Mat Heinl: Is there really no place for designers in the boardroom?

New research suggests that while businesses value the importance of design, they are less willing to involve creatives at board level. Looking at the benefits of creative decision-making, Mat Heinl, CEO at global design consultancy Moving Brands, argues the case for a more diverse board.

Courtesy of Vasyl Dolmatov

It is heartening to see that almost 90% of those surveyed in the recent What Clients Think 2018 report believe design is important to their business success, even if the majority are reluctant to include a creative voice in boardroom conversations. Though worryingly, just 7% value our input in strategic decision-making today.

I think it’s important to consider precisely what a creative presence could bring to a boardroom. Let’s imagine a world where creatives are directors of the board.

The easiest place to do this is within design businesses themselves. We should first review our own boards to ensure that we are promoting people with creative backgrounds to director level.

“A group of directors should have diverse views”

Why does this matter? The board is a key decision-making body that is responsible for the long-term success of a company. A forum with these goals demands a group of directors with diverse views, as opportunities and challenges can often be ambiguous and hard to predict.

A designer-turned-director may become less involved in day-to-day studio life, yet their creativity remains one of the most prized attributes in the boardroom alongside leadership, because it inspires innovation and propels the company forward.

Once you have decided to include creatives in the boardroom, it’s important to help them prepare for the role and succeed. We can learn from companies who have a track record of developing their boards over the long term. They often have programmes dedicated to developing talent and exposing them to the reality of taking on a director role. They may also offer mentoring and specialist training on governance.

Creatives-turned-directors will need to accept that being a designer is no longer their priority – the company’s success is. This doesn’t mean becoming less creative, it means using creativity for a different purpose.

Art school graduates are seldom in boardrooms

As a creative, you are likely to be in the minority within a boardroom – not just in terms of experience but also education. Most board directors come from finance, law, engineering or administration. Of course, there is variety and it wouldn’t be uncommon to have directors with sales, marketing and human resources backgrounds too. However, an art school graduate who has spent their entire career in design will be in the minority.

Boards in general are under pressure to reflect society better and are looking for ways to avoid becoming pale, male and stale. The exuberance and non-conformism brought by a design professional can help rebalance this quickly. This can help the board add credibility to the business both externally and internally.

Beyond this, whole studios can add value by proving that creativity is no longer the sole preserve of designers, and it is already playing a key role in a growing number of professions.

Rather than taking issue with the findings in the What Clients Think report, the industry should see it as an opportunity to challenge long-held perceptions about our skills.

Creativity doesn’t just produce profits

As an industry, we can certainly do a lot better at communicating how our work adds value to businesses (and society more generally) in terms that people understand. Beyond its power to differentiate and “premiumise” products, creativity helps define a company’s vision and articulate its purpose.

Additionally, it’s sometimes easy to underestimate the value of the creative process and what it means to coordinate a multi-disciplinary team. Consultancies are known for being dynamic and agile – characteristics that will benefit any business working in the rapidly shifting political, economic and technological landscape.

Change starts in design studios themselves

The fact that design studios tend to be relatively small means we also have a chance to create “ideal” boards that strive for the highest standards in diversity and equality. We need to take a no-holds-barred look at how we run our own businesses, which may highlight some uncomfortable truths. Design firms are responsible for making amazing things, and often have diverse and young teams with a modern outlook, yet their ownership structures and governance can be stuck in the last century.

Starting with our own businesses, we need to instill the mantra that designers belong in the boardroom, and nurture them to develop the right skills that allow their voices to be heard. Designers aren’t trained to speak the same language as CEOs or accountants. This is a challenge, but it is also a difference that is very valuable. Bringing designers into the boardroom is an opportunity for companies to embrace the transformative power of creativity and reap the benefits – for themselves, and society as a whole.

Mat Heinl has been CEO at design consultancy Moving Brands for five years. Previously, he worked at Jean Abreu Dance, and was a chief creative officer at Moving Brands. A designer by trade, he studied graphic design at the University of the Arts London (UAL).

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  • Neil Littman June 25, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    I thought this was a very interesting article. Over the years I worked in various consultancies I spent many hours in company boardrooms in the role of a creative either discussing concepts for their new brand, their annual report or strategy for the launch of a company initiative or simply art directing photography of the board (not always simple as it turned out). The companies included many of the FTSE 100 in the UK and others in mainland Europe. However while I don’t doubt the value of Mat Heinl’s suggestions I question what proportion of the time of these board directors was dedicated to design issues within the framework of their own companies. I think it depends very much on the type of business you are dealing with and how much design is at the core of their ambitions and daily tasks. On many occasions directors said it was refreshing to meet people from a creative background but despite being able to identify with some of their issues it was not a world I was comfortable in (Though that has changed as I have got older and taken a personal interest in business and shares). Some businesses had more of a synergy with designers, like those in the communications business such as telecom companies. I think we broke down some of the barriers and there are more to break down but I welcome Mat’s initiative and look forward to seeing a response on this page from somebody in the corporate sector. Does anybody on these boards read Design Week I wonder…

  • Jan-Erik Baars August 6, 2018 at 8:55 am

    This is a topic that is addressed over and over again, for a good reason: Many businesses and also designers still think that design is something exclusively done by designers, and that designers are creatives, hence design is something ‚creative‘ as well. This notion is where the problem lies – it’s all wrong. Design is a deliberate way to conduct a business and consequently making decision in line with the ‚design‘, so in essence every business has design in the board. It’s the more a question whether one is conscious about it and whether one deliberately and actively is working on the design aspects of the business (rather than focussing eg. only on financials). This does not necessarily imply that designers need to be involved, it implies that the board understands what design means and can do for the business. And this is not solely „creative“ either, it involves many competencies in combination.
    Good boards have people in them possessing all the needed competencies to run the business. I am not sure wether it needs a designer in there, but it does need design in there! So I suggest to de-couple the designers from design and and find ways to instill a mantra that design belongs in the boardroom – it could be that that is an easier feat to achieve. And if that has taken seat, it could be that it is a trojan horse for many designers to come along with it. 😉

  • Ifeanyi Justin Ukaegbu November 24, 2021 at 12:14 am

    This has been my concern since since I started working as a creative designer for one of Nigeria’s biggest banks a few years ago. Now that I’m at design school in the UK for my master’s degree, it came to me again during one of our thought mapping exercises. Designers and creatives should aim to get inside the boardroom for their own benefit in order to see the necessary transformation in an organisation. On the other hand, having a diverse boardroom with designers in the mix is a gain for the company. When this matter is brought up, I find it perplexing when it comes off as strange.

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