My Take On Design Leadership

Design LeadershipAgain one of these posts I would have wished to have written myself ;-) Anyway I’ve skim read Kevin McCullagh’s posting on the Core77 Design Blog just before leaving to The Hague last week. Fortunately Kathryn Best reminded me on Kevin’s posting after my return a week ago!

What I like about Kevin’s post is his approach to assemble a sort of list of patterns he has observed when it comes to describing the term we love so much these days: ‘Design Leadership’. What I like in particular about ‘pattern recognition’ in general and this is also a reason why I like Kathryn’s book on Design Management is that it is not aiming for categories and definitions academia is looking after like: ‘right-wrong’, ‘good-bad’ or ‘truth’ in general.

While I will give my very own definition or better ‘description’ of the term later on I’d like to point to the four questions that have triggered Kevin’s article:

1.) What makes a design leader?

2.) Do they have to be designers?

3.) Who is leading whom?

4.) And to where exactly?

A point where I do disagree with him is clearly addressing question 2 as I don’t think that ‘Design Leaders’ necessarily need to be designers themselves. Let me try to explain this by referring back to the photo (or collage) I’ve assembled and which you see in the upper left corner. The picture in the lower right corner is taken from Kathryn’s book and illustrates quite well the three areas of responsibility of a Design Leader, a Design Manager and a Designer as those people in organisations who ‘Define a Vision’, ‘Manage the Process’ and ‘Create the Content’.

While on one hand I think that this ‘classification’ is helpful for better understanding the very often unclear terms I do think that on the other hand they are too discrete. Apparently a Designer or Design Manager can only remain in their category and won’t be able to embrace all of them at the same time. In contrast according to my understanding of a ‘Good Designer’ she/he must be able to address all those levels in order to ‘thoughtfully design’.

Therefore and in order to make the model more flexible I’d want to refer to one of the originators of the term ‘Design Thinking’ namely Roger Martin. You see his latest book ‘The Opposable Mind’ pictured in the upper left corner of the collage. Then replace ‘Design Leader’ with ‘Design Thinker’ and let ‘Design Leadership’ embrace all three functions ‘Design Thinking, Design Management and Design’ and you have a more flexible framework that communicates the key message: “Only if you’re good at all disciplines: ‘Thinking, Managing and Designing’ you are a ‘Design Leader’!

Design Leadership FrameworkAccordingly this perspective also implies that one person will have a hard time to act as a ‘Design Leader’ since this would imply that all functions would need to be addressed by her/him alone. Even though for example the success of Apple Computer these days might appear as the single effort of Steve Jobs it is for sure the joint effort of many more (needless to mention Jonathan Ive).

Furthermore I do think that it is somehow anachronistic to believe that (in the competitive business landscape of these days) that individuals are still able to dominate; even though I admit that we tend to have a fascination for these sort of ‘single heroes’.

Instead ‘Design Leadership’ according to my perspective above recognises that it is something that needs to be achieved collaboratively as a joint team effort of various ‘specialists’. So the answer to Kevin’s question No. 2 definitely is: No, because only teams as I’ve described them above can effectively handle various functions from several disciplines with ‘Design Thinkers’ as the category most likely to embrace people from non-design disciplines.

What do you think? Is this something Kathryn/We shall adopt for the future?



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