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3 concepts of how to (s)elect your future design leader

Author: Martin Groschwald
Design Leader

With a month that saw some top-level moves in both Ford and Jaguar/Land-Rover, some interesting observations around leadership has resulted (link here). How it is perceived? What are the results when all the dust settles?

As consultants to senior design management and above, we are often discussing leadership in various capacities.  I wanted to share some of these ideas with you and start to discuss how leadership and direction within design organisations could be arranged, selected and carried out in the future. These ideas don’t necessarily have to have the intention to be implemented any time soon but should keep us thinking about the role of design leaders, what we expect from them and of course how we can all influence the importance of design within a company culture.

Concept #1 – Design Leadership in the style of a US Presidency

As we all know, Design is often an authoritarian system which is not necessarily bad. However, this could lead to a lack of new ideas or become stale over time, if only one person is driving them. This is where the idea of a US presidency system comes in. A position that is limited to 2 continuous terms. If we would combine this thought with Chris Bangles’ Design revolution + evolution concept, we could make sure an individual leading a creative department can have a profound impact for a set amount of time. They would then also have a clear strategy to evolve for the next generation. This would also mean that risks would be easier to take by the individual as there can be a clear plan to be followed once the leader has been selected. By limiting the time in the top position, one can make sure the focus lies on the product rather than on protecting their position.

Design Leadership -  Concept #1

Concept #2 – Rotating Leadership and a Board of Design

The idea of a fixed leader of design has prevailed over time. But what could it look like if we let go of that idea? In many companies, there already exists a Board of Design, even though it may not be expressly named as such. Within car design we generally have a Chief Exterior, Interior, CMF, UX and Design Operations. Is a Head of Design on top of this necessary? Or could there be a system implemented that allows for a rotating leadership or spokesperson of design to represent the Board? Such a board could select their leader on a 2-year basis and then rotate. Rules of re-election could apply so that there is a guarantee for diversity. This would take away the idea of “one leader” and move to a more democratic environment with the board making the decisions.

Design Leadership -  Concept #2

Concept #3 – Electing Design Leadership democratically

So now for my most radical idea. Let’s combine Concept #1 and #2: a democratically elected Design Leader. The mandate could look like Concept #1 with a term of 5 years for each team, but we would combine it with the Board of Design thought. The staff elects its department leaders. A voice for high-level non-design management can of course be included but should not be able to overrule alone. This would put a strong emphasis on not only creativity but also leadership, as well as pay attention to the input of each team member. No matter if you are a junior or a team leader, each has the same voice within the election.

Design Leadership -  Concept #3

I am fully aware that some of these concepts are radical and probably within current structures not possible to implement. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about new ideas – not matter how radical they might seem.

What do you think about each concept? Do you have other ideas you can share that can potentially lead to new leadership models within design?