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Why Designers Will Become the Next Gen of CEOs

CCA LiveE | Thursday January 19th, 2012 | 5 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By Lil Tydings

Designers have been taking center stage in companies across many industries and leading them toward profitable outcomes based on better customer experiences. Over the past five decades, we have evolved the contribution of design past that of pure aesthetics to include strategy, business models, the deployment of technology, leadership, and total business sustainability.

Charles and Ray Eames introduced people to a different way of looking at the world through multidisciplinary design. Through furniture design, installations and filmmaking, Charles and Ray explored design as a life skill, not merely a professional skill and the artifacts of their work were pivots between processes and systems that could be continuously improved. Charles used to say, “The extent to which you have a design style is to the extent you do not solve a design problem.” To both, it was about how they approached systemic challenges and the application of the design process (now regularly called “design thinking”) across materials, manufacturing, economics, business model, communication, society, and yes, aesthetics, simultaneously.

Lou Dorfsman revolutionized business for CBS, turning it into a successful brand, evident by the company’s effort to provide a thought-out experience among its products and services. For years, he worked shaping the brand and design direction of CBS after taking ownership of the design team. The meticulousness and attention to detail he employed were unique among designers of the time. He made sure the CBS brand was well executed from architecture to typography and that customers experienced CBS as a cohesive brand experience.

Today, companies such as Citrix, Dyson and Method are applying the same multidisciplinary, multifaceted approach used by the Eameses and Dorfsman toward the development of products and services that better delight customers and compete more successfully in the market.

Citrix has revamped their entire line of products under the leadership of industrial designer and CEO, Mark Templeton. Over the last 16 years, the company has been transformed from a $15 million organization with one product and one customer segment to a global powerhouse with revenues of almost $2 billion. Citrix’s model for continuous innovation has a top to bottom approach, where leadership keenly applies a user-centric approach to their digital product line and creates better ways for people to interact with their technology. They have also made “design thinking” a strategic initiative, offering resources and training across the entire company, not merely in one division.

James Dyson addressed the problem of clogged vacuums and created a more powerful, clog-free solution that offers better value in the long run. Like the Eameses, he believes in iteration on his designs and continuous improvements of ideas, both before and after they hit the market. The result of his work is an innovative, sustainable technology that disrupted the vacuum market and changed the course of that industry. Consumers have invested 200–300 percent more in vacuums and increased the market by $1 billion. He’s now revolutionizing fans and heaters, promising to disrupt these industries, as well, by designing his business around ideas that consumers can see and appreciate.

Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan combined sustainable chemistry, industrial design, and a fresh approach to business and now lead the consumer soaps and detergent industry, and subsequently are driving change that goes beyond their product line. Their company, Method Home Care, has set the benchmark for sustainable products and business models across their market and forced competitors to change in order to compete. Their products aren’t merely less toxic for customers, but are more economically viable and better for the planet. Like Dorfsman, the two co-founders have paid special attention to the brand and how customers experience their products. The design of their products have become an iconic home care statement and customers are proud to feature them in their households. Method’s brand aligns directly with the company’s culture, beliefs, and messaging, and strategy—by design.

Nathan Shedroff, author of Design is the Problem explains that a “successful design is carefully and considerate. It responds to people, market, company, brand, environment, channel, culture, materials, and concept. [...] Design is about systems and solutions, intent, appropriate and knowledgeable integration of people, planet and profit.”

Through experience design, multidisciplinary leadership, and design thinking, designers are looking at businesses holistically and using design processes and techniques to drive companies toward more successful innovation. Increasingly, design is affecting more than new products or brand strategy and used to better inform, create and/or shape company strategy and their business models.

This comprehensive and iterative approach to design conquers ambiguity in the market and connects customer need with brand, offering, and the bottom line in a systemic way that responds to markets, society and the planet.  By continuing to refine products and processes to improve quality of life, keeping a holistic and global perspective, and by building on the work of our design ancestors, designers can move companies toward innovation and success.

Lil Tydings is a multidisciplinary designer helping transform companies and the experience of their products. You can follow @liltydings on Twitter.


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  • Chris Borales

    Great article Lil! I read Daniel Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind’ recently and he mentions something very similar. His claim is that the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) will replace the MBA as the ‘premium’ degree for business leadership. 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Chris!

  • http://deanenettles.com/ Deane

    The question is, will the leaders be designers with a head for business, or business persons with a head for design? I think a double major in entrepreneurship and design would be more likely to produce this result than just an MFA. Steve Jobs was a savvy businessman who also loved elegant design; the success of iPod was just as much the result of his negotiating with the record companies to sell songs for .99 cents as it was the elegance of the click wheel.

  • Anonymous

    Deane, in my opinion, both business-oriented people with a good understanding of design-led innovation processes and design-oriented people with a good understanding of new business principles will be the best ones positioned to lead design and innovation in any industry.

    Hopefully, I made the point clear that the design I speak of goes beyond of just aesthetics and general business practices–it encompasses market insight, empathy, the ability to keep a holistic perspective, a sense of greater good and broader understanding of sustainability and the impact of decisions being made at a longer term that transcends the idea of doing work just for the sake of profit.

    I prefer to use other examples other than Apple, considering the latest news, but I am following very closely companies that are following the model I described above and I must say, I am in awe with their progress.

  • ThomasWhitt

    Great article! As I CCA alum, I’m proud to say that the MBA program is tops! I look forward to the greater-good their students will bring to the world. Thanks for doing what you do!

    I will repost this on my blog which covers such topics: https://www.facebook.com/Moment.Innovation
    All the best, Thomas