/ Business, Design

What makes a design leader and why they matter


Couple weeks back, I noticed how our local Aalto University was looking for their first professor of design leadership. Given that Aalto has been running an internationally acknowledged International Design Business Management program in Finland for over ten years, this begs the question why do they take interest in design leadership?

It’s simple. Because there’s a difference between management and leadership. And because the stakes and faith in design as a key company function for successful innovation has grown just recently.

In this post I’ll talk about the unique features of design leadership and why they are worth investing in.

Design ROI justifies the penetration of design (thinking)

There are companies which have relied upon design as a key driver for success for long, at least mid 20th century and since industrial design emerged. However, IDEO and Apple have become poster companies for promoting the extremely important added value function bestowed upon (industrial) design when thoroughly integrated. For instance, at Apple the Industrial design team holds huge leverage over engineering in terms of bargaining power in driving product development. The talented and lucky Finnish industrial designer Mikael Silvanto of Apple thus has indirect power over 1,300 engineers!

This development indicates design is not only a finishing touch but a penetrating way of working (“design thinking”). It brings new topics, such as business itself, topics of design. The most visible acts of advocacy for design leadership are the appointments of chief design officers or similar C-suite vice president design roles.

There is also evidence that investments in design create additional value. It is has been demonstrated that companies that integrate design across company function to better over long term in terms of share value. In a case study, Jeneanne Rae demonstrated how 15 companies out of S&P index selected for their use of design, outperformed their peers (Rae, 2014) who were less invested in design. This is the most tangible evidence of design ROI I’ve come across (but I suggest to see this report by Antti Pitkänen as well).

Source, Harvard Business Review, 2014

Marriage of design management and leadership

Design leader is different from a design manager, but the roles are interdependent. The function of a design leader is expected to touch upon the organization as a whole, not only the design department. Design leadership is strategic. Design vision must be aligned and not exceed or replace company’s vision and strategy.

Essential part of the design leadership practice are the tools and methods deployed by the leaders. The details of strategy, vision and roadmap documents all depend on the domain of business. Style and brand guides intersect design with marketing. In business-to-consumer business, interesting challenge is the increasing number of channels or touchpoints in which customers engage with the company. Without a coherent approach under design leadership, everything can fall apart.

Even the chatbot needs to align with the design vision and follow the brand tone of voice.

A prime example of handling fragmentation elegantly is the recent introduction of Google’s Material Design. A style guide is a very concrete tool for a design leader. At Google, it was originally intended to help steer Google products, particularly mobile apps, to a uniform user experience design. Later it has been adopted and adapted by larger communities of design and development. Inside Google it worked well.

On the other hand, the wide impact of design should take place gently rather than dictate how to polish the pixels using fancy standards. Design leadership calls for candor and leading by compelling outcomes and skills rather than by the display of hierarchical power. It is distinctive, that a leader is somebody who gains followers, rather than obedience through managerial hierarchy.

When looking at the new important role of design mentality in large organizations, there is minimal room for arrogance. This is given that most CEOs don’t resemble Steve Jobs being business leaders with a design vision. Instead of stubborn and pompous behavior towards non-designers, design function needs to be strong inside and collaborate eagerly.

Design should generate a company-wide buy in for design by allowing everyone to succeed with design. Design leaders interact with the whole organization to influence them. Eventual thought leadership emerges out of appreciation for what design can do. It starts from a professional peer community, but can eventually cross boundaries of functional division.

What’s up with design leaders?

Design leadership is far from a well-defined field of study in comparison to design management. Popular writings of design leadership often focus on the particulars of design leaders, while also picking out the few unique skills or characteristics typical of design leaders.

There are three broad tasks that several writers find important for design leaders to tackle:

  1. Directing teams
  2. Framing messy problems
  3. Presenting persuasively

Some say design leadership is design management with a creative vision. Vision is a way to instill the sense of direction in everything. Many believe design leadership involves a specific, mysterious personality feature that enable design leaders to see further and convince their peers of their success (see reality distortion field). But is not all mystics, there are tangible aspects into it.

Design leadership is a combination of soft and hard skills, or people or practice skills. Design leader must be a good craftsperson to gain peer recognition. Directing other people calls for soft skills in enabling other to perform their very best. Here, the displays of leadership can be various. Much referred Steve Jobs was no empathetic leader, but he still persuaded people to excel (maybe to an unsustainable degree), remaining as a dark icon of talent management.

Four non-matching puzzle pieces
Design leaders need to piece together impossible problems

A prime example of design thinking is the capacity to deal with poorly defined (ill-structured, messy or wicked) problems. This is something both designers and organizations always face when they are repeatedly forced to reach out of their comfort zones. This is also why design can generate added value and why design leaders are expected to step up in framing complex situations so that they can be acted upon. And not only acted upon by designers but others as well.

Final display and measure of design leadership are effective presentation skills. This comes close to a people skill as it is ultimately tied to persuasion of others. However, design leaders need to talk with confidence and drive the board members, shareholders, customers and media. Here’s the turf in which Steve Jobs excelled, or rather set the new standards for. Since then, several people have imitated his style with mediocre outcomes.

And then there’s the management skills. Design leader can’t neglect all management duties, but design manager can live without many of the burdens leaders need to carry.

That’s it! There’s no design leadership but as I’ve demonstrated, the most relevant training comes from the academy of practice!

An illustration of a career pyramid for a design leader by frog’s David Swerwin

What others have to say about design leadership:

Kevin McCullagh http://www.core77.com/posts/9962/the-many-faces-of-design-leadership-by-kevin-mccullagh-9962

David Sherwin http://www.slideshare.net/frogdesign/work-in-progress-thoughts-on-design-leadership

Richard Branfield https://library.oreilly.com/book/0636920041535/design-leadership/toc


Thomas Lockwood http://lockwoodresource.com/ten-characteristics-of-great-design-leaders/

Kudos to Juho Paasonen for inspiration

Text: Lassi A Liikkanen, SC5. @lassial

Visuals: Sami Rouhiainen, SC5

Don’t take our word on it – check what our customers have to say!