What Does it take to be a Design Leader?

Saturday, April 29, 2017 5:22 PM

Michael originally wrote this piece for core77.com

Recently throughout the business press, there have been countless articles about CCOs and CDOs and their value. Large companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, 3M, Electrolux, and Hyundai have added these positions over the last few years. Most people behave like this is a remarkable new development. It has been the right of the professional practice of design to have a seat at the table since the inception of the industry. We just stopped demanding it.

Some of the most famous and influential people early the in the professional practice of industrial design—Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Harley Earl and later Dieter Rams—exerted tremendous influence over corporations by working at the executive level. The foundation they laid gives us various models for different types of modern design leaders.

Harley Earl was likely the first corporate VP of Design. He joined GM in the 1920s after a Cadillac dealer purchased his father's custom body shop. Over time he established some of the first in-house corporate design teams, starting with the "Art and Color" department, then later the "Styling Department". As the GM portfolio of brands grew, each division got another design team, all lead by Harley. Earl had the ear of Alfred P. Sloan, who was then the CEO, and Earl was able to get him to understand the value of design to attract and retain loyal users. Earl created the concept of the Auto Show, then called GM Autoramas. Here Earl had full control of incredibly expensive show cars that were created to flex his team's muscles. He used concept vehicles to influence product roadmaps and features by going around production limitations and creating demand straight from the public. During Earl's tenure, GM became the largest corporation in the world.

Raymond Loewy took a different approach to design leadership. Emigrating to the United States in the 1920's, Loewy set up a design consulting office in New York. Loewy quickly learned that to do the work and exert the level of influence he wanted to, he needed to collaborate directly with his clients' founders, president's, and CEOs. This approach elevated his practice from focusing on quick churn-and-burn project work to long-standing relationships with brands like Coca Cola, Lucky Strike, Greyhound, Studebaker, Pennsylvania Railroad and U-Haul. Working directly with company executives Loewy was able to influence branding, packaging, and advertising in addition to their actual products. In this fashion he implemented some of the earliest forms of design language systems. This expansive thinking, designing everything, is essentially the role of the modern design executive.

Hybridizing the methods of Earl and Lowey, Walter Dorwin Teague took a different approach. Teague started out in advertising in the 1900's. After a successful 18-year career he saw the early rise of industrial design and shifted his practice to include product design, branding, exhibit design, and packaging. While working across many clients, he was a big believer in bringing design teams to work locally with a company. His teams became direct extensions of the client's team. He did this most successfully with Kodak and Boeing. In fact, the Boeing relationship was so successful it still exists to this day. If you fly on a Boeing, chances are that someone at Teague designed the interior.

So three of our industry's founders were all operating at the executive level in different ways. Fast forward a couple of decades to Germany in 1955 where Dieter Rams was hired by the Braun brothers. You might be familiar with the hundreds of products Rams and his team designed there, as well as the guiding principles he created, the 10 commandments of design. What you may not know is that Rams was hired at Braun as an architect and interior designer. He became the head of design just 6 years later in 1961. He held this position until 1995, at which point he actually had a seat on the board of directors of the company.

So what do these four people have in common with each other and how does it relate to the modern design leader? They all share four character traits that helped them become great leaders in our field: 

Expansive Thinking
Each one started with a specialty, not necessarily industrial design, and they gained deep knowledge of their chosen field. They then leveraged that knowledge to take on more and more design activities until the entire creative practice was under their purview. Their deep experience in a particular area gave them the confidence to try their skills at other areas of the business. Demonstrated success earned the credibility required to win additional resources, which then allowed them to build teams and extend their responsibilities. Think of Harley Earl, head of design, making such a huge marketing call to create a traveling exhibition of his own concept cars. It was a bold move, but now the entire industry does it. One thing I've learned is that if you are not expanding your influence, you are contracting. If you continually show you can do more, your budget will continue to grow. If you maintain the same level of contributions, eventually someone will ask for a budget cut.

Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo
When you dig into the history, in many cases this expansion in responsibilities came from dissatisfaction of how non-creative people were running design. I experienced this first hand as the CDO of Sound United from 2012-2017. Initially I was focused on building the Industrial Design practice. After a year of establishing that, I wanted to bring packaging under my wing, at which point I gained a graphic design team. Dissatisfied with the advertising we were getting from agencies, I had my team start producing our own print and digital ads, which lead to the company eliminating outside agencies. We saved money, raised quality, and gained photography and copywriting resources. Lastly I noticed how much we were spending on outside video production. Using the past success with print and digital ads, I convinced our CEO to allow me to hire a video and motion graphics designer. Within 5 years, I had a team that controlled every creative output; industrial design, UI/UX, packaging, advertising, video, retail displays, trade show exhibits… as Raymond Loewy once said "Never leave well enough alone".

A Teacher's Disposition
Looking back at my time in design school, the hardest instructors are the ones I remember most. Even though at the time it felt like they were dragging me through hell, they were the ones who helped me grow. All 4 of these design leaders had reputations for being notoriously difficult to work with, relentlessly demanding the best out of their teams. They believed their people could do things that others said were impossible. This belief pushed their people to deliver, which in turn helped them grow. The fun thing about stretching is you never go back to the same size. Many of their protégés went on to have outsized careers of their own. They realized that the end product lasts a lot longer than a difficult conversation or a late night working. In the end, the work is what prevails.

Manage Up as well as Down
The traits above will help any design leader manage their team to success. But the single biggest reason these designers got seats at the leadership table is because they took it. In business you're rarely simply handed an opportunity to excel and expand—you have to prove that you are a leader and then essentially demand to be treated and compensated as such. This is not to say you should have a false sense of bravado or entitlement. On the contrary, after you demonstrate that you can contribute at a high level, can coach others to do the same and have the ability to extend beyond your specialty, you have truly earned a seat at the big table. At this time, you need to ask for it and gladly accept the responsibilities that come along with it. 

These same four characteristics always bubble up in conversations with my peers in design leadership. For those of you with the ability and the constitution to weather tough situations, I argue it is your duty to your team and the profession as a whole to step up to the leadership level. We are living through the second wave of design leadership—let's make sure this one lasts.

Ed. Note: Michael will be discussing these ideas and more in a keynote lecture on design leadership at the STRUKTUR Design Conference in Portland, Oregon on April 26th.

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