The UX of design leadership: winners & losers

A graphic with six different icons to represent six key suggestions on why design leaders need to stay curious, always be learning and unlearning, and sharpening their toolkit to stay relevant. The backdrop of this graphic is black, there are white lines dividing the six icons, and there are 3 icons per row with 2 rows (6 total). A few of the icons are a saw getting sharpened, an aerial view of a brain, and a flame that’s lit. Each icon has text underneath it.
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The other day a senior design colleague reached out to me looking for advice. He was part of one of the unfortunate rounds of layoffs affecting big tech companies across the globe.

I was trying to help him find his next fit, but when I started to go through how he had been spending his time, I realized he was very out of touch. He had stopped pushing himself and learning new things for quite some time.

In today’s economic climate, depth and breadth of skills are paramount to survival. Companies of all shapes and sizes are expecting more with less. So, creative leaders need as many business and strategic skills as they do functional capabilities.

I call this creative dexterity.

Successful creative leaders understand how to translate customer behaviors and mindsets into solutions and pull together the teams and resources to move the needle fast. There’s no reason you can’t do all of that and more.

But there are plenty of excuses.

Too often, middle managers are out-of-touch leaders who haven’t left the ivory tower or their studio apartment in so long that they find themselves frozen while the world keeps going.

Wake up! The world needs us creators and makers. Here are six ways to keep your edge sharp and your services in demand.

McKinsey’s report, “The Business Value of Design,” now several years old, seems to be finally sinking in. The C-Suite gets how much they need design-led thinkers.

Creativity is one of the only competitive advantages in this new world order.

Design is problem-spotting, problem-solving, and the lynchpin of delivering experiences that shatter the status quo and connect companies to customers and staff in a human way.

Designers are sense makers, pattern detectors, and pattern disruptors.

And then, using their talent, creativity, and keen sense of innovation, they devise and build just the right agile solutions.

As PepsiCo’s first-ever Chief Design Officer and author of the new book, The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People, Mauro Porcini, recently told me:

“You cannot protect any form of mediocrity anymore. By hiring designers, you are hiring creators that can translate insights into action. They have an innate capacity to move the balance of dream and reality, vision and execution.”

This is a picture of the cover of a book named “The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People.” The book has a black and white headshot of the author who’s Mauro Porcini, the SVP & Chief Design Officer of PepsiCo. Mauro’s name is small and on the cover of the book as well as his job title underneath his name.
Image Source: Mauro Porcini via Amazon

Yes, and it’s easy to see why so many middle managers get tripped up.

It’s not because they’re not good at what they do but because upper leadership roles are filled with loads of responsibilities that may feel counter to creativity. The dedication and effort it takes to stay relevant, fresh, and wildly inventive while managing people, hitting numbers, and maximizing efficiencies can feel nearly impossible.

But it is doable.

Porcini is an excellent example. If you follow his social posts, you see that he travels extensively, shares his photography, and stays in touch with what’s happening in the world. The same goes for the founder of the legendary Hot Studio, co-author of Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design, and executive leadership coach, Maria Giudice; IDEO’s CEO and author of Change by Design, Tim Brown; Milton Jackson, SVP and Executive Director of Experience Design at Bank of America; and Pentagram partner, co-author of Dear Data, and information designer, Giorgia Lupi, to name a few.

What these visionary leaders all have in common is they’ve future-proofed their businesses and careers by design. Here are six ways you can, too.

Back in 2015, the Hasso-Plattner-Institute (HPI) and the Stanford Design Thinking Research Program conducted one of the most extensive studies of design thinking practices in organizations worldwide. In 2021, they replicated the study, showing that design thinking had become even more accepted and mainstream across many industries.

It’s the language we speak. And, thanks to designers, it’s a language that others speak now, too — I’m talking to you, C-Suite execs. This applies to all levels, not just the upper echelons. I believe anyone joining the workforce today needs to subscribe to design thinking.

But so many design thinking exercises and processes are messy and time-consuming that middle management often takes a pass. And the less creative business leaders run their businesses and departments using design thinking concepts, the less in touch with people they are — specifically customers, clients, and team members.

How can anyone innovate when they’re out of touch with real people and their current problems?

Every design leader has to prioritize experimentation, ideation, iteration, testing, exploration, and challenging assumptions to ensure they’re serving their customers in meaningful ways.

This one may sound trite, but I am speaking from experience — not just the friend I mentioned earlier in this article who I tried to advise, but in my own workplace. I was recently interviewing potential hires for a senior-level design position, and so many candidates were out of touch that it was truly shocking. I couldn’t believe they’d never even used a ubiquitous tool like Figma or were unaware of common modern design patterns.

I’m guessing that in the purgatory of middle-management land, spending all day in spreadsheets and meetings about meetings, the devil of antipathy and lethargy was nipping at their heels. They’d stopped learning, growing, and experimenting. How can you lead design and innovation when you aren’t in touch with today’s tools?

(Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question.)

This is why I’m constantly exploring and experimenting with new technologies, like text-to-image AI solutions, including DALLE•2, Midjourney, or Stable Diffusion. I love exploring how we can rapidly generate imagery and visual language from an idea or experiment to build new worlds in the latest metaverse that users flock to.

Learn, grow, study, play. Win.

And the corollary: what got you here isn’t what will take you there. And innovation dies when these words cross your lips: “That’s not how we used to do it.”

Being open to new ways of doing things and moving through the world is essential. Steve Jobs, one of the most visionary and impactful founders of all time, famously extolled the virtue of Beginner’s Mind. The ability to wipe slates clean and start without preconceived notions is critical for your creative evolution and professional growth.

While I haven’t pushed pixels as a designer or written software as an engineer as a daily individual contributor in years, I still keep up with the platforms, so I never lose sight of the possibilities. So, I give myself projects all the time. I experiment with motion design and prototyping and even explore making and minting NFTs to stay close to the work. I also lead projects at my company to contribute to a culture of innovation and experimentation.

The point is to keep doing the design work you love, even if you’re not directly earning a dime from it. It keeps your edge sharp, which is what you need to slice through the BS and shape the talent you have on your team with relevant knowledge and road-tested skills.

In the mind-numbing, old-school scientific management process, aka Taylorism, middle managers were compensated for two things: reliability and control. The idea is you could keep the outcome predictable, which was the most important criterion of all.

The old-fashioned view of productivity is over in our post-pandemic, remote world. It’s not about punching clocks or controlling every minute of anyone’s day. (Hint: great companies know it never was.)

Today’s leaders need to lead from the back as much as from the front, and sometimes that means stepping into the game and showing (not telling) others how it’s done — this is what I mean by “player-coaches.”

And what makes the difference between a great creative leader and a mediocre one is the environment they create. The best cultivate a space to encourage and shape creativity — not just select the ideas that get approved or denied.

Nobody needs “creative selectors.” The world needs more creative directors who can shape ideas and strategies, help their teams create more impactful outcomes, and unlock new growth opportunities.

Creatives want to be inspired. They want to see their leaders’ value, ability, and vulnerability. Some of the deepest, best connections I’ve built with people were when I wasn’t afraid to fail in front of them. That’s what I mean by “player-coach” — you’re in the game and helping your team up-level their skills.

When you model resilience and have an obsession with results and forward progress, the team rises to new levels beyond your imagination.

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend towards homogenous and vanilla design because people like to play it safe. Bloomberg called it “slight of bland” — a perfect way to describe a gross trend where lots of brands adopt the same design style and aesthetic as category leaders.

There’s nothing novel or innovative in ripping off someone else. Innovation is the only way out, and that’s led by design that experiments to create new solutions to common problems.

I’m all for taking inspiration from giants that break through a category. But please don’t contribute to the sea of sameness on the shelves and digital town squares that are already so derivative.

This brings us back to square one: if you want your business to not just survive but thrive, you’ve got to be original. That means never-before-seen. Therefore, there is no blueprint for success; it’s a brand-new, uncharted trail. And the only way to create it is by design.

Categorized as UX

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