team will take their cues from you. If you are frustrated and complaining, they will be frustrated and complaining. If, however, you take a bad situation and make the best of it and keep a positive attitude, that will go a long way to keeping the overall morale of your team positive as well. When the complaints do come, don’t ignore them, address them head on and diffuse the situation.

Now, this isn’t to say that you won’t get frustrated at times. Uncle Ben may have told Peter that “with great power comes great responsibility”, but he failed to add that with great responsibility also comes great headaches. You will get frustrated and need to blow off some steam from time to time, but you will find that by being the voice of reason and keeping calm, your own frustrations will often be diffused in the process. If you do need to vent, remember to never do it in front of your team. Their mood will mirror your own, so stay positive.

Buy Someone a Sandwich Link

Positive reinforcement is important to any team. This reinforcement can come in many forms, from financial rewards to additional benefits or time off, etc. One of the most effective ways that I have found to show someone their hard work is appreciated is also one of the simplest, however. Buy them some lunch.

Besides being affordable in even the most challenging economy, taking team members to lunch gets them out of the office for a bit and it allows you to interact with them on a real level. It’s easy to get caught up in the amazing advances in CSS3 or Responsive Web Design and forget that your team members are more than Web professionals  —  they are people with lives outside of the office and interests that have nothing to do with HTML.

Take someone out to lunch and leave the office behind. Don’t schedule the lunch like you would any other meeting, make it a surprise and delight someone who wasn’t expecting to go out that day. While you are out, be sure to say “thank you” for your team’s hard work. You’ll be amazed at what some good food, a real conversation outside of the office, and a genuine “thank you” will do for your team’s morale. Give it a shot for yourself  —  take your team out for lunch today and see what happens.


Sometimes even a creative side project is enough to spark the interest of your team. Try inviting everybody to a chalk board to engage creative thinking and make it clear that everybody’s opinion matters. Image credit6.

If There’s Going to be a Meeting, Everyone Participates Link

Regularly scheduled meetings can help keep a team in sync, but meetings for the sake of meeting can be wearisome. When I first took over the responsibility of running meetings for our department, I tried a number of configurations. I tried different days of the week and different times of the day. I tried to do a number of short meetings throughout the week versus only one longer one at week’s end. I mixed it up as I tried to find the right formula, but my meetings still seemed to be lacking something. Then I figured out what was wrong. It was me.

By “leading” the meeting, I realized I can come to dominate the conversation, turning it into more of a lecture than an actual exchange of ideas. That was what needed to change.

It doesn’t matter if you do short meetings each day or a single longer meeting at the end of the week, what matters is that everyone gets engaged in the conversation. If your meetings are suffering the same way mine were, try mixing it up and ask someone to present a project they are currently working on, or a site they recently saw that blew them away, or ask them to summarize a great article they recent read. Get everyone to participate and you will clearly see the energy level of your meetings instantly start to rise.

Be Selective With Projects Link

As a team leader, you will often be one of the first ones in front of a new client and a new project. You will be part of all that initial excitement and exchange of ideas. This is a very exciting time in a project and it is not unusual to get out of a kickoff meeting and want to do all the work yourself. Unfortunately, that is no longer your role.

One of the biggest challenges in the transition from designer to director is the reality that your job is to often assign work to others that you really wish you could assign to yourself. As a director, will have less time to design and develop websites, because more of your time is required to help others more effectively design and develop websites.

That being said, you need to strike a balance. From time to time, you should assign a project to yourself, but be selective. Knowing you can’t personally design every new project or develop every new site gives you the chance to pick and choose which projects go to which team member, yourself included. Just remember not to keep ALL the great jobs for yourself  —  the team will definitely notice that!

Grow Your Bookshelf Link

Web professional are lifelong learners. The always changing nature of our industry forces us to constantly be learning if we want to keep our skills current. The change to a leadership role does not eliminate this need, it simply adds to the type of learning you must do.

In addition to books on HTML, CSS or design principals, your bookshelf should grow to contain titles on managing others or running a business. Recently, I’ve added the excellent titles from A Book Apart to my bookshelf. These titles are written by the likes of Ethan Marcotte, Dan Cederholm and Jeremy Keith  —&#8202 authors whom I’ve read for years via their blogs as well as books. I have also recently added some titles that are not related to Web design to my shelf, including Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hasson, Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, and Redesigning Leadership by John Maeda, from which a quote appears earlier in his article.

Your role as a director is a duel role. You need to manage and lead, but you also need to be current and relevant in your Web design skillset. This should be reflected in the learning you are doing. Next time you look for Web design books, also add a few titles to your cart that have little or nothing to do with manipulating pixels and more to do with managing people.


Perhaps going to a local library and taking a closer look at the leader management section there will also help you stumble on that book  —  the one your colleagues recommended to you in the good old days. Image credit8.

Listen and Decide Link

A big part of being a team leader is making decisions. A big part of making decisions is realizing that, no matter how hard you may try, you will never please everyone.

As the team leader, you will need to listen to different points of view, but you will also have to be the one to decide which ones point in the right direction and which ones do not. In the end, you need to be the one that makes the right choice for the project, the team, or the company as a whole.

You should encourage others to share their opinions with you, from the CEO to the intern that started last week. Listen to what they have to say with an open mind and be willing to have your own opinions changed, but once you have considered everyone’s opinion, including your own, you need to decide the path to take. In the end, others may not agree with your opinion, but they will be more likely to support you in the decision you made if you truly took the time to consider all options before you made your choice.

The I in Team Link

Throughout this article, I have referenced the move from team member to team leader, but the reality is that even though you may be leading the team, you are still a part of it, not apart from it. Remember to use the word “us” often and show those under your supervision that you are with them.

I think a quote from E.M. Kelly says it well and gives me an appropriate way to end this article:

The difference between a boss and a leader: a boss says “Go!”  —  a leader says “Let’s go!”

Are you ready to assume leadership? Excellent  —  let’s go!

(il) (vf)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8

↑ Back to top Tweet itShare on Facebook

Jeremy Girard was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his crime-fighting career before it even began. Unable to battle the forces of evil, he instead works as the Director of Marketing and Head of Web Design/Development for the Providence, Rhode Island based Envision Technology Advisors. He also teaches website design and front-end development at the University of Rhode Island. His portfolio and blog, at, is where he writes about all things Web design.

  1. 1

    Awesome article that applies itself not only to web designers but leaks out into other areas as well.

  2. 2

    Mário Andrade

    November 16, 2011 7:31 am

    It’s a very nice reading and I recommend this to all bosses and leaders.

    If you are leading you should understand that leading it’s not telling people what to do but helping them achieve the best result possible.

    • 3

      Very great !
      I’m ok whith you Mario, but it’s not easy to leave the work for team…complicated at the beginning and increasingly easy and useful later !

  3. 4

    Navigator Multimedia

    November 16, 2011 8:29 am

    Just as web design leaders should encourage fellow employees to “share their opinions,” why not share resources? Wouldn’t it be awesome to see design companies equipping their offices with communal “libraries”: where the books and manuals purchased to foster better leadership and design skills were shelved after an initial reading, for the benefit of the team?
    Not to say that every employee will be clambering over the titles, but I think its symbolic presence could help boost moral.
    Great article, thank you!

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

    • 5

      It’s a great idea and we actually do that where I work as well. We have a bookcase full of books that anyone can take out and read. They also act as great reference materials.

  4. 6

    I liked that. Thanks.


  5. 7

    Great article, I truly recommend the part about growing ones self. During my transition to a leadership role, connecting with other designers and educating myself helped make the whole process that much easier to handle.

    Also getting to genuinely know people makes the work environment so much easier to be in.

  6. 8

    This is a well formed article with merits beyond its intended targets.
    But my main interest right now targets how to develop from freelance to business “the first employee” situation. Not the technical aspects (law and accounts) but the management aspects and new responsibilities it brings…
    Would you care to expand on your experience from that – or others might be able to advise.

    Currently, keeping small and selective with work is good enough, but limiting potential.

  7. 9

    Exactly what I needed to hear ~ thanks for sharing.

  8. 10

    Great to see that my article is being well received! Thanks for the great feedback so far.

    Neil – It sounds like you are talking about the move from a freelancer to opening your own business and hiring your first employee – is that correct?

    I’ve never made this transition myself, I’ve always joined an existing team rather than build my own from a freelance scenario, but the principals of being an effective leader apply either way. Here are my basic suggestions outside of those already covered in this article:

    1. Hire good people – not only good designers or developers, but quality people who you want to be around. Having the right people goes a long way.

    2. Be flexible – treat your people well and realize that they work to live, not vice versa. You will need to have rules and standards, but whenever you can make small accommodations to help someone out with scheduling, etc., that will help them really appreciate the job and be that more more loyal to you and your company.

    3. Say NO to some jobs – it is tempting to take any job that comes along, especially when you have employees to pay (a scenario you don’t have when you are a freelancer), but taking a job that is not a fit just because it has a nice budget or will look good in the portfolio can really hurt you in the end. If the project is not a fit, it will likely become a regret – eating into your time, profits and overall company morale. Just say no.

    Those are a few basic suggestions – hope they help!

  9. 11

    Great article, you make some really good points about leading. I’ve seen to many “Bosses” that believe fear and giving orders is the best way to lead. I understand that sometimes has a boss you need to “lite a fire under” people to get them to preform but that doesn’t create a great team, just mad and scared employees.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. 12

    what a silly bio.. made me laugh :D

    • 13

      Thanks – another “lesson” I have learned is don’t always take yourself so seriously. Life is short…have some fun every now and again.

  11. 14

    Wow, amazing article ! I’m not in such a position yet for hopefully I’m not too far from it. Eventually we evolve into team leaders and I guess is good to be prepared for the role.

  12. 15

    Design agencies must be care of latest web galleries and must suggest the team to check it regularly.
    Recently the galleries are available not only for web home page designs but for all other ui elements – HTML form Ui gallery.. – Typography Gallery

  13. 16

    Understand a transition from Web Designer to Director of Web Development. Sort of puzzled by Creative Director step in between these two. From my experience Creative Directors come from creative or marketing teams, not from the webdev…

  14. 17

    Michael Persson

    November 16, 2011 4:30 pm

    Nice reading, I’m in a similar carreer situation even I have been running my own agency Abroad for some years. The option to go from production to leader is a natural step and I feel really ready. In a creative team there are very individual needs and it’s important to have a more flexible strategy to get the best out of all but also follow deadlines.

    I’m looking forward to my next move and a step up to creative director …

  15. 18

    Chris Olberding

    November 16, 2011 9:47 pm

    Good article. Running my own agency for the last four years, leadership is the thing I struggle with the most.

  16. 19

    Great article!

  17. 20

    What for a disgusting person seems to be a leader! It seems that leadership is based on lies. Offer some food and your collaborators will follow you like sheeps follow shepherd. Considering collaborators as idiots (eat your sandwich, thank you for your hard work, bla bla bla) is your key to a successful leadership? What for a creative team is that? Is made of idiots? Human relationships are more complex as depicted.

    • 21

      You missed the point a bit here. “Buying someone a sandwich” is not about a bribe – it’s an excuse to get everyone out of the office and have a conversation and relationship that has nothing to do with building web pages (or whatever other business you may be in).

      Saying “thank you” is not about lip service and, as you say, “blah, blah, blah” – I said to say a ‘genuine’ thank you. This means to not only say it, but mean it.

      You are right on one count – leadership is not about lies or trying to get people to follow you like a herd – it is about communication and human relationships. When I take my team out to lunch, that is what it is about – enjoying their company and their conversation and rewarding them for being good workers AND great people.

  18. 22

    Gavin Dellbridge

    November 17, 2011 2:44 am

    @Aladar – I think you might be missing the point a little. The article doesn’t suggest you can just buy someone a sandwich and be a fantastic manager, more that little gestures can have a huge impact on the morale of a team. Everyone likes to feel appreciated and a pat on the back is always welcome (especially if it’s followed by free food).

    I know most of the guys on my team would respond well to that. Not saying it’s a cure-all, just a nice boost to be able to provide from time to time.

  19. 23

    Hey thanks a lot!!
    As you mentioned above, I was also looking for articles that helped me manage my web team as I’m just starting my own and have half a dozen designers under me. Assigning the projects and managing them was all chaotic in the beginning and I’m still undergoing the maintenance of my leadership skills but this article came right into time.

    I see that some of the tips you provided are really great like buying a lunch, being selective. I’m also glad that I was already doing some of the points you mentioned like no negativity and increasing the bookshelf, listening and deciding.

    Also, the meeting thing, that same thing is happening to me right now. Thanks, I believe the tips on meeting will surely prove great.

    And, you have an amazing bio. Loved it!! My empathy for you for being robbed of super hero capabilties.

    • 24

      The loss of superpowers is a sensitive subject for me – thank you for sympathizing. :)

  20. 25

    Johan Pettersson

    November 17, 2011 3:50 am

    Thanks for the article!

    It helps me explain for my boss what I want to be after my role as web designer.

  21. 26

    Super article. This is so true indeed. I try to focus more and more on taking a leading role on projects. This article comes in handy in future projects!

  22. 27

    Great Article… I was looking for it.. thanks a lot

  23. 28

    Nice. Cheers. If you could only buy one of the books you mention which one would it be? (ambitious, but skint)

    • 29

      If I had to buy only one, it would be Rework. Of the group, that is the one that has had the most dramatic impact on my day to day business life.

  24. 30

    Definitely a good read. Another perspective to consider is one from a company that isn’t a design agency or studio. Leading your team can bring on additional challenges when your company may not understand the importance of a creative team…. You find yourself also needing to “protect” your team members: either in their roles or time in the face of developers, sales team members, management, etc.

  25. 31

    Ignazio Lacitignola

    November 17, 2011 10:38 am

    Thank you Jeremy for this amazing article.
    Your writing is direct, clear and transpire your great personality.
    Bookmarked your personal blog :)

  26. 32

    Nice article.

  27. 33

    You make a great point about negativity. It ruins the moral of the entire team, and can shatter your productivity level, keeping you and your team from accomplishing goals. Positive reinforcement and a positive attitude can make your team excel and want to do even better the next time.

  28. 34

    Thanks for sharing this! Bet you’re just an awesome leader. I would reccomend that not only for webdesigners!

  29. 35

    Nice tips! I hope I’ll remeber those when I get there.

  30. 36

    Great Article! Thanks for sharing your experience, this will help me a lot to be a better leader.

  31. 37

    Very Thanks for your article.
    If you are in leadership positions, you should encourage colleagues to share information and best for the collective creation of collective solidarity.

  32. 38

    Mark DiSciullo

    November 23, 2011 9:40 am

    Great topic Jeremy! I love the practicality of your content. I feel I can apply what you wrote about today with my team.

    It is very important for the UX profession to grow strong and effective leaders. As the global business world continues to realize the value of the customer/user experience design and how it truly provides the differentiator from the competition and ensures adoption of their products and services, more and more CEOs, EVPs, and Directors of organizations will be required to have UX and/or Experience Design backgrounds.

    I write about a similar topic on my recent blog post:

    10 Essential Principles for UX Leadership:

  33. 39

    Raquel de Castro Maia

    November 23, 2011 10:12 pm

    Fantastic message, simple and efficient. Thank you

  34. 40

    Happy you enjoyed the article…and thanks for the link to your post as well.

  35. 41

    Good article. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  36. 42

    Fantastic Article with quite a lot of useful tips. With 2 years into my own studio I have realized the need for a book shelf now ;-) An open bookshelf will definitely tempt people to pick a book.

    Would also like add that regular meets to improve each one’s skills needs to be organized within a team. Many a times we dont get right kind of projects to keep learning the new stuff. Probably an organized workshop within the team would help each one learn or enhance a skill and contribute better.

  37. 43

    Great article, I hope my Director comes across it!

  38. 44

    Marcus Marritt

    December 2, 2011 6:18 am

    A very strong article Jeremy, well done. I myself am a Creative Services Director, with a history in ATL agencies but now working at a UX agency. My team inherently have brilliant knowledge and expertise in areas I dont due to their skillsets and the fact I am less than a year in this specific digital role. I am always very conscious of listening to them and ensuring their is a very strong collaborative spirit in the team – it would be a inherently negative thing if I tried to be too authoritive in terms of the tech side of things we do, my skillset is in pure design and the creative process and management of projects. This is where I believe we work so well as a team – yes I am the leader and focused very much on driving us forward, but we very much act as a collective in the overall pool of skills we share.

  39. 45

    diego montejo

    December 2, 2011 6:28 am

    beatiuful article! is very necessary in this moment for me!

  40. 46

    This is quite a moving article for me and really resonates – it’s so nicely written and makes me realise, sadly, that I spent a lot of my early years in digital design working with the wrong sorts leaders who were trying to compete with their team rather than encourage a team effort and a sharing ethos. However I’ve now turned this experience around and (hopefully!) now lead creative teams akin to the way that you describe and it’s wonderful!

  41. 47

    Good article. Coming to it late via the twitters. Each major point is solid, but there is one major focus missing: growing your own replacement. From the way you describe your transitions, I’d wager to say that this didn’t happen for you, but you’re in the perfect spot to establish it going forward.

    This is more than mentoring and ensuring training for your team, which is certainly important. But identifying and grooming future UX leaders is an altogether different activity and skill, in need of great wisdom and confidence. You must know how to identify the right people, how to evaluate their desire, how to work with them separately without offending the rest of the team, and how and what to teach them.

    There are, of course, many resources for this, but, as with other aspects of our job as leaders, the time to prepare is well before the need appears. So, essentially, shortly after getting settled into a new leadership role, it is time to begin thinking about who will occupy it next and what needs to be done now to start working toward that point.

    Best of luck! Thanks for the read!

  42. 48

    Melvin Thambi

    May 14, 2012 1:19 pm

    Exactly what i was looking for, simple but great article!


↑ Back to top