Culture, Design

Dear future colleague, I’m on a journey to discover the recipe for good design leadership

Portrait of Juan Wang
June 21, 2022

Read time 5 min

Dear future colleague,

I am a lead designer with an industrial design background, and for the past decade, I’ve been working with companies from Fortune 500 corporations to early stage startups. I have always been particularly interested in how to help other designers grow, advocate for design thinking, and prove the value of product design to the senior leadership team. In this letter, I’d like to tell you about what I’ve learned.  

Growing up poor, my parents struggled to make ends meet in a rural village in Hebei, China. I’m often told it is hard to believe that I come from less than favorable conditions. I’ve never felt ashamed of my background or thought it’d have a negative impact on my life – in fact, I believe that people from backgrounds like mine are experts at chasing their dreams and turning positive thinking into actionable plans.

However, positive thinking can only get you so far. 

I got interested in design leadership when it became evident that some things in the design and tech world cannot be wished away. Over the years, I’ve had too many conversations with friends and colleagues about the double standards that exist in our industry. 

Design leaders are still predominantly white and male. 

When a woman complains or stands up for herself, she is more likely to be negatively viewed than her male peers. 

It is challenging for women, especially women of color, to have a voice in the room. 

Unfortunately, I too have personal experience from simply never being enough. I’ve been judged for trying too hard when I’ve dressed up nicely, for being too competitive when I’ve tried my best to solve a problem. In a brainstorming session, I have been told off for ‘showing off’ – likely because I came up with a few more ideas than my (male) colleagues. When I returned to the office from maternity leave, I was judged for leaving the baby behind.

As a leader, particularly a female leader, one needs to go out of their way to fight biases like these. 

When I started working at Reaktor, I was talking with my Reaktor fellows on how to be a better design leader and how to find role models. They all encouraged me to participate in design communities and mentorship programs for women in tech. Then, I heard of the Google Rare Design Leadership program, and applied for it. As luck would have it, I got accepted into the cohort 2021 training. 

Here are some things that have since helped me find my voice and proudly claim my spot as a non-white female design lead. 

First, leadership is about servantship. When I first led a small design team, I noticed our egos as designers often work against our ability to learn and grow. I realized that creating a safe space for team members to fail in – as opposed to expecting perfection – was crucial for leaders in supporting their teams. This also resonates with Reaktor’s principle of charity a lot. At Reaktor, leading a team is virtually about building a safe place for openness and trust. Caring about others’ feelings, being thoughtful with feedback, and paying attention to team members’ needs is crucial in building. 

Second, team culture makes a major difference in how your career takes form.
Unsurprisingly, team culture in a flat organization is different from hierarchical corporations. In a hierarchical organization, being a manager, the role of power calls for the manager to ensure employee commitment and compliance to the company.

What I have learned from experienced leaders at Reaktor is that a flat organization emphasizes autonomical decision making. Essentially, there is no using power over others. Leadership is about setting an example for the team, lowering one’s ego, and actually, truly caring about being fair to everyone. So…not managing at all.

If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together. I now understand why this saying makes sense.

And third, I’ve learned that as a design leader, one should know their value but also set up boundaries. Ask for feedback to not only maximize your value and career development, but to maintain a clear understanding of your worth to the team. As for boundaries, I learn how to push back when you feel your priorities slipping. Learn to ask for clarification and accountability (“what exactly do you need here? How should we reprioritize our backlog to accommodate for this task?”)  when you feel others – client or team member – might cross your boundaries. 

Finally, here are a few easy things you can do to find your dream company: 

  1. Read through recent Glassdoor reviews before jumping to the interview process. Watch out for repetitive negative feedback (micromanaging, lack of people skills, toxic social structure, to name a few). 
  2. Ask about how the company’s management is structured. How do their leaders manage? 
  3. Ask about the diversity within the design team. How does the company nurture trust for people who come from different experiences and knowledge?

As for why I have loved it at Reaktor: I bet you have never encountered a digital agency with such high employee satisfaction. After working here for a year,  I am grateful for all the support I have. I know my team is always there if I need help in growing – as a designer and as a human. 

If you, too, want to work at a place where it is safe for everyone to have a voice, look no further. Let alone the opportunity to work with top brands such as Adidas, HBO, Epic Game, ViacomCBS and more!


Dear future colleague: A series of letters written by Reaktorians. Come join us, as you are.

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