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In my college days we were taught the role of a designer; although there seemed to be a discrepancy of opinion even within academia over what this should be. Confusion aside, a variety of technical skill sets were passed on: visualization and presentation skills were polished, thought processes and problem solving skills were trained, big egos were broken through the practice of group critiques, and research and trend awareness were fostered through communication and literature. As I ventured out into the working world and continued to grow as a designer I discovered another skill that was needed and often demanded of me, and in highly challenging situations. That skill is leadership.I know what you’re thinking – the “L” word. I’m not even going to attempt here to capture and philosophize in-depth about leadership. There are too many people out there that are far better and more qualified at it than me. I’d rather focus on why I think this conclusion is important to me in addition to design as a whole.

If I think back again to my time in college it makes sense that there was a discrepancy over the role of a designer, since the traditional description of our responsibilities speaks nothing of leadership. This lack of clarity suggests the reason why our profession has been struggling to find an adequate position and appropriate value within the industry.

Amid this uncertainty, here’s what we know for sure, and people throughout the industry are finally discovering – designers function on many levels. We create (yes we still do that), we negotiate, we facilitate communication and provide tools to communicate what hasn’t been thought of yet. We enable collaboration among multiple disciplines by bridging left and right brain individuals and we provide tools to collaborate with these multiple disciplines and discipline leaders. We achieve results.

So what about leadership? We know that by following our problem solving approach and the natural empathy designers show toward people we collaborate with, we can get through the most complex set of issues. All of this to me is leadership; the ability to provide guidance within a challenging environment and to collaborate on a design strategy that will lead to a solution that all parties can agree on.

This responsibility and empowerment leaves us with the opportunity of a lifetime. I feel the time has come for designers to step up. To take the responsibility of leadership and to assume roles in programs and organizations that empower us to truly induce change. This shift is already beginning with our peers in fortune 500 companies rising to VP levels and corporations expanding their creative staff. What a great position for us designers to be in.

As we strive to define our responsibilities, our actions should adapt to align with this new and changing role of the designer as a leader. Let’s collectively embrace these leadership opportunities to elevate our profession. Let’s try to be more responsible, whether it be socially or with regard to the environment. Let’s tackle these challenging topics that seemingly don’t make sense from an economic stand point and show leadership through thinking that will lead to a legacy we all wish for.

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