As VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter has a unique view into the inner workings of the world’s best design teams, and attributes shared by exceptional design leaders. Over the past 15 years, Aarron’s helped many companies to enact design best practices. In doing so, he’s seen many similar struggles.

One of those struggles is the journey from designer to design leader. Jumping into the manager role, many designers quickly realize that the skills that led them to the design leadership role won’t see them through. As Aarron says, “Design leaders are no longer playing an instrument. They’re conducting the orchestra.”

So how can design leaders successfully navigate all of the many demands thrown their way?

Essentially, design leaders need to develop a new set of core skills. Fair warning, many of these don’t always come naturally to designers, especially those who are introverted. From building a team to addressing conflict, putting DesignOps into play, providing direction and much, much more, it’s a steep learning curve. But drawing upon insights shared by fellow design leaders, and sharing your own, the journey is much easier with a community around you.


No Design Leader is an Island

If there’s one skill to prioritize as the most important of design skills, it’s this one: partnership-building.

If you’re furrowing your brows reading this, we get it, you didn’t get into design to be salesy, or to push an agenda. But in all likelihood, you did get into design to collaborate and to craft a great experience. That’s what partnership-building is all about. Design is a team sport. Building connections with other team leaders and executives ensures your team gets what it needs and partners effectively across all levels of the organization.

"Being effective, having the most impact and growing your career is all about building partnerships with people outside of design. Take a humble approach to understanding the perspectives and goals of colleagues in other teams, and find ways to help them be successful. Their success will create your success."

– Aarron Walter, VP of Design Education at InVision

How to Build Powerful Partnerships Across Teams

Partnership-building is the most important design skill. And that isn’t just someone’s opinion. It’s data. Research says so. According to InVision’s design maturity report, the most mature design teams—the ones that create lots of business value and have great influence in their companies—are in the habit of building partnerships.

In order to make the greatest impact possible, you’ll need to flex your alliance-building muscles and turn all of those “hi-bye” friends in engineering, product management, research, support, et al. into true valued partners. Here’s how to do it. Aarron outlines six tips to build powerful partnerships across teams:

  1. Don’t just network laterally—spend time with different stakeholders and executives to understand their roles and expectations.

  2. Bring stakeholders into the design process early and often to get feedback and fresh perspectives.

  3. Ask questions about the broader strategy of the company. You’ll need to understand the big picture to design products that fit into the company vision.

  4. Put design on everyone’s radar by connecting with colleagues on other teams and educating the rest of the company about design as a function, profession and mindset. When design is accessible to all, the process feels inclusive.

  5. Schedule design reviews on a regular basis to keep your design team synced and bring people outside of design into the process.

  6. In addition to design reviews, make colleagues aware of the work happening inside the design team by delivering presentations as a coffee hour or a “lunch and learn.”

Connecting with colleagues, you’ll gain a better understanding of the business big picture, and how to design products that align with the overarching company vision. Not only will you benefit from hearing other people’s perspectives, you’ll also put design in their heads. The more visible design is within your organization, the easier your job—and the job of your team. Partnership-building is an effective means to advance design within your organization, and to create a culture that is responsive to your team’s needs.

What Would You Add?

Have you found success cultivating partnerships across teams? Share your tips by commenting below. For more insights and takeaways, join us at Design Leadership Days.