Ron Elizondo, Toms
Photo credit: Gerald Gonzales

Today, design-driven products threaten to disrupt 100-year-old, multi-billion dollar industries, seemingly overnight. As more examples of these disruptive, design-driven brands like Netflix and Uber show long-term sustainability, consistent growth, and immense market stickiness, companies are seeing first hand the importance of a mission-critical—but underrepresented—role in executive leadership: design.

Philips, PepsiCo, and Apple have all named a chief design officer. Even in the absence of a specific chief design officer role, many companies—including industry-disrupting companies like Airbnb—have designers in their C-suite, filling roles like Chief Executive Officer, Chief Creative Officer, or Chief Product Officer. Even longstanding companies like Intuit and IBM are putting an increased emphasis on the power of design thinking.

“In 2006 we had 6 designers at the executive level; today we have 35,” wrote Intuit CEO Brad Smith in Harvard Business Review. “We’ve challenged everyone who works for us—even our lawyers and accountants—to think deeply about how design should be part of their jobs.”

Design can be the deciding factor in an organization’s relevance because design thinking places the emphasis not on creating products and then selling them, but on identifying what customers want and need and then developing the optimal product and experience to meet that need. Customers today have little patience for poorly designed products and experiences and aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure. As such, many are recognizing that design is no longer just about how things look. Instead, design has become the language and currency of many of today’s most successful and industry-shaping businesses.

Understanding the customer

Incorporating a designer’s mentality into your organization’s leadership and business strategy can pay dividends in countless ways, but none more so than in the designer’s ability to put themselves in the shoes of the customer.

Designers know the importance of and understand what the customer wants. If you want to create a customer-focused brand—which you should, since your company wouldn’t exist without customers—a designer’s empathetic nature can steer the conversation among leadership back to the customer’s needs.

Designers know better than anyone how to pique a user’s curiosity and delight them with an experience—and the best place to monetize that curiosity and delight. They understand it’s not just one individual conversion point, but the accumulation of numerous touch points over multiple channels that form the whole of a positive user experience. And they understand that the screen has become the nexus of communication between customers and brands. Wearing the customer’s hat is what creates a strategy that breeds brand loyalty.

Companies like Airbnb, Fab.com, and Pinterest understand that—and they’re in good company. According to a recent Design Management Institute (DMI) survey, all of the top 20% of cumulative-funded, VC-backed ventures who raised additional capital since 2013 has a designer as a co-founder.

Photo credit: Gerald Gonzales
Photo credit: Gerald Gonzales

Bringing composure to the C-suite

Understanding the customer doesn’t just mean delighting them—it’s about listening when their needs aren’t being met. The most talented designers I’ve worked with excel at incorporating feedback in a balanced way. They listen, ask thoughtful questions, and distill it all into actionable strategy without fear or reservation.

That sort of discernment is invaluable in a leadership environment, from the perspective of both corporate strategy and interpersonal relationships. As Mat Hunter, Chief Design Officer at Design Council, put it: “The person who is sensitive, delicate, and powerful at a board level is quite rare.”

Pair that sensitivity with the requirement for executive-level clarity about strategy. Gone are the days of lone figureheads commanding attention with myopic strategies. Far more unifying is a leader who understands how to explain something so simply, so clearly, that everyone listening just… gets it. Designers recognize this virtue: they strive for it every day.

A design-minded individual’s experience receiving and managing customer (or employee) feedback equips them with the equanimity to play well with others, and the wider vision to remain objective. They’re able to balance their vision and leadership with the reality of what the customer sees, supplying a wide-lens perspective to the C-suite. Then, they can communicate that in a simple way that unifies and doesn’t confound. Leading a business is all about perspective, and good designers supply it in spades.

Relevance and growth through creativity

From sales to finance, engineering to operations, all other components critical to a business have found a stable place in the C-suite—but not so when it comes to design. Introducing this invaluable source of innovation into your organization’s leadership confirms the value you place on creativity and design, and offers a trustworthy source of mentorship for creative professionals in your organization.

At its worst, executive leadership can be associated with groupthink, but design is innovation and confident decision-making based on quantitative and qualitative feedback. Introducing naturally innovative, confident professionals into an organization’s leadership fosters an environment where out-of-the-box thinking and innovative ideas are encouraged, incubated, and given room to grow. That kind of thinking can help keep your organization relevant and growth-driven.

A DMI study found design-driven companies—the likes of Apple, Ford, IBM, Intuit, Nike, and Target—outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 by more than 200 percent.

“The most innovative companies in the world share one thing in common,” researchers wrote. “They use design as an integrative resource to innovate more efficiently and successfully.”

Of course, it isn’t enough (or even smart) to just throw ideas at a wall, or to be risky for the sake of it. But combining ingenuity and the ability to take risks with a customer-centric approach and a level-headed attitude is what sets the design-minded leader a notch above the rest, making them invaluable in the C-suite.

Innovation ultimately happens at your company’s growth points. It can be in the challenge of finding business partners, bringing in new talent, launching a new product, or doing a complete 180 with your business strategy. Disrupt the status quo by introducing design-centric thinking into your strategic leadership, and with the right attitude, you’ll experience a positive business evolution.