Buzz Usborne
Work

Design Leadership

A short story… 7 years ago I was the Design Director of a πŸ¦„ billion-dollar tech company. I was the team lead of 20+ people spread over a variety of offices and disciplines. Things were good. It was the position I’d worked over a decade for — but one that I would later leave and return to hands-on design work πŸ™ŒπŸΌ

Above • I can’t control my hands when I talk.

Wait, what? Director back to contributor wasn‘t the career move I had expected either — but a move that felt right all the same.

As a manager I had loved helping designers produce their best work. I really enjoyed being involved in the conceptual discussions, helping integrate design-thinking across the business, embedding human-centered design practices in engineering teams. I was good at it. But at the same time I was missing my craft — hands-on problem solving is what fuels me… and that’s just not something you can do as a manager.

I wanted to help lead others, but I also wanted to design.


Principal Designer

Through a bit of trial and error, I discovered the Principal Design role — a position I’ve held at various tech companies since. I get asked a lot what a Principal actually does, and whilst I can’t answer for every company — I can tell you what I do πŸ€”.

In my experience, it’s been a role where I get to practice my craft (i.e. feature design, working with engineers, shipping cool stuff to customers) whilst also helping other designers produce their best work. I lead by example, whilst coaching other designers to achieve excellence on their own terms.

It’s leadership, but in the sense that I’m accountable to the success of other people… but not responsible. That’s how I measure my success — if the people around me feel more creative, productive and supported in their role… then I’ve done a good job.

The role plays out to be about 60% hands-on feature work, and 40% design operations. The hands-on work for a Principal tends to be higher impact, more strategically important features — or projects that need a bit of a helping hand. The remaining 40% is a bit fuzzier, but is defined by making sure everyone has what they need to do great work — that varies place to place, but is mostly covered by the following:

Design Ops ⚑️

In this capacity I make sure the teams I work with have the tools and processes necessary to do their best work. That can take many forms, and ranges from building out and scaling design systems, finding new ways to collaborate remotely, writing documentation on how to work more effectively, or simply maintaining the suite of tools necessary for modern, user-centred design.

The way I approach the above is to look for ways teams work that don’t scale, or where certain struggles have become commonplace — and build structure around them. At Campaign Monitor that involved building better relations between design and engineering, at Atlassian is was to find ways to help designers feel more inspired and creative, at Help Scout I established design systems and facilitated remote communication, and at Buildkite I’ve been building collaborative practices.


Coaching

In 2020 I opened my coaching practice, Your Friend Buzz as a way to gain more exposure to designers outside my immediate role. Since then I’ve had the pleasure and absolute privilege to coach 200+ designers from all over the world.

I see myself as an ally ☺️ to the people I coach, both within the companies I work for and freelance. I help my people navigate career growth, develop concepts and overcome tough creative challenges — with a focus on happiness, creativity and mental wellbeing. I lead with curiosity, honesty and vulnerability — and in doing so I’ve learned an incredible amount about design, communication and myself.

Definitely not Zoom

I’ve coached designers from household names like Facebook, Zillow and Uber — but also talent from emerging markets like Nigeria, India and Brazil — from juniors just setting out, to seniors navigating burnout. It’s hard to know the impact you have as a coach, but people have said some nice things about me…


So there you have it — a quick journey from management back to individual contributor, and how to have your cake and eat it 🍰.

If you're interested in learning a little more about the typical role of a Principal Designer, I can recommend this article from Intercom, roles at BuzzFeed by the brilliant Cap Watkins, or one of the many stories on Staff.Design

 

Wanna chat?

If you have more questions than answers or you’re just looking for a friendly face in design — drop me an email. I promise I’ll reply.

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