08/07/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

Building Design Experts, Managers and Leaders

Co-written by Pia Geisby Erichsen

Multiple studies have shown that design capabilities and financial performance are closely linked, providing a 10 to 30 percent increase in ROI. These design capabilities are not embedded in bricks or machinery but in people, so they take careful planning and execution to achieve.

Employing a designer would seem to be the obvious solution; however, if management remains uneducated about design, this approach can severely limit the potential benefit of design. Instead, management must own design and the design decisions that go along with it, all the way from business ideas to detailing. They need to understand how corporate philosophy and strategy inform design strategy, from the design of their logo, to the culture, to organizational architecture and routines.

So, how do designers and their organizations move from being design experts to design managers and ultimately become design leaders? What changes in culture, design capabilities, organizational architecture and routines are necessary to facilitate this organizational design upgrade?

To become an expert designer requires 10,000 hours of focused effort, usually starting out at a top-tier design school. After one or more internships and graduating with a Bachelor of Science or Master of Science, the junior designer then lands a position in a design-oriented organization and becomes involved in all design phases, working on a multitude of products, in a range of businesses, targeting a wide range of different customers. From a junior designer, the designer grows to become a designer and finally to become a design expert. The focus is on the execution of design process, functionality and design expression.

To become a design manager, young designers take on vendor liaison tasks, mentor interns, and then project management responsibilities, perhaps managing small project teams and then, larger, more complex projects before becoming creative directors and finally, design director. The focus is on context, design process (quality, schedule and budget) and to a lesser degree on functionality and design expression. If a designer is not interested in a managerial path, they can pursue a career as a design expert within a particular competency, such as ergonomics, user interface, sustainability or conceptualization.

The final step is becoming a design leader and to achieve this, a design director has to become part of top management by providing design strategy within design philosophy, structure (supply chain and ecosystem) and design innovation.

One important task for the design leader is to ensure that top decisions are not based only on short-term narrow financial performance but also on broader long-term comprehensive triple-bottom-line considerations. If that balance is not met, there is a risk of developing only incremental innovation and leaving out the breakthrough opportunities. Therefore, the design leader plays a crucial role in leveraging the benefits of design and providing long-term viability. Placing the design leader on a strategic level in companies is, however, not the only solution to implementing design. Preliminary research indicates that business leaders at the strategic level have to be open and have a basic understanding of what design is in order to give the design leader the authority to make his points.

There are three essential principals for implementing design in organizations:
1. Employ designers and appoint a design leader who owns the complete design process ("The buck stops here")
2. Create organizational culture, architecture and routines that consider both objective and subjective arguments and develop objective proxies for aspects that are not readily measurable.
3. Educate the leaders at the strategic level in organizations in basic design skills in order for them to understand design language and the benefit of the design perspective

Building design capabilities in organizations requires deliberate planning and meticulous execution in order to translate business opportunities into actionable design solutions. This means empowering and nurturing the development of design experts, managers and design leaders and equipping them to integrate design into the organization at the strategic level.

Special thanks to Pia Geisby Erichsen for researching and co-writing this post.