PARK Academy UK students graduating

News|Academy|11 Jul 2024

Q&A with James Hall, PARK director and lead tutor for the PARK Academy Design Leadership Programme

We caught up with James Hall ahead of launching the UK 2024 PARK Academy Design Leadership Programme, in partnership with DBA.

Q – How did the PARK Academy Design Leadership programme come about?

The first ever PARK Academy programme was a pilot for LEGO Design Academy. LEGO had been a client of PARK for seven years at that point, and the request came to PARK for in-house training to level up the design leads and design managers.

Around 2004- 2005, LEGO had been in severe financial difficulty. A new CEO was appointed, and was instrumental in a major turnaround. Then, in 2006/2007, PARK came into the picture. One of PARK’s aims was to professionalise design and make sure it was actually delivering the development process, using good practice and rigour to get consistency in LEGO’s products and practices.I had joined LEGO in 1999 as a designer, and that’s where I came across PARK, working with PARK’s founders, Frans Joziasse and Tim Selders. My background is product design, and as designers, we all have our methods and practices for how we go about doing great design. If you start to visualise that, draw it and actually start to look at the rigour and steps that you do, it’s not fluffy, it’s not vague: it’s very carefully thought out. PARK’s role was to look at all the different disciplines of design that LEGO had, and how they interface across their development process from coming up with an idea, to in two years time producing a product that can be launched globally, and that kids and families love.

After the company was able to turn itself around and achieve double-digit growth by 2008, it meant we could recruit design people back in. By 2010, we had a lot of new people of different maturity levels, from different design backgrounds – FMCG, automotive, fashion, graphic design, UX and UI – and from different companies culturally. All of a sudden, there needed to be a career and development path to take a senior designer to being a design manager or design director.

The design leadership team started to talk about a bespoke programme, and PARK developed 10 key modules to build design capability and design as a core competence at LEGO. The pilot programme was a real success and in 2011 PARK launched the Design Leadership Programme, which was called Grow at the time, for both cross-company and in-company clients. Today, there are over 2200 alumni around the globe.

PARK Academy Alumni and Tutors

Q – What is the rationale behind the programme?

There was a clear need identified – which is still highly important today – for credible and professional design management and leadership training that working design professionals could fit around their full-time roles. At the time of launch and for multiple years thereafter, no one offered this maturity level in design management and leadership training or had the credibility to do it.

The programme helps to break down the important and often complex interconnections of design management and leadership into smaller, easier chunks. Participants learn to define design’s role/purpose, introduce efficiencies and effective management practices, even benchmark and assess themselves – and ultimately ensure design adds value and delivers meaningful impact to their company and humanity.

I think what is unique about the programme is that while you are learning through the assignments you can actually test the learning in your normal work environment. Design briefing, design quality, or creating a new design process are things that you are already doing, and all of a sudden you have industry-best practice frameworks and proprietary tools to use – that’s pretty powerful. One-to-one coaching with all the modules really builds confidence and accelerates capability-building.

CX Arena PARK Academy tool

Q – What is the typical profile of PARK Academy participants, and what options does the course offer them?

Typically, participants are design professionals who want to progress from senior designer to manager, or manager to director and higher. Either way, they see the value in managing or leading design better, and want to upskill and build their capabilities, level-up on best practice and gain a broader tool kit for processes, strategy etc.

There are two main ways of delivery: in company, where the programme is bespoke and dedicated to that business and its needs, and the cross-company path, where we might partner with a design council to bring together, say, individuals from LEGO, Unilever, Adidas, and Heineken, all from different areas of design, studying together on the same topic. These two paths have different experiences; sometimes my clients will send people to the cross-company programme, but they would also do the in-company programme because it offers different value creation.

For in-company delivery, case studies are an important part where people get to see how other companies or organisations work. It’s critical that those case studies are relevant to the business. Every module also has an assignment, where participants work on something and six weeks later meet back up and present it. The assignments are often the first thing that gets customised, for example, a Bosch-type assignment based on a particular business unit of Bosch. We customise assignments, case studies, and even the visual identity or design language of the programme itself. And the way the tutor delivers the programme can be tailored to the people in the room, depending on where they are in their career.

In the cross-company programme there is also the peer-to-peer learning aspect, where you are in a room with like-minded people from other industries. This cross-industry awareness, discussing both common and diverse challenges, is always fascinating to see. As tutors we facilitate that dialogue during the learning experience, and that offers huge value to participants. There is a unique bond between participants that is built up over the course of the programme, which extends to the global alumni network afterwards.

PARK also offers smaller programmes, or ad hoc, one-off online modules either for previous participants to further expand their capabilities, or for people to try a module out and see if a bigger commitment is worth the investment.

Kinder surprise learning activity

Q – How has the programme evolved over the years?

The core of the Design Leadership Programme and its fundamental principles are the same, but the case studies are regularly updated, and the tools have evolved as we use them in our consulting practice with clients. The main development is in how we deliver the programme now: there are options to choose the mix of modules depending on the design maturity of the team or organisation.

We have also added a number of new modules to meet the evolving demands for new skills and training. Our two most in-demand modules presently are Design Teams and Design for Humanity, our sustainability and circular economy module designed to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Today, design managers and leaders are facing a lot more interest in what design can do to help their organisation perform and/or grow. Design is increasingly in the spotlight at higher management levels (C-Suite), in partnership with other functions within the business. 25 years ago, design management was immature or did not exist at all within many companies, and typically was restricted to limited disciplines of design. Fast forward to today and there are around 38 different design disciplines. Navigating this breadth, varying maturity levels, and relevance across different industries means design management/leadership responsibilities have to evolve to remain credible, relevant, and purposeful.

Q – What have you learned over the years from running the programme?

We’ve noticed a series of ‘moments’ within the programmes. We’ve got a section in the modules where we try and bust classic myths about design, and those for people are really controversial. Sometimes people really agree with a myth, and some people really don’t – and it creates this interesting dialogue in the room. For me, that’s a magical moment, because if they’re discussing it and they’re opinionated, it means they’re really listening, leaning in, and are engaged.

Another magical moment is when the case studies become reality: here’s all this theory, everything we’ve talked about, and now here it is in practice. But the stress moment for the participants is when they receive their assignments and have to apply their learnings to their business context for the first time. The students go away for six weeks, and each person has 30 minutes of one-to-one coaching per assignment. For me as a tutor, I get a real kick from when they start to join all the dots and apply it to their own project. The coaching is a very personal moment, when they usually divulge the deepest secrets and challenges of their design, and then they get first-hand coaching on exactly how to handle it.

What we’ve also learned is to never give up on anybody. We get seasoned professionals that are 15, 20 years into their career and some more junior, but you’ve got to remember that they are working, have families, busy lifestyles, or other problems that we may not be aware of.

The programme takes significant time and energy, and if somebody says I can’t do this anymore, I haven’t got time or my company or circumstances are changing, we’ve always been really supportive. I don’t know any other programme where you can step away and come back in two years time and continue where we left off. It’s that sense of going on a journey with that person, and I think we’ve learned that each journey is unique – it’s an adventure.

PARK Academy graduates with their diplomas

Bio

James Hall is a director of PARK and leads the PARK Academy Design Leadership programmes. With a degree in industrial and product design, James has a depth of corporate design experience, directing, managing, and leading design, in roles including Acting Vice President of Design at Hasbro, and Senior Design Director at LEGO.

The London 2024 PARK Academy Design Leadership Programme, in partnership with DBA is now accepting applications, and DBA members will receive a 25% discount. If you would like to apply or find out more, please contact info@park.bz.

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