Design Leadership: What’s Next?

Design heads at 3M, Intuit, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Philips, and REI highlight 7 areas for future design leaders to consider.

The importance of corporate design leadership is growing fast, which makes me curious: what does the future of design leadership look like? Will this upward momentum continue, and if so, what are the skills needed for future design leaders? To find out, I asked the heads of design at 3M, Intuit, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Philips, and REI individually and as a panel at the Industrial Designers Society of America national conference. Like a design project, I then looked for patterns and synthesized findings.


1. Remain driven to design

First and foremost, keep true to your roots in design. Coincidently, all of these design leaders came up thru design, and still consider themselves designers, not administrators. Passion about design is at the core of the most effective design leaders. I’m not suggesting the prima-donna style super designers, like in the fashion industry, but there is a core element of first knowing the craft side of designing.

“Once a designer always a designer,” says Eric Quint, chief design officer at 3M. “We need to keep that affinity as a designer. As design leaders you must respect the fact that you are a good designer first. You need to be a good practitioner first, to inspire the other designers. Your role is to amplify your influence.” And Nasahn Sheppard, vice president of product design at REI says that even as a VP you have to be true to your design roots: “You have to show up as your authentic self. You have to be you. If you don’t love what you do your not going to do a very good job of it. And it starts here, in your heart, and that’s where it radiates out from.”

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“It’s about differentiation, how do you know when design is at the table?” says Steve Kaneko, partner director of design at Microsoft. “At the end of the day we are form givers—a product, an experience—design is what touches people. So at the end of the day it’s either beautiful and useful or not. Everything we have learned as artists in terms of form-giving is what we bring to the table. Physical objects, stories, experiences. We own the final spec. At the end of the day we are artists, that have to make magic happen.”


According to Klaus Kaasgaard, vice president of user experience design at Intuit, design leaders need to, “engage every day in very specific design discussions. Go very deep on product critiques, as well as very broad on design strategy and product strategy.”

Shawn Carney, chief design officer and executive vice president at Philips agrees. “We have to maintain the craft based edge of design,” he says. “Our role is to be creative, I don’t want to underestimate this. It’s our secret sauce, creativity is the magic dust, that ability to see thinks from another perspective. The ability to think outside the box.”

2. Have empathy for internal peers

We all know how important empathy for the end user is, but design leaders also focus empathy toward internal peers as well. In other words, rather than pushing design, savvy design leaders seek to understand the needs of other business functions, and then create solutions to meet those needs.


“We have a specific advantage that no other function has: we own the tool to transform an idea into a reality,” Mauro Porcini, chief design officer at PepsiCo says. “The ability to prototype and story tell, to get to market with a product, a service or a brand. This is something no other function has. We only need to think like partners. In any corporation there are silos, but we can be connected from the bottom of the pyramid all the way to the top, and drive solutions across the organization.”

3M’s Quint put it this way: “The empathy we use to make great products and solutions? If we use a bit more of that empathy across the company we would be much more successful in driving strategic solutions for the company…it is extremely important you understand that design is part of a chain. So you have to get insights from marketing, business, research, etc., and you are a translator. As soon as you see you’re part of a chain, then you understand the need for the connections. And by the way, often other departments don’t know how to interface with design.”

Philips’s Carney sees empathy as a crucial part of today’s tech ecosystem. “With big data, and internet of things, everything is connected real time, and we need to collaborate with other disciplines,” he says. “Design is bigger than just designing.”


3. Be mixed-media savvy

Once upon a time design leaders represented specific disciplines. Not so any more. We need to think in terms of converging disciplines. According to Microsoft’s Kaneko, “Between interaction design, visual comms, industrial design, and the world of sensors and environments, this requires a level of scale and scope, a convergence of physical, digital and sensory experiences. We’re in the business of partnering to build cohesive experiences.”

Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Design also connects the dots between individual products and services to broader customer experiences. “We need to think about design as an interaction—the need for interaction design across all things,” Intuit’s Kaasgaard says. 3M’s Quint agrees: “We don’t highlight it as design, but as experience. So this way we align the desired experience.” Carney puts it another way. “Very few things will be free-standing in the future, all are part of a wider ecosystem, so designers have to think bigger than the individual item to create systems,” he says.

As in the past, creativity and innovation remain core to design leadership. In the future, creating business value will matter just as well as sharp design. Whether developing new products, services, brands, environments or business models, the end goal is to create value to the triple bottom line—economic, social, and environmental. Which means, developing meaningful solutions. “We must craft and crate meaningful experiences,” PepsiCo’s Porcini says. “So essentially we are creating meaning. The center is your brand, the content is the brand purpose, the receiver is your user, customer or employees, and the media is every touch point of the brand. The brand is the media. The code is how we talk, the visual code, the aesthetic, and so on. So we as designers, we own the code, marketing owns the content, we need to collaborate. Design can design the story—to prototype the product and experiences.”


4. Create corporate cultures to integrate

The future is not about building kingdoms of design, it’s about integrating design and design thinking throughout business. This requires savvy communication and change management skills, and being a team player—after all, design is a team sport. Partnering with OD and HR can help smoothe the way. “Our job as a leader is to connect with the other people,” Microsoft’s Kaneko says. “It’s less about us, it’s about the business, and the customer and what we’re trying to do for the rest of the world. It can become ego-centric, but selflessness comes across in a much more powerful way, and is a much stronger way to build an organization.”

Quint, of 3M, agrees: “Design is very much about how a company works. You can tremendously impact a company, and the world. There are many opportunities to build cultures of design in many many companies. In order to connect, you need empathy to understand the world of marketing and business and strategy.”

REI’s Sheppard elaborates. “You’re trying to create an enterprise that thinks about design,” he says. “So think about how you can make other parts of the enterprise successful. The more you can connect the more you can make other areas successful, not just design, this is critical.”


Porcini agrees. “The other functions are your partners,” he says. “Marketing has an advantage because they own the relation with the customer and consumer. They can get things to market. By nature design can not get to market, so by nature we are a collaboration function. So use design as the collaborative. We were trained to be collaborative, to be storytellers. By definition we are connectors and facilitators so use us in this way. The design organization is the advocate of the consumer. If that’s our role, we have a responsibility to create solutions that are meaningful and that are sustainable. My wish for the chief design officer of the future would be the chief activist.”

In the end, it’s really about developing a culture of design, but this takes time and discipline. “It takes patience and stamina; it’s not going to happen overnight,” 3M’s Quint says. “Driving design in a large enterprise is not a sprint, it’s a five-to-10-year program that you drive. And if you drive that program you should drive it like a design project, with clear stages and objectives, and match the program.”

“Everything around us is made,” Sheppard, of REI, says. “We live in a constructed world. So design is all around us—we need to open the aperture. Not just shareholder value, I propose we think about what is our shared values. Get to the answer of ‘why.’ Why does this matter, why does anyone care?’ We need to get to that truth, then you can extend that truth to build a platform the entire enterprise can stand on, not just design.”


5. Design thinking the future

The great thing about designers is that we create the future of products, services, and experiences. The great thing about design thinking is that we create the future of anything. The key is just determining the right problems to solve. “One of the core areas design can contribute is knowing what questions to ask,” says Microsoft’s Kaneko.

Design thinking has taken hold, no doubt, with significant benefits to business. Intuit’s Kaasgaard advises emerging design leaders to “focus on building organization capabilities. Teach the organization about design thinking—both on individual design projects, and on seating strategy and business strategy. At the end of the day you need to focus on building the organization capabilities, so that the organization will think like a designer. Design is not just a department, it’s a mindset.” He went on: “At Intuit we’ve established a design thinking method. We have 1,200 trained innovation catalysts. Now this three-day class does not make you a designer but it does help spread that way of working and thinking into the business.”

Although companies in Europe seem to have been slow in adopting design thinking as business practice, Philips is ahead of the curve, Carney says. “We renamed out design thinking program to call it ‘co-create’, because thats exactly what we do,” he says. “It’s about building, testing, learning. We use it in the business to engage with some big hairy problems. Pulling in the CEO and the C-suites, we use design thinking and co-create tools; we design the conditions, we give them the components. And we need to extend this to all functions. I think design thinking and creativity are too precious to confine within the design organization.”

Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

So too at 3M, Quint says: “We have a role much beyond making things. Let’s think about the future and imagine what that could encompass. The job of design is to stretch, to be a stretch agent. To go to for the next scenarios. So I think the design leader is a visionary, a bit of a lighthouse, to help explore what the company could look like. It’s a very important task of the design organization as well.”

Microsoft’s Kaneko points out that there is another side of design thinking. “Lay people are going to be designing things, like it or not, so we have to create the conditions for design, not just artifacts.”

“We also mix up design and design thinking,” Quint adds. “‘Design thinking’ is a word, that like ‘innovation,’ is over-used. I refer to design thinking as unlocking value. It is a tool, not owned by design, but used across functions to help get that multidisciplinary problem solving going.”


6. Design your career

Your career is the one design brief you can fully control, so seize the moment. “You should write your own personal brief,” Kaasgaard says. “We’re all custodians of our own life.”

Sheppard puts it this way: “It starts with being an authentic you. Always ask yourself what are you becoming. Re-think and push our own boundaries on what you are and what you can do. Think big—we can push beyond what is in front of us today—we can visualize and amplify that. That is an opportunity we have to continue to create and to build the future.”

In Kaneko’s view, “There is a dig difference between design management and design leadership. I’m not using design leadership as a title, because it’s an earned position. You have to deliver it yourself. There is no shortcut other than to really be a good designer, so you have to keep investing in your own career. Find your own voice and leadership style.”


7. Have no fear

The future of design leadership is bright. “If there is any profession that owns the future, it’s this one,” Dan Harden, CEO of the design consultancy Whipsaw, says. “What other profession would be more about the future? If there were a synonym of ‘design’ it would be the word ‘future.’ We have never had a platform like this before. The audience is there, they are waiting for us to do great things. I’m super optimistic, drop all fear and go out and do it.”

Or, as Kaasgaard puts it, “It’s the greatest time to be a designer. Learn to talk the language of business and the language of technology, but lets not forget where we come from. Convergence is happening faster than we can imagine right now, and there is no better time to be a designer.”


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.