ideation iteration illumination

With a technology landscape that is increasingly relying on design and customer experience as a value proposition to both its shareholders and its customers, I’m baffled by the scarcity of executive level Design leadership. Advertising continues to be the most prolific sector with roles such as VP of Design, Executive Creative Director, Chief Experience Officer, but what about the software companies, the product companies, the startups? Why are they so obviously devoid of creative leadership? At most, roles like Design Director, Interactive Lead, and Sr. User Experience Manager dot the job boards. All of which typically report to the VP of Product Management, or SVP of Marketing or sometimes the Chief Technology Officer. This continued subordination guarantees that Design has much weaker voice (and by implication role) than these companies would like to believe.

Is that because design is currently a fad? Is it a concept to commoditize as a bullet point in boardroom PowerPoint presentations? Or is it because the business side of the room feels that design is something they understand and therefore can manage? I think that the answer is probably “both” but, in the interest of change, the latter has a greater ability to influence and change while actually bolstering the former.

Software development is a mystery. It uses strange terms, lots of computations and foreign languages. Developers deal in alien algorithmic alchemy and produce functioning products that can distributed and commoditized. Designers, they make things look good. Right? Business people know what looks good, so it’s a no brainer. VPs and C-Level execs assume that they “get it” when it comes to design. Sure, sometimes they do. However, it’s not a given. There is no design training in an MBA program yet frequently the most senior roles that marshall the design teams in technology based organizations desire MBA qualifications, not MS (HCI) or MFA.

I frequently like to use cooking as an analogy to design and even more so to “big D” Design. There is a wide chasm between a cook and a Chef. They both work in a kitchen, with the same tools, in a service capacity. Yes, they can both make good (or bad) food, but there the similarities end. Cooks are line workers with a set of technical and mechanical skills sought after to be the best repeaters of a process that they can be. A Chef is the one who creates the process, the recipes, the methods, the timing, the styling, the sourcing. In short, a Chef is a repository of knowledge, skill, and experience that contribute to producing new and exciting points of view on food and eating that help customers experience joy. The most successful even extend their sensibilities out of the kitchen and into the front of the house becoming restauranteurs. This is an extension of their point of view, their integrity, their passion, and their mountain of experience, and that’s ultimately what customer’s pay for.

Here’s the thing. Just because I like to eat good food, it doesn’t mean that I should tell a cook how to make an omelette or better yet, a Chef how to run a kitchen. Even if I’m really smart, even if I have a track record of successfully managing teams, even if I have an MBA, I still have a zero percent chance in the kitchen next to a Chef. Sure I can apprentice and work my way up like everyone else and someday after years of trail and error, training, exposure, and effort become a Chef with my own point of view, but I can’t reasonably assert myself as an authority on the kitchen because I like to eat good food

Now back to design.

There are those designers that make a living out of being amazing (and yes terrible) production technicians who are masters of creative applications, documentation, and the production pipeline. Likewise, there are those Designers who compound their technical proficiencies with abductive thinking and broad exposure to methods, philosophies, synthesis, and abstraction in relentless pursuit of the whys to compliment the hows. These Designers are able to synthesize multiple inputs and offer a point of view that is more art than science. These skills take time and experience and are hard won through many successes and failures. This is the type of leader a truly Design forward company needs to be sitting at the table on equal footing with product, technology and marketing. Instead, too many organizations hope to hire great production ‘cooks’ to be directed by their business and product leads.

It’s my challenge to all companies – dominant or emerging – that want to talk about their commitment to design to allow Design to lead it’s own resources. By appointing a Chief Design Officer or a VP of Experience and bestowing upon them the authority to slip a launch if the product isn’t up to par, or refuse a release that doesn’t meet customer needs, or even insist on creating products that are built from the ground up to resonate meaning with users, a company can truly show the market how Design forward it is. I’m confident that the types of products and services produced could change the world while helping profits to soar (by Design).


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