News|Consulting|06 Dec 2021|Stephan J. Clambaneva

The Road to Design Leadership

While academic models do a wonderful job at creating amazing designers, the current pace of technology advancement and the speed at which businesses are moving is creating an ever-increasing chasm between the skills mastered and the skills needed.

Time and time again, the industry reflects on the missing skills of designers today. Don’t dismay; change is coming! Initiatives like the Future of Design Education Initiative, by the World Design Organization, IBM Design, and the UC San Diego Design Lab, are focused on remaking design education for the 21 century. [1][2]

Most of these designers begin their careers as passionate and skilled makers and doers, developing market solutions for the masses. At some point, they find themselves at a proverbial fork in the road: Do they continue doing design (the what, which most often has limited potential for career advancement), or steer toward managing people and processes (the how), which can eventually lead to leading business and market strategy (the why)? Most designers are often unaware of or unprepared for this journey into unknown territory.

If we take for granted that we are living both in the age of the experience [3] and the Anthropocene, this adds tremendous pressure to designers today who can no longer just act as stylists or simply create beautiful objects in a vacuum. If, in fact, everything is an experience , where a physical or digital product is where the manifestation of that experience takes place enabled by a service, then everything is now connected. As we repeatedly heard during the IDSA Sustainability Deep Dive this past June and is supported by many studies [4][5][6], approximately 90% of a product’s lifecycle costs are determined in the initial 10% of the product development process. This is where design takes place, so designers no longer have the luxury of ignoring downstream operations or the unintended consequences of their decisions. Throwing things over the fence is no longer an option.

Becoming a Design Leader

Once you set out on this journey, the sooner you realize it is meant to be one of continuous improvement, the better it will be for you.

Everything is not only connected but also interdependent. Designers must begin to think like systems engineers or at least employ a systems thinking approach. [7] This can be a bit scary, yes, but it will provide you with better control of your design leadership journey (not unlike driving a standard transmission car). This is why design leaders must understand the big picture and lead Design (with a capital “D” representing strategic design), ensuring that all the design disciplines needed in their organization (industrial, service, interaction, experience, UX, graphics, etc.) are interwoven and plugged into the organizational product development process with engineering and manufacturing, all the way to the product’s end of life.

As they progress along their career path, designers naturally transition from being designers as artists and craftspeople to becoming more T-shaped, a term made popular by IDEO’s Tim Brown, as they add the breadth of business acumen to their depth of design knowledge. During a Design Management Institute Summit in Chicago called FuturED, we made the case that the next evolution needed to be designers becoming polymaths, specialized generalists [8], design hybrids, or Pi-shaped.

Niels Diffrient quote

Courtesy of Niels Diffrient and

Pi-shaped (p) simply means that the letter “T” grows another leg of specialization, such as design + business, design + entrepreneurial, or design + sustainability — in other words, the expertise needed to effectively manage the complexity of today’s design leadership requirements.

Courtesy of Frog Design –

The road to becoming a design leader does not have a set path. But like in an off-road rally, the road has checkpoints or stages you must pass through. If you happen to miss one, you will have to make it up somehow. Not everyone can necessarily afford to go back to university full time to fill in those skill gaps, and learning on the job has its own challenges. It takes much longer, and one certainly cannot be as focused on the specific gaps that need to be filled.

10 design leadership success principles by PARK

Courtesy of PARK & Frans Joziasse. Read full article What Design Leaders do to get to the top? 

Design can impact all companies across every sector, not just consumer- or product-centric industries. Design departments that are well-led and well-managed can impact the entire organization and drive innovation by design across all departments, especially those that are part of the product development process.

In a recent article, Frans Joziasse, the founder of PARK, an international design management consultancy, outlines 10 principles that are paramount to success in design leadership. Designers who want to transition from doing design to leading design or managing design departments and organizations must begin the process of widening the scope of their holistic systems and design thinking problem-solving skills to design their company’s or their own process of design.

A buzzword gaining notoriety these days is “DesignOps.”

“DesignOps has provided a solution for many, but it’s not the cure-all. In the next two to three years, most businesses will have already caught up to the early adopters. In the next ten DesignOps will disappear: It’ll just be the way things get done.”

– Dave Malouf, DesignOps expert


If doing design is the what, then design operations is the all-encompassing process, system, governance, guidelines, and tools — or the how. As Josh Ulm from Oracle says, “Operations are basically responsible for all of the overhead that makes design happen”. Let’s extend the analogy of the path to becoming a design leader as being an off-road rally with checkpoints, making the organization as a whole the car we are riding in for this journey. The design leaders are the drivers, keeping an eye on the road ahead and guiding the car along the path, and the design managers are doing all it takes to keep the car running and in tip-top shape. Leading and managing require similar skills, but they are applied differently. Managers focus on the operational, and leaders drive the vision and the strategy.

To truly excel in managing and leading design in enterprise organizations — to keep the car running and on the road — designers must identify and master the fundamentals, which are often missing from academic programs. To fill this specific gap, we at PARK developed PARK Academy (formerly know as Grow), a professional education and training service in Design Leadership and Design Management.

PARK Academy module model

Courtesy of PARK’s Academy Program

Through this program, they identify the required fundamentals often missing from academic programs needed to truly excel in managing and leading design in enterprise organizations.

You’re a Design Leader: Now What?

LEGO minifigures

Courtesy IDSA 2014 Conference, Fahrenheit Design and Core77 — Designer Minifigs (fun fact: PARK were responsible for developing LEGOs Design Leadership Academy)

Designers who have made the journey to become a design leader will discover that the journey has really just begun, just like driving to reach the horizon over the hill. Now it’s time to lead your organization on its journey toward design leadership, focusing on design excellence through continuous improvement. As a design leader, you are responsible for ensuring that all relevant aspects of design are enabled and maturing in your team.

“A great design leader has vision about what is best for people, processes and content and knows how to convince others of this vision. Let’s get to work!”

– PARK Co-founder Frans Joziasse


You are no longer doing design, but using the design thinking process to design your organization. Several models can guide you on the design maturity journey, such as the DMI maturity matrix, the Danish Design Ladder, and Marty Neumeier’s Ladder of Design Leverage. We at PARK, of course, have our own framework, which focuses on the advancement toward leadership.

Courtesy PARK

For this design maturity transformation to take place, design must no longer only have a seat at the table but a voice loud enough to be heard.

Regardless of the journey you take, remember to enjoy the ride!



[1] UCSD, IBM Design, WDO, “The Future of Design Education Initiative Overview”, 2021

[2] Meyer, M. W., & Norman, D. (2020). Changing Design Education for the 21st Century. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 6(1), 13–49. Changing Design Education for the 21st Century — ScienceDirect

[3] Pine, J. and Gilmore, J. (1999) The Experience Economy, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1999.

[4] National Research Council, “Improving Engineering Design: Designing for Competitive Advantage”, National Academy Press, USA, 1991.

[5] Institute for Defense Analysis, “Unified Life Cycle Design”, Technical Reports IDA, USA, 1988.

[6] Wood, W H and Agogino A M, “Cased-based conceptual design information server for concurrent engineering”, Computer-Aided Design, Vol.28, ?5, pp.361–369, 1996.

[7] Norman, D. , “ Systems Thinking: A Product Is More Than the Product”, , 2018

[8] Diffrient, Niels. “Confessions of a Generalist”. Danbury, Conn.: Generalist Ink, LLC, 2012


Originally published at on August 27, 2021.

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