5 Key Trends In Design Leadership

Design finally has a seat at the table. Here’s what is next.

General Electric, the nation’s largest industrial company, recently announced it will relocate its headquarters from suburban Connecticut to tech-centric Boston. Intriguingly, of the 800 employees going to the new headquarters, only 200 will be top executives. The other 600 will be “digital industrial product managers, designers, and developers,” according to the New York Times. Talk about design having a seat at the table.


It’s the latest sign that corporations are shifting from engineering driven to design driven, product-centric to customer-centric, marketing focused to user experience focused. Whether they’re selling cars, phones, or lightbulbs, companies have made design integral to their business. Now what? How do you get ahead when design is no longer the competitive edge but the barrier to entry? Here, I’ve identified five trends at the intersection of design thinking and leadership–and how to make the most of them.

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1. Design thinking is core to innovation.

Boston Consulting Group recently released its 10th annual global survey on the state of innovation. Design figures prominently at almost all of the top 10 companies: Apple, Google, Tesla, Microsoft, Samsung, Toyota, BMW, Gilead Sciences, Amazon, and Daimler. And according to the Industrial Design Society of America, most respondents to the survey rank innovation as either the top priority or a top-three priority at their company–the highest percentage since BCG began asking the question in 2005.

Recommendation: If your company has not embraced design thinking, do it now. If it has, but only loosely, codify it.

2. Design thinking is not a fad; it’s core business practice.

Design thinking is now corporate code. “At Intuit we’ve established a design thinking method, and we have 1,200 trained innovation catalysts,” says Klaus Kaasgaard, vice president of user experience design at Intuit. “This three-day class does not make you a designer, but it does help spread that way of working and thinking into the business.” Similarly, the global company Philips has incorporated design into its methodology. “We renamed our design thinking program to call it ‘co-create,’ because that’s exactly what we do. It’s about building, testing, learning,” says Sean Carney, chief design officer and executive vice president at Philips. “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.”

Recommendation: Select a design thinking method and share it company-wide.

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3. Core to design thinking is user experience.

The lines between design disciplines are blurring, because every customer touch point involves design. That’s why both GE and IBM are in the process of hiring more than 1,000 UX designers each: Both companies want to invest in building design-driven customer experiences. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Expect user experience designers to ply their trade in nearly all corners of the corporate world in the coming years.


Recommendation: Hire UX designers, even if “user experience” seems tangential to your product.

4. Design leadership talent is in high demand.

A recent LinkedIn study (PDF) of SMB talent acquisition managers found that their biggest recruiting challenge in 2016 is finding candidates in “high-demand talent pools.” Design leaders, UX leaders, design thinkers, and design strategists are all high-demand functions. There is no more critical role for any company to develop, large or small, than design leadership, and executives are catching on.

In the past, business competition was between companies with good design and not-so-good design. In the future, companies with good design will be pitted against companies with good design. So the competitive advantage will be on internal design leadership, not just design alone.

Recommendation: Give designers positions of power.

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5. Design leaders tend to keep a low profile.

The LinkedIn study also found that companies want to do a better job of finding and attracting passive candidates–the people who are not actively looking to change jobs. I’ve noticed that the best design leaders tend to keep a low profile, and that those who are more boastful tend to be either newbies or posers trying to get into the game.

I recently talked with seven top design leaders who all agreed; they don’t want to be found by recruiters, they don’t return emails or phone calls from recruiters they don’t know, and they are keeping their online profiles relatively discreet. But they do value peer-to-peer conversations and people who have deep knowledge about their line of work.


Recommendation: Enlist hiring managers or other experts to find top design talent.


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.