Why Designers Are Leaders And Why It Matters

Our survey of over 600 designers revealed that a common challenge designers experience is obtaining buy-in for their ideas. Why do most designers have trouble leading the way?

A designer plans the form, look, or workings of something before it is made or built. A leader guides a group or an organization towards a destination, a vision. These definitions similarly involve tasks like planning and envisioning something that doesn’t exist, then communicating that unique, sometimes unprecedented, vision and showing others how to achieve it. 

If these activity definitions seem aligned, why do we tend to separate them in our minds? 

Could it be that designers just don’t fit with many people’s conceptions of a leader’s personality profile? 

I wondered how designers and leaders compare according to something like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a widely used personality test measuring combinations of four traits to reasonably predict which personality types will thrive in which professional roles. 



The Leader’s Profile

ENTJ (Extroverted-iNtuition-Thinking-Judging) is often referred to as the “commander type,” encapsulating the bold, innovative and strong-willed leaders who will pave their own way towards a goal. They see the world as a series of possibilities with challenges that they want to conquer. This visionary quality, coupled with a knack for strategic planning, is why this type often produces top business executives. 

How do designers compare?

Introversion vs. Extroversion 

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, notes that, “the majority of spectacularly creative people across a range of fields are introverts, or at least comfortable with spending large chunks of time alone." 

A quick, Myers-Briggs-esque poll by Michael Roller found that designers are about evenly split between introversion and extroversion. So, it would appear that introverts aren’t the only ones finding a calling in design. 

Thinking vs. Feeling

Also split down the middle was the decision-making trait. Thinkers make decisions objectively, valuing directness in their interactions and workflow process which makes them adept at establishing guidelines for creative content development. Feelers, by contrast, make decisions subjectively, practicing empathy and evaluating context to decide what is best, considering all people involved.

So, are there traits that the majority of designers do exhibit? 

The Intuition and Judging traits seemed to be most prevalent among those designers polled, and those just so happen to line up well with a classic profile of a leader.

Intuition vs. Sensing

Both designers and leaders are very high in Intuition (N). Intuition allows designers and leaders to find creative solutions, transcend stagnation and spot the value of a new practice, technique or path that lacks any precedence. Growth and evolution require leading the way for others without much data or past examples from which to draw conclusions, which Sensing personalities couldn’t do without. Therefore, designers and leaders alike move beyond their senses to see patterns and relationships within the new information to achieve their innovative visions. 

Judging vs. Perceiving

While the Intuition trait addresses high-level creativity and innovation, the Judging trait drives the design aspect of the role. At the end of the design process, there is a user. The designer must take into consideration usage goals and experiences, frequently utilizing their Judging trait to determine the best solution. Leaders are well known for being decisive, even in the face of ambiguity, since other people depend on the leader’s decisions to direct their efforts.

Using both their Intuition and Judging traits, designers and leaders straddle the line of idealist and rationalist with aptitudes for originality, insightful problem solving, and planning.

Why It Matters

I believe that in the business world, designers don’t get (and don’t give themselves) enough credit for the leadership they demonstrate. Designers lead by putting their vision on paper and by determining the specifications through which the vision becomes possible. Designers crystallize the goal by specifying as many variables as possible: choosing a particular color according to where it will be seen, the size according to pixels or millimeters, a weight of paper stock or a type of material, the explicit print process, the finishing, etc. By confidently making these choices, designers become the definers of innovative visions, who can lead others to produce groundbreaking work.

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