Designers As Leaders: Now that we have a seat at the table, how do we prove we belong?

Doug Powell
13 min readApr 6, 2020

This article is the companion piece to a talk I gave at Interaction 20, the IXDA international conference in Milan, during the first week of February 2020. Now, two months later, it is hard to believe what has transpired around the world since that week. The coronavirus health crisis is sweeping across the planet, and Milan and the Lombardy region of Italy emerged as the European epicenter soon after our time together there. While the talk, and the original version of this article, were conceived without direct reference to the health crisis, I have subsequently added some material to this piece that address the role of designers as leaders in times of crisis. Indeed, we are needed now more than ever.

I’ve been a designer for more than 30 years and my design practice has taken many forms over that time. My original entry point into design as a career was that, as a child, I loved to draw pictures and I wanted to find a way to do that for a living. I studied visual communications at university and quickly migrated toward the emerging discipline of graphic design as I launched my professional career in the late 1980s. I was a partner in a small graphic design studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota for many years through the 1990s. I helped to launch a start-up healthcare venture and had a deep experience as a design entrepreneur during the early 2000s. I’ve been a design educator at many academic programs, and a community leader with AIGA, the design association in the US. While these roles were very different from each other, the way I operated as a designer and leader was always quite similar: either as a solo practitioner or as part of a small, discreet team with a very focused mission.

So it was, to say the least, a shock to my system when, in 2013, I had the opportunity to join IBM, one of the world’s largest and most established companies, to help launch and lead their renewed user experience design program. A century-old company with nearly 400,000 employees, and a presence in 170 countries around the world, not to mention thousands of technical products and services in virtually every industry and business sector, IBM is mind-bogglingly complex and dense; far beyond anything I had encountered until then. In order to operate in this wildly scaled environment, I needed to re-tool my skills: to figure out how the company was organized and who the key leaders were; to learn the fundamental business model and understand how the company makes money, who it is competing with, and why; to build a whole new network, by finding “my people” and quickly building trust with them.

The story of the design program we have built at IBM since 2013 is well-documented, so I won’t dive deeply into it here. At a high level, we’ve added more than 2,000 designers and design leaders to the company, embedding them in every business division across the company. We’ve built a global network of more than 50 studios and design workspaces. And we’ve rolled out a suite of human-centered design practices, including the IBM Design Language and our Enterprise Design Thinking platform that has trained more than 200,000 IBMers to work more collaboratively and to better understand their users. In my role as Vice President of Design, I oversee design leadership, design practices, and the community of designers company-wide.

While the details of my particular journey toward design leadership may be different from other leaders, the basic trajectory reflects that of many designers who now find themselves in senior leadership roles as the industry experiences exponentially rapid growth: an early career as a hands-on practitioner, followed by years of organically expanding roles and responsibilities, ultimately resulting in a leadership role for which we have little, or no, formal training.

Indeed, this is hardly an isolated phenomenon. A recent survey of LinkedIn conducted by Google Ventures found an astonishing 66,000 job postings for executive-level design leaders!

It’s safe to assume that literally thousands of designers are being thrust into leadership roles for which they are unprepared (and even unqualified).

Julie Zhuo, former VP of Design at Facebook, describes her own version of this path in her excellent book The Making Of A Manager. “The responsibilities of managing people felt like an enormous leap from creating user interfaces or writing code…everything felt new and uncomfortable.”

This poses an important question: What are the missing business skills required to effectively play senior leadership roles in complex organizations, and how do designers acquire these business skills in the middle of our careers?

I vigorously agree that it is vital for us to be as smart as we can be about the businesses we are leading by adapting to our complex surroundings and adopting new skills. However, without dismissing that important reality, I also believe that the question above makes a huge assumption: that the traditional and accepted skills of business leadership are, in fact, the best way to lead a business in the 2020s. A recent MIT Sloan Business School study suggests otherwise. They surveyed senior business leaders and found that:

  • Just 12% of respondents strongly agree that their leaders have the right mindsets to lead them forward.
  • Less than 10% of respondents strongly agree that their organizations have leaders with the right skills to thrive in, what they call, the digital economy, which is also frequently referred to as the “fourth revolution.”

A recent Forbes article focused on the inadequacies of MBA programs, “Today’s business schools are busy teaching and researching 20th-century management principles and, in effect, leading the parade towards yesterday.”

The Harvard Business Review says “Business schools are on the wrong track.”

In other words, chasing after the established version of business leadership skills, is not what we should be doing. Yes, we must have a credible understanding of how our business runs, but it’s a grave mistake to simply adopt the flawed conventions of traditional business leadership.

Interestingly, the MIT Sloan report referenced above gives us a clue about how we might approach this. “We identified a number of leadership teams that are embracing new ways of working and leading,” they state, “(and) many of them are increasing transparency, demonstrating authenticity, and emphasizing collaboration and empathy.” Hmm… Transparency. Authenticity. Collaboration. Empathy. These sound like the qualities of a great designer.

What MIT Sloan and these other sources are saying is that, in order to lead effectively in this era of the digital economy, we need a different set of skills than have been valued and taught previously.

I argue that most designers actually possess the skills to effectively lead in this transformative era.

Yet interestingly, as this trend of design leadership roles has emerged over the past decade, I see in myself and my peers a natural tendency to relegate our design skills — rather than elevate them — as we climb the corporate ladder and take on new responsibilities. Based on the evidence above, that is a missed opportunity, to put it mildly.

So my revised central question becomes this: As we step into leadership roles in complex organizations, how do we retain, enhance, and maximize our differentiating core skills as designers to contribute to the businesses we’re helping to lead?

What are designers really good at?

If we agree that, in order to be better business leaders for the digital economy, designers must bring more of their “designerly” selves to the role, what does that actually mean? How do we use design as a boost, rather than a barrier? As a starting point, it’s useful to think about what unique and differentiating skills, or “superpowers,” designers possess, and how we use them to solve complex problems.

Every designer has their own origin story. For me, it was visual art, but for others, it might be a love of tech or gaming, model making, or punk rock. Each of these starting points will reveal a different blend of superpowers.

Here’s an incomplete list of some of the common design superpowers:

  • Empathizers
    The first concern of the designer is not the market forces or business objectives, it is not the technical viability or lack thereof. As designers, our primary concern is the person for whom we are designing. Without a clear understanding of that person’s pleasures, pains, and hopes, we can’t do our job.
  • Prototypers
    Whether in clay or cardboard, legos or lines of code, quickly making a low-fidelity prototype is an essential way to see our ideas, test them, and improve on them, without taking the time, expense, and risk of going into full production.
  • System thinkers
    By taking a human view of a complex problem, designers often are able to make linkages that are invisible to their peers who are stuck in organizational silos or technical details. This ability to connect dots and recognize patterns is rare and valuable.
  • Picture makers
    As I mentioned earlier, my ability to visualize my ideas was one of my early entry points into design, and seems to be for many designers. By expressing our ideas in the form of pictures — even crude stick figures — we avoid the trap of overly complicated business and technical jargon.
  • Divergent thinkers
    While an engineer or an MBA might be concerned with finding the shortest and cheapest line between a problem and a solution, they often miss the fact that the solution they’re chasing misses the mark. Designers will quickly consider a wide range of ideas in order to find the best, most meaningful solution.
  • Facilitators
    Seeking out and including many points of view when addressing a complex problem, is a core behavior of a designer. Facilitating those differing and sometimes conflicting voices becomes a necessary skill of the design leader.
  • Storytellers
    Our focus on people allows us to translate complex business problems into compelling stories about human beings. This is an effective way to align a cross-functional team around a single idea.
  • Critique-ers
    The history of design is steeped in a culture of critique, which allows us to give, and receive, succinct clear and actionable feedback.
  • Detailers
    Our innate attention to craft, detail, and pixel-perfection sets us apart from our business peers, and becomes a unique way for us to contribute to business success.

Not every designer possesses all, or even most, of these superpowers. And there are certainly some that I haven’t even listed which might be plainly obvious to you. But this list is intended to be a starting point to trace your own design origin story and, in turn, identify your core superpowers as a design leader.

How do we apply our design skills to business leadership?

The wall behind my desk in the IBM Studio in Austin, Texas is covered with a huge visualization of the IBM organization composed of color-coded sticky notes. All of the IBM business units are represented along with the General Managers (or GMs, coded in blue), the senior-most Design Managers (in yellow), lead Individual Contributors, DesignOps leaders, and other key stakeholders. The map began simply as a way for me to make sense of the maddeningly confusing organization of the company — as I said earlier, this was a real challenge when I first joined the company.

My teammate, Eunice Chung (lower left), checks out the map of IBM behind my desk.

It would have been easy to dump this org chart into an excel spreadsheet and tuck it away in a folder on my laptop. But by making it a very visual and accessible artifact — by expressing it as a piece of low-fidelity design — something interesting has happened: the map has become an essential daily resource and reference point for my team as we pursue our mission to unite the community of designers across the company. On any given day, my teammates will use the map as a way to identify key influencers or stakeholders, frequently making quick and easy iterations when something changes (which happens all the time!). This simple example of design-driven leadership has changed the way the team behaves and operates, it has improved our collaboration, and brought us closer to the people we are serving. It informs everything we do.

Your business stakeholders are your most important users

One way my map of IBM comes in handy for me is in planning and facilitating a series of meetings — which we call Design Program Reviews — between our division General Managers (GMs) and our senior Design Managers, who are embedded in each division. These meetings are a critical way for our GMs to understand the value their design team is delivering, in order to (hopefully) continue increasing their future design investment. Design Program Reviews happen once or twice per year in each of our divisions, usually at key points in the budgeting cycle. In a typical year, we will run more than 30 reviews across the company.

As I work with our design leaders to prepare these Program Reviews, it’s important to approach the meeting, not as an executive briefing, but as a user experience design problem. This means we have to approach the GM as our primary user and to understand them in a deep and human way.

So what do we know about IBM General Managers? Of course, every GM is their own person, but through basic user research we’ve identified these common traits that now drive the way we design the Program Reviews experience:

  • Super Busy!
    Duh! These are busy people! They simply don’t have a lot of time, and getting on their calendar can be a nightmare, so our design program reviews are a tight and concise 30 minutes. They happen once or twice a year, usually in advance of key budgeting cycles for the business.
  • Data Driven
    Successful business leaders do not make decisions based on warm-and-fuzzy stories, they insist on clear evidence and quantifiable data. So that’s how we frame the discussion.
  • Opinionated
    We know that they usually have a strong point of view, so we anticipate that, frequently adding provocations into the discussion that we know will elicit a response.
  • Competitive
    GMs are typically very competitive. They like to have a goal, and when we give them one, they tend to respond to it. They also hate it when they are behind their peers in other businesses, so we know we can use that to motivate them in certain spots.
  • No bullshit
    They’ve got a finely-tuned bullshit meter, so we resist the temptation to pad our deck with frivolous extras. Our deck is always a consistent 6 slides, each slide with a very focused point.
  • They will believe!
    Finally, we know that if we make a strong and clear case for the value of design, our GMs will believe, and they will invest!

We use the same deck template for each business which helps us scale the process, and easily track the trends and patterns across the company. The decks include data on designer staffing and ratios to other technical disciplines; where the team’s designers are located in our global network of studios; career experience levels; design thinking expertise; attrition and other data. The information is designed in a clean, consumable way with clear data visualizations, so GMs can quickly understand and interpret the story in the moment.

The deck highlights gaps in designer staffing and, ultimately, that leads to a roadmap for future investment. When we can connect all of these data points to user outcomes (which design teams are driving), we have a very compelling story for our GM in support of design investment. The decks get updated on a quarterly basis, so now we have a growing catalog of design leadership data that helps us run our design orgs everyday.

To be clear, these Design Program Review decks are never going to win a design award, that is not the goal. Instead, they combine a deep understanding of the needs of the audience (IBM General Managers), with clear and consistent graphic design, data visualization, system thinking, and storytelling to create a compelling experience for our business leaders.

How do we know this is working?

The most compelling evidence that our user-centered approach to executive design briefings is working, is when we hear it from the users themselves. Recently we delivered a review to a division GM who had never participated in one before, and this is what he had to say: “I believe user experience will allow us to win in the market. This review has helped me understand the need for design resources [beyond our current levels]. We have the ability to support this plan, and we can double this design team with no problem.” That’s a pretty positive outcome for a 30 minute meeting; and it’s not an isolated case. In fact, the current number of designers at the company is more than twice the number we were projecting when the program launched in 2013, and all of this unexpected growth has happened at the division level. This means that business leaders across the company are seeing the value of design, and choosing to invest in it.

I believe one key reason for this growth is the way our design leaders are building relationships with our business leaders by leading with their unique design skills, design behaviors, and design artifacts. We’re tapping into our design superpowers to drive the way we are leading these complex businesses. We’re understanding our users, we’re thinking at a system level, we’re prototyping, visualizing, and telling great stories. And we’re seeing great results.

Indeed, the current global health crisis is revealing a profound need for the unique perspective and skills of designers. From data visualizations that clarify the severity of the crisis on a hyper-local level, to innovative designs for critical care equipment like face masks and ventilators, designers are making meaningful contributions to basic health and wellbeing. The United Nations and World Health Organizations have issued a Global Call Out To Creatives, revealing the need for new thinking in the face of a dire challenge.

Where do we go from here?

We are in the midst of an extraordinary time for our profession. The opportunities for design and designers have never been greater. Design has, indeed and at long last, gained a seat at the table of business leadership and influence. However, with these opportunities come daunting challenges. While it is easy for us to think this seat will be there forever, we must recognize how quickly design can be relegated to our historically tactical and executional role if we don’t seize this moment and prove our value. As we are retooling our skills to get smart about the businesses we are leading, let’s not lose track of the unique and differentiating skills we all possess. And let’s not forget how well-suited those skills are for the business needs of today and the decades ahead.