Ben Holliday

Different ways of leading design: face to face, or side by side

To follow on from my last blog post about leading sideways, here’s an example of how I work best.

I’m naturally more comfortable having a conversation about design, or leading a design process, standing side by side with people, rather than face to face.

To explain this more:

  • face to face is literally focused on the person or team that I’m working with.
  • side by side means we’re focusing together on the work or problem that’s in front of us.

As an approach to a design process, face to face always feels too much like counselling to me. It’s too much focus on the team, or other individuals involved in the process, over the work itself.

I know other leaders that work best face to face. This is okay (a main point that I want to make here is recognising that there are different and valid ways of leading).

It makes me less comfortable to be face to face, and I don’t always do my best work this way. I prefer working through something together as a way of having a conversation. I focus better this way as part of a design process. This is also the same if I’m managing someone, i.e. it works better to have a framework, notes, and/or objectives to work through together so that there’s something to focus on in front of us.

Another extension of this is how I’ve approached user research work. For ethnographic type studies it makes complete sense to be entirely focussed on the person you’re researching with or interviewing. But, I’ve found that some of the most useful and focussed learning I’ve done through user research has been more of a side by side approach. This has focussed on having conversations around tangible things (i.e. prototypes) and being prepared to stand side by side with people in real situations to learn about what they are thinking, feeling and doing.

Side by side is arguably as close as we can get to real empathy in design. We never fully get to walk in someone else’s shoes, but we can choose to stand as close to people as possible, focusing our conversations on the things we find directly in front of them.

Side by side is always more of a ‘doing together’ approach. It means being able to see patterns, join things together, and make connections as part of meaningful and useful conversations. I know that one of my strengths is recognising patterns. I’m better at seeing patterns when I’m looking for them – this works best while I’m having conversations. It’s something I do naturally all the time, and it feels more unnatural to try to focus attention away from this.

Doing the work

Side by side as an approach is primarily a focus on the work. But, it’s important to remember that design is about creating something that works better for people. So what I’m not advocating here is less of a people focus. It’s how you choose to focus the conversations you have, and how you have them. This eventually becomes the work, and is how you can solve a set of problems in the most meaningful way.

This is what works for me. My hunch, if you’re looking for a design leader in your organisation, is that you want someone who can lead side by side. They will be able to anchor what they do most powerfully to the work and challenges in front of them, while being able to bring the right people into a design process, and as part of the teams working alongside them.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.