Solving the Design Paradox: Budgets Come From the Top Down, But Design Happens From the Bottom Up

Great design comes from great leadership, and that leadership is born within a company.

design paradox


In my last post, I told you that to make great design happen, you have to follow the money. There are many companies–Dyson, BMW, Nike, and OXO come to mind–that have design in their DNA. And more companies are getting into design as fast as I can type. New direction setting for design is often initiated top down.

For example, Bob Ulrich, the CEO of Target, recognized design as an opportunity to compete against Walmart. He established a mantra–“Trend right, guest-focused and design-driven”–and commissioned several design superstars from outside the company to make an impact. It worked. Target built upon that success by developing an internal and fully integrated design organization; now the design solutions come from the bottom up.

So too, former Chairman Lee Kun-hee of Samsung recognized the value of design for his company, and set major corporate initiatives in place to build its capabilities: benchmarking, investing in design talent, training design teams to think strategically, empowering design managers, and developing (and funding) a great internal design organization.

A look back at some of the seminal work in corporate design centers will also reveal a supportive CEO or executive team. Thomas Watson Jr., former chairman of IBM, worked closely with Elliot Noyes, Ray and Charles Eames, and Paul Rand. How many times have we used the phrase “Good design is good business”? That was Watson.

Recall that when IBM was struggling against its design-driven competitor, Olivetti, to sell more typewriters, they soon realized they needed to up their design game.


Or consider one of my mentors, design director Bob Blaich who reported directly to the CEO of Herman Miller, and later to the executive board at Philips. Herbert Schultes at Siemens, Dieter Rams at Braun, and now Jonathan Ive at Apple all report to the CEO. Both Braun and Apple have not only invested in great design leaders and built talented internal design teams, but they recognize the value and power of simplicity in design with striking similarity. Put that together with a CEO and an internal culture that not only empowers but demands great design, and you have a formidable competitor. Great design most often stems from CEOs who place bets–I mean investments–in design.

Few of us have the benefit of working in companies led by such design visionaries. But smart designers will find opportunities to move the needle even in companies that seem impervious to design intervention.

When I was responsible for design at StorageTek-Sun Microsystems, I wanted to redesign the entire storage product line. Because of legacy issues, we had separate industrial design styles for each of the business units–servers, mainframe storage, network hardware, and so on. This did not make any sense from a design, brand or efficiency point of view. But I knew the CEO would never support a full product redesign. However, I also knew he would welcome some help in making his numbers, and I acted accordingly. I set project goals to decrease product cost, decrease new product time to market, and improve the expression of the brand—all goals I knew would be appealing. The design solution involved creating a common platform system for all products, which involved developing a standard chassis design, common user interface, and shared component design across the business units. It wasn’t rocket science, but it accomplished the project goals, demonstrated the value of design, and helped the CEO hit his mark. Voila: The CEO soon released funding for a full redesign of the entire product line.

The bottom line: great design requires great design leadership
Great design can emerge from the trenches, but it also needs support at the executive level, and it needs design leaders. Hence the need for great design management. When this match-up occurs, the results can improve customer delight as well as the bottom line–and they can be transformational. And that’s more than can be said for just about any other business discipline I can think of. 

Read Thomas Lockwood’s blog Design Management
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Lockwood is the president of DMI, the Design Management
Institute, a non-profit educational organization based in Boston,
Massachusetts. He is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in
design management, and is recognized as a thought leader in the area of
integrating design and innovation into business, design leadership, and
building great design organizations. He is the co-author of three books;
Design Thinking, Building Design Strategy and Corporate
Creativity. A
frequent design award juror and keynote speaker, he has lectured and led
brand and design workshops in over 20 countries. Prior to joining the
public sector five years ago he directed design at StorageTek, Sun
Microsystems, and ran his own design consulting firm for a number of

About the author

Thomas Lockwood is founding partner of Lockwood Resource, an international recruiting firm specializing in design and innovation leadership, and past president of DMI, the Design Management Institute. He is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in design management, and is recognized as a thought leader in integrating design and innovation into business and building great design organizations.