Liftoff! Cover


Practical Design Leadership to Elevate Your Team, Your Organization, and You

By Chris Avore & Russ Unger

Published: July 2020
Paperback: 384 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-80-4
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-40-8

Liftoff! is your guide to leveling up as a design manager and leader. Its experience-driven approach—written by designers for designers—will help you hire and scale teams, develop careers, learn why diversity matters to your business, and solidify design’s role in your organization. Liftoff! will elevate your skills to lead your team and company to new heights.

Authors Russ Unger and Chris Avore on The Rosenfeld Review Podcast

Paperback + Ebooks i All of our Paperbacks come with a FREE ebook in 4 common formats.


Ebooks only i All ebooks come in DRM-free Kindle (MOBI), PDF, ePub, and DAISY formats.


More about Liftoff!


Finally! A book that not only takes new design leaders step-by-step through the care and feeding of their teams, but reminds them time and again how to lead inclusively, and with heart.

—Kara DeFrias, Director of Experience Design, Obama White House

Chris and Russ have created a must-read playbook with actionable insights and strategies for any leader who wants to create a world-class design team.

—Anna Ewing, former CIO of Nasdaq, advisor, board member

This book is full of advice and guidance I wish I’d had covering vital topics like inclusion and team mental health. Managers, read it to uncover your weak spots. Aspiring managers, read it to ensure you lead well.

—Katja Forbes, design leader

The trajectory from ‘leading designer’ to ‘design leader’ is rarely a straight line, but Chris Avore and Russ Unger have created just the practical, tactical guidebook to keep you on course.

—Jesse James Garrett, author of The Elements of User Experience

Finally, a book that provides detailed and practical advice covering the entire lifecycle of hiring, integrating, and nurturing a team of designers to excel.

—Bruno Figueiredo, Director, Xperienz and curator of UX Lisbon

Imagine a Venn Diagram with leadership, management, and design at the center—it’s this book. Russ and Chris have laid out a simple and comprehensive guide to the ‘what if,’ ‘what about,’ ‘it depends,’ and other common questions asked when building, managing, nurturing, and leading a design team for an organization.

—Eduardo Ortiz, CEO, Founding Partner, &Partners

A practical guide to the real-world challenges of design leadership and design management. Each chapter felt like a resounding affirmation of hard-learned lessons. The perfect read for those newer to leadership and those always looking to reflect and grow their approach.

—Meriah (Garrett) Moulton, Chief Design Officer, USAA

Don’t be fooled. This book is not just about design leadership. It’s about leading. Period. The lessons in this book have found their way into my engineering leadership style, and they will for you, too.

—Johnny Boursiquot, multi-disciplined engineer, architect, and community leader 

A rare design leadership and management playbook that offers comprehensive and practical examples to teach designers how to make an impact.

—Kristin Skinner, coauthor Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Design Teams and founder of &GSD

Russ and Chris have assembled a well-rounded overview of all the activities a design manager might need to do on the job, with a focus on creating inclusive and supportive teams. I will definitely use this as a textbook in my Design Management class.

— Karen McGrane, Faculty Member, School of Visual Arts MFA program in Interaction Design

A wealth of wisdom for new leaders to impact experience outcomes by bridging influence gaps from talented, but fledgling design teams.

—Karen Pascoe, SVP Customer Experience & Design, Mastercard

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Surprise! You’re in Charge of People Now
Chapter 2: Designing Diversity and Inclusion in Your Teams
Chapter 3: Designing Your Hiring Process
Chapter 4: Performance Profiles and Interview Guides
Chapter 5: Screening Designers
Chapter 6: Interviewing Potential Team Members
Chapter 7: Offers, Negotiations, and Onboarding
Chapter 8: Unifying the Team Culture with Charters
Chapter 9: Designing the One-on-Ones
Chapter 10: Leading Continuous Critique
Chapter 11: Presenting Work
Chapter 12: Saying No
Chapter 13: Developing Designers
Chapter 14: Scaling Design
Chapter 15: Designing Influence
Chapter 16: Escape Velocity


A successful transition from individual designer to design manager requires a fundamental change in mindset. As an individual, you were expected to come up with great design solutions or actionable research insights. As a manager, you have far more complicated deliverables. The first one is a healthy, effective team that can meet the organization’s evolving needs. The second is an environment where that team can thrive and grow.

The skills required to produce these results can be overwhelming for new managers and frustrating even for experienced ones. The good news is that if we take the time to understand our colleagues as we would our users and customers, then it’s possible to design their experience accordingly. What should it be like to get hired at your company? How can team members understand their career progression (and how to move it along)? What should it be like for other teams to work with yours? These are all complex design problems, but they’re still design problems.

The other good news is that Chris Avore and Russ Unger have distilled their collective decades of management experience into this book. It’s a collection of great advice and practical tools for everything from recruiting and coaching to influencing—(and even learning how and when to say no). New managers will find it offers a starting point from which to build their own management practice. Experienced managers can use it to fine-tune whatever isn’t working today.

Effective leadership is hard. It’s a mindful, daily practice—some days you’ll be good at it, and some days you won’t. What works in one culture or with one team member doesn’t always work with another. No book will answer all of your questions, but this one will equip you with some good tools to start answering them for yourself.

—Kim Goodwin, design and product executive; author, Designing for the Digital Age




These common questions and their short answers are taken from Chris Avore and Russ Ungers’ book Liftoff!: Practical Design Leadership to Elevate Your Team, Your Organization, and You. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. Is this a how-to book?
    Of course not! And, well, maybe. We’ve included a lot of what we’ve learned based on our own personal experiences and our collabora- tion with each other—and others—which we view as a framework to help you on your way. You certainly might be able to take what we’ve written and apply it as-is, especially when it comes to the hiring pro- cess (see Chapters 3–7). There’s step-by-step instructions to facilitate a design charter workshop (Chapter 8). And Chapter 15 includes specific ways to tweak generally-used user experience design activities to include executive leaders, which may elevate your influence in the company. But there are also a lot of tips, stories, and experiences in this book that aren’t necessarily meant to be applied directly. Instead, use them to build your own foundation for how you make decisions relevant to your situation and environment.
  2. Why did you include a chapter on designing diversity and inclusion into teams?
    A diverse team where individuals can be their full selves in a psychologically safe, inclusive environment will be better prepared to design solutions to ambiguous, complex problems (see Chapter 2). We promote diverse teams working together in an inclusive environ- ment throughout the entire book, not just in one chapter. By the end of the book, we hope audiences will feel more prepared and comfort- able committing to intentionally building and supporting diverse, inclusive teams.
  3. Are you using management and leadership interchangeably?
    Usually, until we don’t. Management and leadership are not synonyms, yet in many cases the two terms represent similar means to similar ends. In Chapter 1, we provide a breakdown of the differences between a design leader and a design manager. Throughout the book, we use design manager intentionally to refer to the person responsible for managing their teams of direct reports, and ultimately the people who report to them. Think org charts, hierarchy, and bosses.We often will use design leader when we’re referring to anyone in the organization who identifies as a designer and is trying to improve their team, their team’s delivery, or their workplace, whether or not they have official management responsibility.
  4. Does the world really need another management book?
    We’re familiar with the litany of books about management and leadership—some of which have helped shape the views we share here. Many recent management books have focused on managing technical teams or software development teams. However, there are far fewer books that can help new or experienced design managers with both short-term and longer term paths to improve their design practice. For instance, design leaders can likely see positive short-term results by trying the ideas in Chapter 10 on critique and Chapter 11, which focuses on presenting work. But we also cover complex topics that may take months to see organizational change, such as Chapter 14 on scaling design and Chapter 15 on influencing cross-functional partners and senior leaders.
  5. Why did you write so many chapters on the hiring process?
    A good, solid hiring process (Chapter 3) is truly at the foundation of how a team works. Hiring includes thoughtful descriptions of the types of work to be done and what success looks like in a role (Chapter 4), well-defined and consistent interviewing practices (Chapters 5 and 6), and a thorough onboarding process (Chapter 7). It’s easy to focus on only one aspect of the hiring process; however, we see the pieces as interconnected and extremely important to be aware of. A strong hiring process shows candidates what it’s like to work on your team at your organization, and everyone should strive to put their best foot forward.
  6. What’s up with a whole chapter on saying no?
    Chapter 12 reinforces what many of us already know well: saying no is rarely easy in the workplace. We investigate power and social dynamics, risks of telling the boss no, and ways to help make saying no a little easier. We even share advice on planning (and cleaning up after) birthday parties!