Design and Leadership

Design’s role in the workplace is a constantly moving target due to ever-changing business models. Christian Guellerin explores design’s relevance to management and leadership positions.

Design has crossed over into a strategy. In organizations that focus on innovation, designers see themselves as leaders.

A few years back, there was almost no mention of design in the management disciplines. Today, with the many “Design Management” and “Design Thinking” training opportunities available in business schools, brainstorming sessions and creativity have transformed post-its into pillars of complex thinking.

But design would have remained in its comfy, tech-specific shell had it not been for design thinking and its push to put design on the management map. Back when design schools systematically turned a blind eye to the benefits resulting from collaboration with business, when management schools claimed exclusive rights to the leadership dimension, design thinking was breaking down the barriers. Business schools caught on quickly to the “design” asset, and incorporated it into their offering to turn designers into managers.

Design thinking does not go much further than the idea of it. And what good is an idea if it is not put into action? “Nothing!” according to Karl Marx, who was known to connect theory with implementation. On the design front, an idea has value but only if it furthers society. And, yes, everyone has ideas but that does not make everyone a designer. For this reason, design thinking will remain a hollow concept if it’s not partnered with the notion of “design-doing.” As Marx put it, “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This thought resonates with the very nature of the design practice. Simply put, design thinking does not exist without design.

It goes without saying then that design needs to fall under the management umbrella. For designers this means bringing engineers, marketers, financeers, philosophers, sociologists, researchers, technicians, office workers, and manual laborers together under the same roof and providing therein a platform for exchange.

Design’s role in the workplace is a constantly moving target due to ever-changing business models. A shift to a more equitable, human-fueled and cooperative approach is gradually overtaking organizational silos and pyramidal hierarchies. For this to truly happen, businesses need to exhibit greater flexibility and adaptability when it comes to change and innovation without compromising decision-making capacities in any way. This evolution is in the making.

Taken even further, design as strategy could eventually bypass technology and the role that technology has played up to now in both industry and retail. Technological advances and market forecasts would also take a backseat to the uses stemming from design’s contribution and influence. When such is the case, designers will be running businesses.

This is what Banny Banerjee, Stanford University’s Director of the Design for Change Center, defended during the June 2015 conference at the Politecnico di Milano (at the Cumulus* Conference, one of the non-profit’s two annual events). Up to now, designers have done little to stray from beaten paths. They have chosen zero-risk, well-traveled ones, within their comfort zones, enabling them to flaunt their creativity, but not their leadership skills. But for Banny  a good designer whose responsibility it is to spark and spread innovation via a diverse mix of fields, specialties, backgrounds and competencies, is a natural a leader. However, he or she is not one who gives orders, but whose energy and vision woo suspicious and enthusiastic followers alike, encouraging them to embark on a journey full of potential and possibility, and enable them to see their ideas through.

* Cumulus: International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media.

Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries in 2008; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the École de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequently on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

Read more posts from Christian Guellerin here.

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