Should Designers Lead Companies?


A Response to Designers Debate Club

Yes, more designers should lead companies. The world needs it.

At a recent Designers Debate Club, organizers hosted "a panel of pros, practitioners, and pundits" to debate the motion that "designers should lead companies." Tina Roth Eisenberg (SwissMiss), Craig Shapiro (Collaborative Fund), and Charles Adler (Kickstarter) argued for the motion, and faced Rick Webb (Barbarian Group), Gadi Amit (New Deal Design), and Jay Parkinson (Sherpaa) who argued against it. The conversation quickly went technical, we-do-this-you-do-that, perfection versus completion, amongst other things. However, the broad provocation required a much more fundamental conversation around values, which most people aren't ready to have. Designers are very well suited to lead companies if only for one reason; designers have a common motivation to improve the world around them.

What is a Designer?

According to the standard definition, a designer is a person who plans something before it is made. This describes the day-to-day life of the designer, but glosses over fundamental design thinking and the attributions of a person who is design minded. The designers, as motioned to lead companies, are not only those who professionally practice—graphic, visual, experience, interaction, industrial, architectural—but rather anyone out there who is design minded. The design mind is one that is continuously planning through an insatiable desire to make and make better—or quite simply, improve. This drive comes from an innate curiosity and creativity. This ability to problem find and problem solve gives the design mind the power to try to enable change through making.

Designers as Leaders

The ability to find, solve, and improve makes designers well equipped to lead companies. As the panelists 'against the motion' argued, it is necessary for leaders to carry managerial skills to be effective and productive leaders. I agree with the sentiment and call on designers to improve their communication, management, and financial skills. These skills can be learned and improved through experience. On the other hand, the talent and intuition of the design mind are far more difficult to teach. The design leader is one who can use imagination—creativity and forethought—to see a vision for the future.

Steve Jobs is the best example of a design leader, not because he played with and crafted prototypes with Jonathan Ive, Apple's SVP of Design, but because he envisioned a world where all people would have access to powerful personal computers and be constantly connected to each other through networks. While I used the example that was "banned" from use by moderator, Debbie Millman (Sterling Brands), I use Jobs as seminal inspiration that designers should found companies, being at the table from day one, to create and influence not just the end product, but the beginning process. Designers who lead companies set an altruist vision and lead their company towards it.

While leading Apple towards that vision, Steve also claimed, "we're here to put a dent in the universe." The constant drive to design, make, improve, and repeat gives designers a well-rounded value system that starts with bettering the world around them. Designers tend to be more concerned with improving the whole over the self. Designers have well-rounded value systems and well-rounded values. So yes, designers should lead companies because the world needs more companies that want to make the world a better place.

In a few weeks I will follow up with my Top 10 Designer Leaders. However, a world with more wanna-be-Steve-designers is better than a world with only wanna-be-Steve-businesspeople. Great business should be the result of great visions and products, and not the other way around.

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