The future of design leadership. A balancing act.

From ignition to elevation, design is an enterprise force that goes well beyond aesthetics and ideation, unfolding new ways of working, from tactics to strategy. Design embodies the very soul of the brand and the inspiration of future business by connecting what is meaningful for people to what technology will make possible. Together with Filiberto Amati, MBA, founder of Amati & Associates, I interviewed Eric Quint, formerly Chief Brand and Design Officer at 3M Company, and co-author of the recently launched book “Design Leadership Ignited. Elevating Design at Scale” by Stanford University Press, together with Gerda Gemser, Full Professor and Chair of Entrepreneurship at the University of Melbourne, and Giulia Calabretta, Associate Professor in Strategic Value of Design, Delft University of Technology, on how to embrace the complexities of design leadership and its future role.

Marco Bevolo
8 min readFeb 21, 2022

Companies exist to identify value through innovation and then develop and deliver this value successfully. Designers, with a reason, are at the very heart of the enterprise, supporting the generation of “best ideas” to their shaping into solutions, to their communication. In this value creation, complexity is increasing from the old value chains of technology conversion, where people were not necessarily at the center of value propositions. The focus on people will now have to include all stakeholders beyond customers only and will transform performance-driven enterprises to mainly purpose-driven. Crossing this tendency with the rise of the Metaverse and the dissemination of digital capabilities, the predictive element of design output will increasingly enable shaping and even inspiration of long-term businesses. A typical example thereof is the mobility industry. There, creators, innovators, and designers need to take decisions now on how to build future value propositions, that align with markets needs in 10–15 years from now. In the extremely short-cycle, season by season fashion industry, this predictive capacity is way less vital than for instance in urban planning, where cycles can easily reach 25 years and beyond. Therefore, in these long-term scenarios, the challenge is to anticipate future benefits and values relevant for people a quarter of a century ahead. It is AI that will deliver the envisioning power to model these future scenarios that only with collaborative creativity will turn in true value for humankind, by design.

A definition of Design and Design Thinking

Design can be defined as creativity for a purpose, implemented with empathy. Design Thinking is now ubiquitous, but it should not be mixed up with the act of design itself. It is important to distinguish design as arts and crafts, from the areas of problem definition, analysis, and solving where Design Thinking exists. Design Thinking addresses highly complex challenges and problems, as based on insights and using creativity, by working in multidisciplinary teams. Strategic Design has traditionally integrated multiple disciplines, from anthropology and sociology to creative concepting and business modeling. The knowledge that multidisciplinary teams are capable to generate, was already amazing 25 years ago, when Eric built and headed a Strategic Design force at Philips Design global headquarters. However, knowledge is no warranty of value, because the core of value generation lies in its interpretation, and in its application. In the end, solutions make all the difference and impact in the world out there. Of course, Post-It notes are the iconic tool in connection with Design Thinking, to capture ideas and structure creative thoughts. But there is -and there will be- more to Design Thinking than workshops only. For example, through digitalization.

The impact of digitalization on design and Design Thinking

Algorithms can perform and compose art works, as seen in experiments by Kenric McDowell leading the Artists + Machine Intelligence program at Google Research as presented at the &and event in Leuven in 2018. If automation can exercise creative capacity, perhaps even the artistic leadership, what will be the role of empathy? In consulting practices and projects, digitalization has changed the roles and the modes of contributing value by offering previously unforeseen opportunities for analysis. A couple of decennia ago, Computer Aided Design became available to designers, who were faced with the challenge to understand and master these new tools to use them in the most effective way. This established a new set of competences related to these new tools, whereby one designer might underleverage the digital tools whereas another designer might flourish thanks to the same tools. Future digitalization will work in the same way as CAD did, with the additional benefit of pervasive democratization. Digital platforms for collaboration are already available, beyond anything experienced before, as proven through the pandemic crisis. Tools like Miro enable co-creative dialog and participatory collaboration beyond any boundaries across countries and cultures being potentially a game changer in terms of how design can advance. At another level of Design Thinking, digital research tools enable scenario modelling and validation of potential solutions that might positively impact the world, meaningfully.

The bigger picture

Starting from the bigger picture, is the pursuit of equity and sustainability a task that belongs to the design portfolio? A question like this demonstrates that design has the role to redefine and explore the boundaries whereby the “society” at large, beyond “customers” and “shareholders” only, should be the center of design visions. This naturally leads to systemic and strategic approaches with multi-stakeholders at the heart of complex scenarios. The UN Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate the scope of these systemic challenges. Empathy, creativity, and imagination are the qualities that design can offer to meet these increasing challenges of a whole new, unprecedented scale. Imagining the future is key, but then making it happen, is mission critical. Designers obviously need to enable technologies into solutions but even more, they need to engage business leaders and policy makers, inspire a creative culture across organizations, adopt an agenda of “design for equity” pro-actively and being protagonists to contribute on the meta level of the planet to “design for all.” At the center of these crossroads, sustainable innovation and design for equity is the way to reach positive impact in the world as a purpose with a central role for design leadership to orchestrate meaningful collaborations and shape future visions (figure 1).

Figure 1: Developments affecting design leadership driving value for society and planet. All rights reserved to Quint, Gemser, Calabretta, Stanford University Press, California, US.

From the “big picture” to everyday practices

Coming to elevating design at scale into organizations, Eric and his co-authors structured the book into three steps: a) establishing; b) empowering; c) elevating (figure 2). This might be read by scholars and practitioners alike as a roadmap. When initiating and growing the design function in a company, it is therefore essential to think in roadmap terms.

Figure 2: The Leadership for Design Excellence Model: a roadmap to design excellence. All rights reserved to Quint, Gemser, Calabretta, Stanford University Press, California, US.

What is then the “state of the art” of design competences in corporate enterprise? From the 59 expert interviews performed for the book, it was recognized at one hand enormous passion and commitment among design leaders to grow the value and impact by their design organization. On the other hand, there was often a disconnection between their ambitions and organizational realities to maximize the importance of design. An important task for a design leader is therefore to set the design direction by a vision, mission, strategy, and roadmap, that will manage expectations, and set priorities accordingly (figure 3). In this journey to elevate design, the design governance will determine how design is embedded in the organization and will give the designers across the company a recognized placeholder to where they belong. This design governance needs to be endorsed by the organization and clearly communicated across all levels. It captures the agreed and defined design organization as a function, from budgeting to the distribution of studios, from rules of engagement to the actual scope of the design function within a given enterprise. Without such groundwork, the risk exists to scale up a design function according to visionary ideas, however without enterprise foundation leading to misunderstanding and disappointment. It can easily take up to 10 years to build a mature design competence across the complexities and all levels of a global enterprise. Design must be integrated in the way a company works, where the design roadmap is the guide of a design team to mature and grow its success by their contribution to value creation. Furthermore, a defined and aligned design taxonomy is equally vital to outline the possible growth and learning opportunities of designers through their career paths, and to ensure an appropriate distribution of talent to bring the vision to life. Design is not about adding a capability. Design is about the way a company works. Design excellence is a never-ending ambition, design requires maximum versatility in an act of constant reinvention whereby design leaders strive for excellence continuously.

Figure 3: Components that inform the design direction. All rights reserved to Quint, Gemser, Calabretta, Stanford University Press, California, US.

In the book, Eric and his co-authors describe several dualisms that design leaders will encounter along the journey towards design excellence. Looking at the post-Covid-19 world, Eric refers to his previous chief brand and design officer’s role, including both the conversion of technological opportunities into identified value, which traditionally pertains to design, as well as the delivery of value to people, that entails brand marketing and communication. Attractive brands are carefully curated, and companies facing complex and dynamic environments with multiple dualisms that also impact the realities of design leaders. This classic dualism of technology versus marketing that design leaders will have to navigate by a collaborative mindset building bridges and common understanding and purpose. Another more recent example of a dualism that design leaders must navigate is the tension between remote working and in-presence studio teams. The natural outcome is most likely hybrid, as new organizational models still will require to be designed. Within all complexities, the bridge between practice and academia is key, hence the idea to explore and shape an “actual world” versus anticipate a “probable world” is crucial to create a roadmap for a better world as a place to life in harmony. The symbiose between field experience and primary research is perhaps the best way to lead this future. This can be best demonstrated by the creation of the book which is the result of the longstanding experiences of Eric as design leadership practitioner and Gerda and Giulia as reputable design academics working on leadership.

The democratization of Design Thinking (with its actual omnipresence, including business school curricula) carries with it the risk of dilution. Yes, Design Thinking enables a better understanding of design, however Design Thinking is a problem-solving mindset, not a portfolio of creative sensitivities and competences as the act of design is. Scientists and engineers cannot be developed into designers by simple Design Thinking basic training, for example as delivered by the D-School. Knowing about finance or engineering, does not make you a banker or an engineer either. Again, the real value of Design Thinking lies in multidisciplinary collaborations whereby design will have to take the ownership and facilitate its creative methods, tools and processes and continuously innovate these to future realities.

Quint, Eric, Gerda Gemser & Giulia Calabretta, 2022, Design leadership ignited: Elevating design at scale. Stanford University Press, California, US (February 2022).

Images 1, 2, 3 kindly shared by Eric Quint. All rights reserved to Quint, Gemser, Calabretta, Stanford University Press, California, US.

The clip with the integral interview with Eric Quint is accessible for eveyone at this YouTube link.



Marco Bevolo

Italian living between NL and Japan. 1967, born; 1994, Literature and Philosophy; 2016 Behavioral and Social Sciences; 5 books; 20 scientific papers; Keynote.