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Making the jump from Designer to Head of Design

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The jump from designer to Head of Design is like that from musician to conductor. A designer is a highly skilled specialist that performs as a part of a larger ensemble. The Head of Design decides how to interpret new works, unifies the performers, sets the tempo, listens critically, and shapes the final output.

I progressed to Head of Design gradually and organically. It’s been a process of slowly zooming out. From focusing on myself and one project to focusing on all projects, the whole design team, and studio.

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Starting out

Designers use their specialised skills to create custom solutions to clients’ problems. They are responsible for one of the crucial parts of a brand studio's output. However, designers usually work on one project at a time, within a larger project team, and in creative territories defined by strategists and creative leads.

They are laser-focused on their personal design work. Quality is controlled by their own personal standards and constructive critiques led by others. They manage their own time and output while working towards personal creative and professional development.

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Next level

Succeeding as Head of Design requires wearing many hats. You are still a designer but you are also part manager, mentor, critic, curator, educator, engineer, ambassador, archivist, therapist, technologist, writer, and firefighter.

In this role, you work across all projects, teams, and departments. You work to define creative territories and design briefs, inspire the design team, crack the big idea, develop the design, and solve any problems that arise. You also build bridges and create systems to help projects flow more smoothly.

Each solution must be appropriate for the client and the problem you are solving

Quality control comes down to you. Each solution must be appropriate for the client and the problem you are solving. You need to ensure that the work is striking and cuts through the noise. You work to expand the studio’s vocabulary by producing new and less expected solutions.

You are also responsible for fostering growth. Working on the design team’s creative and professional development, finding new and up-and-coming talent, and helping to build the studio’s public profile.

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Letting go is hard

The biggest challenge when becoming Head of Design is learning to let go. It seems counterintuitive but you can’t do or control everything across all projects. You have to let go of whole parts of the process, including some of the things you enjoyed as a designer. 

You also have to let go of details. When you are fully dedicated to one project, you know everything about the client, context, content, goals, parameters, and process. As Head of Design, you need to learn which parts of each project you need deep, intimate knowledge of versus a more general overview, trusting your team to work through the details.

This is an area where I’m continually working to strike the right balance. At Gretel, we have an incredibly talented and hardworking team that I know and trust, which makes letting go easier. Though there are still times when I need or want to dig into details myself.

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How do I get there?

Make yourself invaluable. To begin with, start widening your scope. Learn about and contribute to projects you're not explicitly assigned to. Suggest references, generate ideas, sketch, diagram, design, critique, or problem-solve. Whatever it takes. A large part of the role is enabling design through work other than design itself.

Analyse your own process. Break down the steps you go through on a project. Think about what you do, why you do it, and how you do it. Build on what has worked best in the past to develop systems and templates for each stage of a project.

Become a bridge between the different people, teams, and departments in your studio. Work across design, strategy, project management, and operations. Collaborate with creative specialists and vendors. Help solve any problems that arise between them.

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Make the studio a better place

Work to foster a creative and collaborative environment within the studio. Lead by example. The way you treat your work and coworkers can set the tone for others around you. Help guide and support less experienced designers. Inspire the design team by sharing new tools, techniques, resources, and references. Instigate trips to talks, galleries, and archives where you can look beyond design for inspiration.

Find new and up-and-coming talent. A great place to start is with your studio's internship program. Consider candidates that have applied but also get out into the classrooms, attend portfolio reviews, and screenings. You'll gain experience meeting with candidates, evaluating their work, and speaking about what makes your studio special.

The way you treat your work and coworkers can set the tone for others around you

Contribute to internal projects such as your studio’s website, capabilities presentations, and side projects. You’ll learn about what’s happening across the studio, interact with different departments, and get a glimpse into the direction that the studio is headed.

Finally, start helping to raise the public profile of your studio by creating your best work, submitting it for awards, participating in talks and interviews, as well as social posts, articles, books, and exhibitions.

Becoming Head of Design means taking on more and new types of responsibility. You lead an ensemble of highly skilled specialists and share credit with your collaborators. You’re no longer the soloist or first violin, which is the point. Your job is to make sure others are heard, and perfectly on-pitch.

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 ​By Dylan Mulvaney, Head of Design, Gretel

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