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Design and innovation is no longer a nice to have for businesses who wish to flourish in the ‘next normal’ and beyond. Welcome to the rise of the CDO, or the Chief Design Officer. 

The time to start building leadership skills is now. Individuals who currently hold the roles of team champion, product owner, lead product designer or other lead design roles are well placed to join the C-suite of the future and integrate design methodologies into the fabric of their organisations. 

Before examining the specific skill sets required for developing design leadership, it is important to look at the foundational traits that emerging design leaders are already using in their work. 

Abilities such as:

  • Finding and framing opportunities for the use of design within a project or business unit.
  • Adoption of new approaches for seeing and understanding customer demands and the vision to generate innovative and meaningful solutions.
  • Effective management of teams and time frames. Enhancing the company’s expertise by developing skills across teams.
  • Communicate equally with executives and teams. Engage the organisation in the construction of a clear path to reaching a desirable future, built on new ways of working and open communication.


The Four Core Traits of The C-Level Design Leader

The skill set above is currently fostered within many businesses and organisations. However, to move design into the executive office we have identified new skills that must also be learned. 

The four new core traits fundamental to becoming a design leader:

1) Brings A Vision

A design leader understands the value of having a ‘north star’. At Echos we explain the concept of a north star as creating the vision of what the project will achieve. It defines not only the objectives, but keeps all stakeholders engaged with a vision of the future they are working towards. 

Having a clear vision also creates complete alignment and a culture of agreement between team members. A design leader understands how to create this vision and encourage people to get there. 

A design leader understands how to create context around a vision to clearly define the benefits for the user and the business. This means creating clarity around what the project is building and what it is ‘NOT’ building. Projects can easily get derailed, go over budget or lose focus when a design leader does not clearly define the project. Understanding what you are achieving with a project is just as important to understanding what you do not need to achieve.

On a practical level this means measuring objectives and key results as well as focusing on strategic outcomes. A design leader understands how to create and implement innovation strategies, create product visions and identify new opportunities as they arise.

2) Articulates The Value Of Design

According to design team consultant, Peter Merholz, a design leader must be confident to articulate the value of design as a diplomat, an advocate and an architect: 

These three ways of communicating ensures that design is always top of mind for their organisation as well as their larger industry.

A design leader must be a diplomat who is attuned to creating influence upwards, sideways and down to ensure design value is articulated throughout an organisation. They must represent design in every discussion, as well as listen to the concerns of others, ensuring that everyone is heard and supported in the design journey.  

As an advocate, a design leader must conduct cross functional discussions, for example marketing, sales, business development and clients, to advocate for the value of design. They must be confident to advocate for their team’s design work internally as well externally to evangelise and spread the influence of design.

And finally, they must be an architect, building the pipelines needed to keep communication flowing internally and externally. A good architect will look for areas to repair and identify what needs to be built to keep the communication strong.

3) Coaches 

A design leader must also understand how to become a coach to get the best out of their teams and externally with partners. In this respect they understand how to zoom in on the needs of individual team members and zoom out on the collective needs of teams or projects.

Peter Merholz also explains a core aspect of coaching in a design environment is holding the space for design and allowing a team to ‘hum’. A ‘humming’ team is one that works together well because the leader has done the work of connecting all the dots, provided the processes and allowed the team to come together to operate as one.

A great design leader also understands how to provide guidance in a constructive way.

This means understanding when to stop a project and do a reframe. When the team is spinning its wheels, a good leader will find a different angle to keep them moving forward. Coaching also means upholding high standards and maintaining a culture of excellence. They understand when to clarify when something isn’t working or when results are not acceptable. In this way coaching creates and maintains a ‘humming’ work culture.

4) Last Mile Of Design

The last mile of design is the most important part of any design project. It demands a commitment to practice and for excellence in design. A project should be pushed to the highest level of refinement that can be achieved. A great design leader understands what good design is, executes on a clear vision and understands the necessary methods to drive toward it.

A design leader has a clear definition of what good design is, whether it is, UX, UI, technology, facilitation, strategy, research, user insights, testing and product launches. For every aspect of a project a design leader will have access to design principles and a library of examples that will help the project move towards the highest levels of completion. 

They push to achieve a high standard every time. Each project should build their knowledge so they reach higher heights of creativity, innovation and standards continuously.

Our Chief Design Officer Juliana Proserpio says, “Design can create new desirable realities and futures and it’s our job as designers to do it beautifully and for good. Design is for everyone, but good design can only be achieved with expertise and excellence.” 

The Next Leader Is You

Design is one of the most powerful tools we have to transform our businesses, societies and governments. All industries must start developing their design leadership capacity. The time to build the skills of the future is today. Design leadership is the logical next step for career development in the design industry, sign up for a special invitation to our Design Leadership program for more information. 

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