Ask Adobe Design: How do you lead as a principal designer?

Observations from five designers who’ve chosen this IC career path

A two-panel digital illustration. In the top panel against a blue background is a from-the-top view of a seated purple person with pink hair, wearing a long-sleeve green shirt. They're writing Xs on a sheet of paper with a pencil and additional pages are strewn around them. In the second panel is a parade of animals on a chartreuse background (from left to right, a green pink and blue snail, a pink dragon with a green tail, a blue and purple cat, and a pink parrot with a blue crest) is being ridden by mythical characters carrying flags.

Illustration by Eirian Chapman

Ask Adobe Design is a recurring series that shows the range of perspectives and paths across our global design organization. In it we ask the talented, versatile members of our team about their craft and their careers.

From motion and animation to AI/ML, principal designers are subject matter experts and passionate drivers in their respective fields who partner with teams across Adobe Design. They’re thought leaders and visionaries who think deeply about their industries and wield their expertise to shape decisions. As stewards of the company, they typically don’t manage direct reports but instead lead through influence, relationships, and partnerships. We asked five of them to share their ideas about leading, elevating, and influencing teams.

“Part of doing the job well is elevating the work while also elevating others”

Val Head, Principal Designer, Unified Motion & Animation

“My approach is rooted in building partnerships and always being on the lookout for potential connections. I like the idea of ‘leading alongside,’ because it underscores the importance of mutual respect and building trust. When I’m collaborating with teams, I’m the subject matter expert in my specialty area of animation, and they’re the experts in their product. Everyone brings something valuable to the table. My favorite projects have always been the ones where the whole team feels empowered to share early ideas and challenge assumptions along the way.

“The crux of being a principal designer is that, technically, no one has to listen to you, which means you have to create a space that makes people want to work with you. You have to be a quality person to work with, on top of being an expert in your field. Part of doing the job well is elevating the work while also elevating others.

“Being a neutral party is also something I find valuable. I intentionally work in the whitespace between product teams. It helps me to truly embed with different teams when I need to, or to highlight the common ground between teams in a more transparent way. It also gives me the flexibility to move into spaces where I might otherwise not be able to. It requires a different approach to leadership, but it’s also an opportunity to influence and have impact in ways that other leadership positions can’t.”

“The word 'lead' doesn't hint at a specific person or level; it simply means guiding someone forward by holding their hand.”

Brooke Hopper, Principal Designer, Machine Intelligence & New Technologies

“There’s a saying that not all leaders are managers, and not all managers are leaders. I would also add that any individual contributor can be a leader without being a principal designer. In fact, there are entry level designers I’ve learned from and who I consider to be leaders.

“I grew up without TV, so as a kid I would often read the dictionary—yes, I was that kid—so let’s look at the definition of the root word of leadership. The word 'lead' doesn't hint at a specific person or level, it simply means guiding someone forward by holding their hand. It is the initiative in an action, an example for others to follow.

“I don’t tend to think of leadership as something I do or something to work towards. Candidly much of it boils down to being genuine, building honest relationships, and being a good partner and teammate to people around you. Some of the best leaders I know lead quietly. A couple of years ago, a mentor asked me to think about what good leaders do at a high level, and what I ended up writing down feels like a good note to end on: Leaders create a vision, take risks, they first ask how and why, as opposed to what and when, and are change agents.”

“There’s an art to being direct while also being empathetic, genuine, and sincere.”

Vignesh Madhav, Principal Designer, Creative Cloud

“Listening, championing other people’s ideas, and giving people credit are the best ways to build good relationships. And building relationships is key to leadership. There are three quotes that I think about often in this position:

“One of them is from Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People: 'When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.' It's a reminder that leadership begins with being a good listener. Instead of focusing on what you’re trying to achieve (which is to influence someone to do something), ask questions first. What is the other person’s point of view? What is their frame of mind? What information do they have and how is that different from the information you have?

"The other is from Ray Dalio in Principles: 'Understanding what is true is essential for success, and being radically transparent about everything, including mistakes and weaknesses, helps create the understanding that leads to improvements.' It’s taught me to always keep an open mind. I’ve gone into many conversations thinking one way and come out of them fully bought into what another person was trying to do, simply because they had information I didn’t have, or their ideas made a lot of sense.

“Finally, Michael Gough, a former VP of Adobe Design, always used to say, ‘It’s about the product, the experience, and the users. Not about you, not about them.’ Be transparent about your thought process. Communicate clearly. Address any elephants in the room. People spend way too much time trying to be ‘nice’ and avoiding conflict. That doesn’t mean you have to be an ass. There’s an art to being direct while also being empathetic, genuine, and sincere. It’s hard, it’s messy, but it’s only learned through practice.”

“The most effective way to lead is by building relationships.”

Talin Wadsworth, Principal Designer, Creative Cloud

“The most effective way to lead is by building relationships (that’s a secret that’s not taught in design school). The only way anyone can hope to influence the outcomes of teams and projects, as a manager or an individual contributor, is by showing our peers and colleagues that we have a deep interest in and care for their goals and priorities—and by gaining their trust through our professionalism, skill, and work ethic.

“In tech we're often exposed to the myth of the singular genius or founder, who can push their ideas out into the world through charisma or sheer force of will. Whether we care to admit it, this archetype seeps into our professional relationships and career aspirations: It attracts people to the positions and titles that will ensure the greatest amount of control over the creative process and allow us to exert the greatest influence over our work.

“Of course, the skills and perspectives needed to produce powerful and complex tools like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Premiere Pro are myriad and can’t be contained within a single person. Their success and longevity depend on a diversity of skills and ideas brought to the table by respective disciplines and backgrounds. Therefore, as individual contributors, the success of our work is inextricably tied to the success of our relationships with our teams—designers, PMs, and engineers. If we can shift our priorities and expectations from a purely project-based focus to one that is team- and organization-focused, we can find greater satisfaction and influence than we could have imagined.”

“Being the person who other people want in the conversation is a tall order, but it’s the most sustainable form of leadership I know.”

Alan Wilson, Principal Designer, Adobe Experience Cloud

“Design managers and directors are busy. They’re in charge of many people, which means a nearly endless stream of meetings to support their teams, recruit, onboard, plan, strategize, and manage expectations from many stakeholders. It doesn’t leave a lot of time to keep up on trends or think through problems at the level of a practitioner.

“As an individual contributor (especially a senior one) you have the responsibility to become a subject-matter expert. This expertise is valuable—vital even. You may not oversee people, but you should absolutely oversee ideas. For me this has been an emergent phenomenon: The more I use my expertise to help the people around me, the more they ask for it. And as our collective careers have grown, so have the problems we’re asked to solve. Being the person who other people want in the conversation is a tall order, but it’s the most sustainable form of leadership I know.”

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