Leading Design Conf, what I hope to learn.

So. You’re going to Leading Design Conf. Or rather: I am going to LD Conf, I actually have no idea where you are going. 😏

Before diving into the list of things I hope to learn, perhaps I should explain how I came to register for a conference aimed at design leaders. Because who are we kidding, I’m not a design leader … am I?

Couldn’t think of an image more accurate than LD’s masthead visual ^^

Note: This article is mostly for self-reflection and future reference, as well as a writing-exercise. Although: if you read this and you’ll be attending LD as well … let’s meet!

Starting out as a frontend-developer almost 10 years ago, I’ve kind of grown into being a webdesigner ‘en cours du route’ — I did study Graphic & Digital media though — Add a general interest and hands-on mentality in information architecture, user flows and user experience (the most dreaded term in the digital era), and you’ll find me as I am now: the designer unicorn*🦄 : Designing for the web, driven by clean and accessible code, purposeful animation & motion, and ease of management in the CMS, one eye on the brand, the other on the user. And, of course, I always keep the client’s budget and the project manager’s deadline in mind.

Okay, now that’s just showing off. 😉 Can I really do all of those things at once? Fair enough, I just want to illustrate how many things there are to be considered when designing for the web. And that’s only the tip of the veil, really. I’m always looking for a balance in the project, comparing different solutions and considering their impact on the user experience and the project constraints. It’s often a give and take on many different levels.

* not really a unicorn

I work for D’M&S — a creative communication agency. We tend to do it all. And that’s not even a lie! From strategic marketing, branding & visual identity to online ànd offline applications. From print to digital, from video & motion graphics to full-blown events and everything in between. LinkedIn would tell you I’m an Online Art Director but my personal aim is to bridge the gap between design & development, design & the customer, design & management, heck even between design & designers.

What I currently try to achieve as a designer

Within my field of expertise:

I strive to be a mentor. I absolutely love to help upcoming talent to find their way in the complex world of designing for the web, or to help graphic designers reorient towards online design. From software (Sketch, coding, PS, …) to conversion techniques to human psychology and motion. There’s so much to learn when you’re dealing with the variety of projects we do at D’M&S: from high traffic global corporate webplatforms to SME websites, from mobile apps or online and offline loyalty platforms.

Off topic: In my opinion, mentorship plays an important role in your career as a creative— like in every craft I guess. My advice to starters or interns on finding a great place to work: look for a place with good mentors, or a great team that you can learn from, who can guide you and who are willing to teach you what they’re passionate about.

What I can do better:
In the process of explaining something practically, e.g. how overwriting Symbols works in Sketch, I tend to get into some more substantial stuff like: how wireframes are to be understood. And how one — as visual designer — can implement structural changes, without breaking functionality (in collaboration with the UX-architect). That’s just one example. There’s just so much to be told. At some point a colleague might just ask me a tiny question and I end up explaining for a few hours trying to cover all the ins & outs of webdesign …

That’s why I’ve recently started ‘Lunch&Learn’ — collecting all the random stuff I’m teaching colleagues individually, and try to bring that same message in a casual get-together during lunch. And of course I don’t want it to be just me teaching, there’s plenty of smart people to share their passion with others.

Somewhat outside of my comfort zone:

  • As I truly care about the work we deliver, I noticed that some of our best work is where people really work together, not beside one another. That’s what I try to achieve currently: get the right people together, at the right time. Of course there’s often certain constraints (budget, timing, planning, …).
  • Make people enjoy of their work, and be proud to deliver.
  • Teach project managers how to work together with creatives, and vica versa.
  • Learn designers to ask questions, as much questions as needed. More importantly: what questions to ask. I step into the project manager’s briefing and help out to define the customers need.
  • Learn designers to dare to fail, especially: I try to schedule time to allow failure, because if deadlines are too tight, one wouldn’t dare to experiment…
  • Learn designers to be confident and sell their design (thanks Mike Monteiro ;)
  • Cultivate cross-media design. As mentioned before, I keep trying to get people from different crafts together (copy, concept, online design, offline design, video & motion) to inspire each other.
  • I talk to management, to discuss daily-basis work stuff. How planning gets along, problems we encounter, practical and technical things such as font-management, DAM (*shrugs*), server-infrastructure, …
  • I’m also involved in the hiring process — and this works in both ways: I want to let candidates honestly know how we work and what they can expect, and I tell them upfront what people we are looking for, what the job holds and how they would fit in.

Where I want to grow as a design leader

  • Get design closer to business development, make it not just a visual ‘layer’, but the core of a brand, campaign or website.
  • Get design closer to clients instead of only through the project manager.
  • Deliver delight. Surprise clients and customers. Exceed their expectations.
  • Optimise processes and communication so that we can also bring that delight to small-budget projects.
  • Get design closer to development. More 2 way communication versus an ‘interpretation’ of the design.
  • Talk & write more about design.

So there you have it. An incredible insight into my deepest secrets, now let’s get to the part what this article is actually about. ⤵️

So how does Leading Design Conf fit in all that?

I’m aware that I probably won’t learn all of the following. But it’s about taking a step in the right direction. That’s what life is all about, no? Babystep after step until you look back and realise you took a giant leap.

It’s actually fairly simple, I want to improve in what I mentioned above. Get better in what I’m doing and set certain professional goals in the near future.

  • Find out how people from different crafts can inspire each other. Get people to talk more about design and share stuff they’re passionate about, or problems they encounter.
  • Improve our design process towards a client and get clients more involved. Work with moodboards, roughs, to set the tone, general design direction before working out actual pages or screens.
  • Help designers (and myself) to better communicate design decisions.

Thinking of myself: in the process of designing a certain solution, there’s so much going on unconsciously. Sometimes the design presentation is only after a few weeks, and a client or project manager asks ‘why did you put X on the left side’ or ‘I don’t like that pink’, I sometimes simply can’t remember. Not because I don’t have my sh*t together, but in the time passing I’ve dealt with so many other projects, it simply got pushed aside in my mind.

The latter is an issue I really need to address, because when I’ve got time to prepare my design presentations, I’m actually good at this! Being able to articulate your design decisions is important (or have someone to back you up), because this really affects your self-esteem and allows you to grow as a designer.

  • Gain better feedback from clients. We’ve come a long way already (I still remember the times I asked: Do you like it?🙈 ) But, still, we (or perhaps it’s just me?) need to go further. Educate our clients more, be confident about the choices we’ve made.
  • Get developers involved in the design process. I believe it’s the only way to deliver quality and overall better user experience, really.

Note to myself: read up about it. Jeffrey Veen sure knows a thing or two about that.

  • How to develop my skills or at least find out which skills to develop to lead a multidisciplinary team of designers in a full service communication agency.
  • How to innovate creatively / bring delight / surprise in small-budget projects.

A common challenge in Product Design is to keep one and the same vision from Design to Development.

I totally stole this quote from an article on Framer — but it actually applies to the workflow of a website as well (heck, some even dare to say webdesign *is* product design).

  • This leads me to the point where I want do develop a clear vision on the impact of design on brands, projects & user experience. Either a global company-wide vision, or at least on a project-basis. A vision that everyone — from sales to development — can support. I want everybody to communicate this vision to clients an be sure to follow up so it doesn’t fade during the production cycle of a website, brand, event, video, …

Now what?

Going to the conference of course, I can’t wait to get insights from a few people I look up to and others I don’t know yet. *Excited!* 🙌

On a sidenote: For me personally, just writing this article made me stop for a moment and reflect on what I do professionally, and more importantly: on what I want to do. I would recommend everyone at least just doing that.

Want to read more about Leading Design Conf? Check the website or read forecast-interviews with a few speakers. Thanks in advance Clearleft!

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Dries Delaey

Author of no books. Hurts & hearts design. Gets things done, together. Occasional runner.