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“Sole” Does Not Equal “Lead”

December 1, 2010

We're both lead. No really.

A friend of mine recently received a resume from a person who listed their role as “Lead Designer” on several products. When pressed for more information about their role as lead, it turns out the person was the sole designer, and in their world, sole game designer = lead game designer.

That’s not actually the case. Sole game designer does not equal lead game designer. You can’t lead in a race of one. Exactly who are you leading, again?

The distinction is particularly important when trying to source a lead for a particular role. When I am looking for a lead, I search for people who can lead a design team. A lead has:

  • Experience managing other people of the same discipline on a single project – one or many.
  • Experience getting randomized by those people 30-40% of the time, but still getting your work done.
  • Experience creating the larger vision of the project, and knowing how to parse out pieces of it to others while maintaining cohesion in the overall design.
  • Experience establishing and maintaining communication flow through the design team. This is critical for changes.
  • Experience teaching junior designers while under deadline pressure.
  • Experience mentoring junior designers, complimenting and correcting them and delivering bad news.
  • Experience managing team morale.
  • Experience firewalling, bullet-shielding and grenade repelling.
  • Experience not having all the ropes in your hands all the time.

In effect, you lead a group, while the solo designer has it all on his or her plate. In saying this, I am not at all discounting the role of the solo designer. I’ve designed games all by myself, and yeah, it’s a challenge unlike any other. However, when looking for a lead candidate, I am looking for someone who can lead others while designing, too. I might hire someone who solo designed 5 games, or I might hire someone who led 5 teams of designers. Both feats are super impressive. Whichever way I go, when I see someone claim the lead role on a title, I am assuming that this is what they’ve done.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2010 7:05 pm

    I’ve had a few “Sole Whatever” roles on projects and I’m always a bit torn what title to use to describe these roles – as you say, “Lead Whatever” is misleading and suggests it involved management.

    But “Sole” sounds odd; and if I did have a little help here and there on the project, then saying I was the “Sole Whatever” could be seen ignoring others’ contributions.

    I’ve settled on the title “Principal Whatever” for describing these roles. It doesn’t claim that I did 100% of the work (but implies that I probably did more than 90% of it); it implies that if someone did help, I probably supervised and mentored them (but that I wasn’t a true manager, i.e. didn’t have to lay anyone off)… and it just sounds better than “Sole Whatever”, to my ears. 🙂

    • Adrian Lopez permalink
      December 4, 2010 5:32 pm

      Instead of using Sole X, Lead X or Principal X when you’re the only X, how about simply using X:

      “The Best Game in the World (According to My Mother)” (Designer)

      • December 20, 2010 2:10 pm

        The reason not to just use “Designer” when you are the solo designer is that it strays too far in the other direction, not doing yourself enough credit. Being sole designer on a project is impressive beyond being one junior designer in a large team (not that either one is EASY, of course). Showing that you were the main go-to person for design on a project shows qualities such as initiative, responsibility, and an eye for detail that do not necessarily come across if you just say “Designer” on the resume.

  2. December 1, 2010 7:59 pm

    Nice post. I’ve got two questions (one just for clarification).

    First, I was wondering what you meant by “getting randomized” by people. I think you mean the random influence on the design that results from the team, but I’m so used to seeing the term used for samples that my brain kind of short circuited on that sentence.

    Second, do you think there’s something about design work that leads solo designers to think of themselves as design leaders? Coming from an organizational leadership perspective I can definitely see a classic form of leadership dysfunction (a type of extreme micromanagement) that can result from a leader thinking that they need to own every aspect of the endeavor in the manner which solo design necessitates. But on the other hand, I can also see a possibility that this issue has as much to do with how solo designers go about marketing themselves (just a sort of semiotic problem) in which these solo designers just don’t understand what lead means to the individual or agency doing the hiring.

    • December 1, 2010 8:12 pm

      By randomized, I mean that a certain percentage of your day will be devoted to answering questions or other tasks that weren’t planned ahead of time.

      In calling themselves “leads,” I think solo designers are just pulling a rookie mistake. It’s a pretty common one, actually. The logic, I imagine, is that if you were the only designer, then no one was ahead of you. Therefore, you must be lead, right? I think it comes from the need the designer has to make clear the contribution when it’s only them doing it. The term “designer” could apply just as well to the sole designer as it does to a single person who worked with 20 others under a lead. So, I think saying, “Sole Designer” is probably the best route.

      • December 20, 2010 2:13 pm

        To be fair, I would also say that you are “leading” the programmers, in the sense that they are implementing your design specs. This is just the nature of design, but there is at least some leadership involved there, especially if the solo designer is largely the one driving the direction of the project. (Even moreso if the person is actually the overall project lead, in which case they are leading the other programmers, artists, etc.)

  3. Michael Boyd permalink
    December 7, 2010 1:06 am

    This is a great post. It’s an interesting topic to me since I am guilty of fantasizing about holding that precise title (although thankfully I’ve never made the mistake of declaring it), and I’m glad that you decided to make a post about it.

    I think the word “Lead” has a certain appealing sound to it, which is why some developers choose to use it, even if they have no experience in actually leading a group. That nomenclature can definitely be misleading when used on a resume.

    “Principal Designer” is indeed a much more accurate title to use in my opinion.

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