At the heart of it all

Some say design leadership begins in the boardroom, but David Bernstein believes design should be allowed to flourish at an organisation’s very core.

Design leadership. What does the term mean? Help was at hand at last month’s Design Management Institute conference in Amsterdam, Meeting the Challenge of Design Leadership.

The publicity leaflet said/ ‘Design leadership means… to lead design and to lead business by design.’ These are two quite different objectives – the first straightforward and the second equivocal. I am not sure I want businesses to be led by design, though I am all for design making a major contribution to business strategy.

But I worry that design evangelists are overplaying their hand. Hark the words of Raymond Turner, a design leadership consultant. ‘Design leadership is a commercial imperative. It creates differences, sustains competitive advantage and enables sustainable world-class performance.’ Such claims make the DMI’s moniker seem obsolescent. Turner puts the boot in: ‘Understanding the differences between design leadership and design management is essential to success.’

I was sorry to miss his presentation – and even sorrier not to attend a down-to-earth critique by designers Tim Selders and Paal Smith-Meyer entitled Myth-Busting Design Leadership: ‘[T]he design management community is eagerly adopting the notion of leadership and “bringing design to the board”. But what is this leadership really all about? Does it actually exist or is it just a wishful dream? Isn’t design leadership today little more than applying design tools in non-design areas, such as business planning?’

Design won’t win its place at the board until it truly articulates and demonstrates its benefits to the general business audience.

In a fascinating article in the current Royal Society of Arts Journal, Colum Lowe, head of design and human factors at the NHS Patient Safety Agency, writes: ‘An increasing number of businesses understand the commercial benefits of design: how it can deliver consumer value by making products useful, usable and desirable; how brands can communicate with the target audience on an emotional level; how design can drive sales and, above all, show a healthy return on capital employed.’

The NHS is not alone in not comprehending all this. Design is at the stage marketing was at 30 years ago, when companies began to appreciate that it was not a separate department but an inclusive term – that everyone within a company was in the business of satisfying customer need.

Today that seems obvious, but is it obvious that everything is designed, can be redesigned or better designed? Is it yet appreciated that design is not an add-on, a final refinement once the serious work is done, but a crucial contributor from the start of the planning and production process?

I once tried to divide companies into: one, those that regarded design as something apart, brought in from outside and only to be used where necessary; two, those that departmentalised it within the organisation, in other words a part which was used where appropriate; three, those few that placed design at the heart of their operation – the Brauns, Philipses and Nokias of this world.

I can sympathise fully with those evangelists who long to see design at the board table, but sympathise less with their demand for the chief executive’s chair. Design at the top? I’d settle for the heart.

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