Leading highly effective design teams

Nov 6, 2021 · 5 min read

High-performing design teams do not form on their own. They are engaged and motivated by leaders who design the practice and environment to bring out the full potential of their people.

Since 2020, I've had the privilege to lead experience design globally for Aesop. The company operates across 235 signature stores in 25 countries with over 17 instances of our e-commerce experience. Since joining I've:

Scaled team globally 3x

  • We grew from 2 designers to a global team of 6 dedicated digital experience designers2 junior, 3 mids, 1 senior.
  • Responsible for resourcing, training and career development

Established Design and Research Ops

  • Aesop design system
  • Research practice
  • Tooling
  • Team rituals, design critiques, chapter time, skill-sharing
  • Lean UX and Agile ways of working

Worked with C-Suite from across the business to bring design into strategic planning.

  • Service blueprinting our 3-5 customer experience vision
  • Embedding design thinking in the development of new value propositions
  • Worked with delivery and product managers to develop a test and learn approach

Being a design leader is not about making things per se, rather It's about making things happen in a way that ensures the best possible outcomes, both for the people that work on the products, the business value and customer value. Rather than designing specific experiences, design leaders design (with their teams) the conditions for contributors to do their best work. Let me tell you how I lead my teams:

Foster mutual trust

I approach every new program of work with optimism and trust in my reports, colleagues and senior leadership. While everyone will have their own agenda and deadlines, I assume everyone I work with is here for the right reason(s), and have confidence in their skills and experience. This provides everyone I work with the psychological space to bring their best.


I believe in building things together because being intentional about about not only brings everyone on the journey but also reduces bias in our work. I advocate for designers, product managers, engineers and stakeholders to be part of the process early. Providing the space to collaborate enables everyone to be emotionally invested in the process of producing something great.

A culture of learning and experimentation

People want to come to a workplace that feels like a supportive community. Something I've really appreciated in my time at Aesop. Nurturing this kind of environment encourages team members to get out of their comfort zones and explore wider initiatives because they are supported. This is conducive to innovation and doing excellent work.


As part of working with an agile mindset, designers are expected to share their approaches and knowledge by working transparently with each other and their respective product teams. Designers and collaborators are encouraged to show work early and often and to make their research and process visible always visible. This improves communication, trust and collaboration for those responsible for the outcome.


Coaching is central to improving individuals’ performance of that of the entire team. For me, coaching designers is about developing their creative confidence, analytical skills and keeping the north star bright.

I believe in seeking co-value by balancing the needs of the business (delivery and vision) with the career growth of designers. To do this, I like to empower designers to be autonomous, to explore and develop ideas that emerge from collaborations with partners.  As such, I try to balance opinionated but experienced guidance with empowerment and individual decision making.

Support comes in the form of helping the team explore the problem space by providing altitude and focus. This approach is done by connecting ideas with the impact and opportunity as it relates to customer value.

As autonomy increases amongst individual contributors, companies may find their customer experience becomes more disjointed across channels. I ensure alignment by referring back to design principles, brand values and the long-term strategy. This approach provides the benchmark for trade-off decisions, course correction and evaluation. This coaching style provides designers and cross-functional teams direction but also space to develop their creative confidence, which results in better products and experiences.

Vision and direction

Being a design leader is not just about developing the capability of your designers. Designing the conditions for great work revolves around a vision and direction. Highly effective teams have design maturity in common. Improving UX maturity requires growth and evolution across several different factors, including:

  • Strategy: UX leadership, planning, and resource prioritisation
  • Culture: UX knowledge and cultivating UX careers and practitioners’ growth
  • Process: the systematic use of UX research and design methods
  • Outcomes: intentionally defining and measuring the results produced by UX work

I make sure I manage the continuous improvement across all of these areas so there can be a shared long term goal between contributors and what the vision of design maturity is for the business. Because design maturity is such a misused concept, I like to define it as three things:

  • Where we are now?
    (Monitored through regular retrospectives)
  • Where would we like to be?  
    (Tracked through creating quarterly OKRs)
  • How will we get there?
    (DesignOps planning with the team)

When all these proper conditions are met, then we increase our chances of doing work that we're proud of. We're more creative. We discover meaning and fulfilment. We strike a work-life balance. We scale design by building capability across the team and organisation. The benefits are outcomes over outputs, consistently higher quality work, higher quality talent and retention.


Dec 6, 2021 · 5 min readLeading Highly Effective Teams
Designing the conditions for teams to thrive

Read more

Nov 20, 2021 · 3 min readPushing Design Forward
Progressing the design agenda in organisations

May 19, 2021 · 10 min readAgile UX
A playbook for designers in product teams

Jan 4, 2020 · 3 min readHow writing can help your design practice
Strategies for reflective practice