The Case for Design

Steelcase Inc. chief James P. Hackett on design as a competitive advantage, the collaborative shift, and coveting the life of a hotel-desk clerk.

James P. Hackett

President and CEO, Steelcase Inc.

For the past 11 years, Jim Hackett, 51, has run Steelcase, the $2.6 billion manufacturer of office furniture. (Its latest: the $900 “Think” chair, which is 99% recyclable and can be disassembled in five minutes.) Here, Hackett talks about design as a competitive advantage, why he envies hotel-desk clerks, and firing an old friend.


The biggest surprise being CEO is how much you have to perform in a structured role — how often you’re “on” in front of analysts, employees, dealers, or the community. I’m not Jim. I am the CEO of Steelcase. I’ve resisted that. I just saw one of my best friends from high school at a reunion, a guy who played bass in Ray Charles’s band. He said, “Hackett, I thought you had become a suit, but you haven’t.” But you do have to play that role.

The biggest disappointment was letting a good friend go during the recession. He was the best man at my wedding; I was his best man, too. We’re lifelong friends. It was unbelievably difficult. When I walked out of his house that night, I thought, I hate business.

Design is a form of competitive advantage. People tend to think of design as good art, good visual language, which it absolutely has to be. But it’s also about the ability to do systems thinking. Good design allows things to operate more efficiently, smoothly, and comfortably for the user. That’s the real source of advantage. Businesses have started to understand this, so good design will become the price of entry.

Customers appreciate good design. While they can’t necessarily point out what specifically makes it good, they know it feels better. There’s a visceral connection. They are willing to pay for it, if you give them a great experience.

There has been a shift from “I” to “we” work. Employees used to work alone in “I” settings, meaning workstations and cubicles. Today, working in teams and groups is highly valued. We are designing products to facilitate that.

The hard thing is to institutionalize design thinking. We teach people to be highly conscientious about the needs of the user. We’ve worked really hard at that so we can design products to a customer’s needs.


A CEO creates value by focusing on the right things. The declaration of the company’s vision isn’t as important as the hard work and critical thinking about what really needs to be the purpose of the business.

In a large organization, there’s never enough time to truly understand the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of each individual. I’m still struggling with the fact that I don’t know everybody. And I want to. I want to know what will make them happy. If I know what it is, I can help them achieve it.

Your value as a person and your achievements aren’t linked. When I was born, my mother didn’t ask, “Should I love him, or should I wait to see if he’s going to be CEO?” If you see your life as highly valued and understand that your achievements are totally independent of that, you will never make decisions that will ruin your value.

You’re going to think I’m a really weird dude, but I’m envious of the guy who works the check-in desk at a fine hotel. Every once in a while there’s a mix-up in somebody’s reservation, but they know exactly what needs to be done. They have all the tools to do it. They work in a lovely setting, and their days begin and end on schedule. Have you ever looked at the faces of the people who check you in? Very few look like they’re having sleepless nights.