News|General|14 Apr 2020|Frans Joziasse

What Design Leaders do to get to the top?

In recent years, the role of large management consultancies within the creative industry has shifted dramatically. Through acquisition and research investment, consultancies such as McKinsey and Accenture are now engaging the C-suite on the role of design as a critical business competency and strategic transformer.

Having worked in the field of Design Leadership Consultancy for the last 21 years, we were pleased to see McKinsey’s most recent research titled ‘Are you asking enough from your Design Leaders’ – a topic that we live and breathe every day! Within the paper, McKinsey highlights the under-achieving role of design leadership within mid-large sized organisations, and goes on to propose 3 interconnected strategic interventions that can maximise the impact of Design Leadership 1.

  • Embrace user-centric strategies, improving not only products and services but also the full user experience and, in some cases, the organization itself.
  • Embed your senior designer into the C-suite while cultivating a collaborative top-team environment in which your design leader will thrive.
  • Make the most of user data through a balance of quantitative and qualitative design metrics and incentives that enhance user satisfaction and business performance.

Through our work as a consultancy, educator and industry connector, we’ve met and worked with 100’s of Design and Business Leaders, and as you might imagine, along the way we’ve picked up some valuable insights. Therefore, to compliment and build on McKinsey’s paper, we’ve identified the ten critical ‘design leadership success principles’ that characterise some of our most impactful and successful clients over the last 21 years.

To prove the relevance of these principles to business we have analysed data from the Business Design Intelligence database. The resulting graphs we’ve included for five of the principles illustrates their contribution to business and the benefits they have for design leaders. We regard data as an important part of supporting design leaders in achieving their objectives and proving the value of design to an organisation.

You’ll of course see connections between our principles, the McKinsey research, and your own experiences, but maybe you’ll also see something new? We’d love to hear your response so please get in touch and start a conversation!

1. Connect and integrate

There’s no other function that prospers more from a multi-disciplinary set-up than Design (it’s a condition for success). Breaking through the old-fashioned siloes of large organizations is one of the most challenging yet rewarding tasks for a Design Leader. The Design Leaders we work with are often themselves the organisational driver of agile and lean working at a strategic and operational level. Design’s natural ability to work holistically, create 360 value propositions and build an organization accordingly is one of the reasons that the C-suite can fall in love with a Design Leader!

Graph 1:
For companies to effectively integrate design into their organisation they need to work with design management experts. 72% of companies with a high level of design integration utilise the expertise of design management specialists.


Andrew Barraclough, VP of Design at GSK CH, is changing the world of over-the-counter drugs into a user and brand-driven experience. With his Design Connection program he has evolved how GSK CH creates, develops and launches products to the market. He has successfully built a design management function that drives guardianship and excellence across all touch points for their global brands and their users, the success of which is largely due to the GSK CH design teams ability to connect with and across internal brand teams and external partners.

2. Own Design Thinking

Design Thinking has been claimed by many business functions in recent years, but of course the practice stems from Design and not from IT, HR or Marketing. Many companies have been practicing Design Thinking to foster collaboration, user-centricity and lean/agile ways of working. However, in our experience these principles only stick and positively impact a wider culture when the adoption of Design Thinking is led by Design Leaders who have a natural affinity and passion for the subject that shines through. Whether you like it or loathe it, Design Thinking is one of the best PR tools that Design has at its disposal.


Andreas Enslin, Head of Design at Miele, has evolved Design from being a styling function to being a serious business partner for product, experience, service and system creation. Led by Andreas and his Design team, the embedding of Design Thinking within the culture at Miele has made the company into one of the most desired domestic appliance brands. The culture has become more creative, more agile and foremost less siloed. A new mindset that drives lateral thinking in multi-functional teams and leaner ways of working.

3. Start and end with the user

The best Design Leaders are advocates for the user from start to finish. They inspire top management with the real future user needs and turn early innovation opportunities into prototypes. They bring their peers closer to the user by inviting them to participate in user ethnography and co-creation sessions. They co-create user journeys to translate the user insights into unique value positions that really make sense and that help companies grow purposefully. Once launched, it doesn’t stop there, Design Leaders involve the leadership in monitoring the success of their offer, in fact the best Design Leaders don’t ever stop thinking about and prioritizing the user, it’s the unique selling point of Design, and it should always be evident.

Graph 2:
Companies who frequently adopt a wide range of end-user methods in their product development are most likely to see significant gains in sales compared to their older products.



Max Barenbrug, founder and CDO of the Dutch stroller brand Bugaboo, built his whole company on the latent needs and desires of fathers. Developed in 1994 whilst a Design student, Max built his proposition and his Design function around improving the product, the experience and the services from the user’s perspective. Prioritisation of the user underpinned his philosophy and the company’s future success.

4. Capture the value

Various studies around the globe have proven the value of Design 6. There’s no doubt that design initiatives deliver business success. The most successful Design Leaders connect their Design strategy and activities to corporate, innovation and brand objectives to show the value of design. Design Leaders always serve the people at the top, they know the numbers, they manage the numbers and they contextualise their numbers within the overall business objectives.

Graph 3:
Proving the link between design and growth in a business is an important task for design leaders. Running a design function capable of developing a high volume of successful new products is a vital part of achieving growth.


Philippe Picaud, former Design Director at DECATHLON, needed to constantly prove the ROI of Design. In a very fast moving and dynamic sport retail environment with an extremely lean organization, Design was very much focusing on operational excellence (next to creating amazing design work!). Establishing Design Centers around Europe that directly co-created, prototyped and tested new products at hand (water sports, cycling sports etc.) with users, made the Design operations extremely efficient and effective. Measuring the success of Design and updating all Designers on sales and other KPIs of the company created respect and a mandate for the Design function from the top.

5. (Keep) making it real

Design has always been the function that can make ideas tangible – whether through visualization, prototyping or other means. The best Design Leaders inspire and drive the future strategies of companies by making things real. They feed engineers with concepts that they can turn into feasible and viable propositions, they give marketers ammunition for their multi-channel campaigns, they lead the visualization of retail environments and e-commerce UX solutions that make brands unique, the list goes on. Design Leaders that work with and empower their teams to surprise and challenge the C-suite through the tangibles have proven to be highly successful, and have been rewarded accordingly.


Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW, is an important driver of the future direction of the company. His Design function has the task to deliver the Design for the ‘normal’ product portfolio, but next to that they must inspire the top management with visions and future concept studies. With programs such as The Next 100 Years, Adrian and his team provoke and envision the future of the brand and the future of mobility. Sometimes controversial in the execution, Design at BMW focuses on inspiring the C-suite and keeping the discussion about the future direction alive.

6. Formalise and clarify

It’s difficult for many Design Leaders to step away from the day-to-day content creation, but those that have, have found time to formalize Design. As with many functions, Design must provide clarity regarding its role, its responsibilities and its ways of working. Not so easy given that Design needs to interact with many internal stakeholders to realise its potential. By diplomatically and professionally co-creating an operating model for Design with top and middle management, design is able to significantly boost its performance, credibility and recognition.

Graph 4:
As the investment and expected return of new to market products increases, so to must the level of formalizing the role of design in the company improve.


Sean Carney, Chief Design Officer & GM Business Leader Healthcare Transformation Services at Philips, has over the years transformed the role of Design in the business of consumer and professional healthcare. His business-oriented Design Leadership and direct reporting to the C-suite has positioned Design as a key enabler of Philips’ future. Sean and his team have re-positioned Design from being a relatively stand-alone function to a business enabling and driving function with fully integrated teams in multiple locations around the world.

7. Master the storytelling

Strong Design Leaders are master story tellers. Advocating Design and inspiring others both internally and externally is a critical task. Not easy for many Designers, as their nature is more introvert and modest. The skills of communication, influencing and presenting don’t come naturally to all, but it’s critical that all Design Leaders self-develop to be able to deliver and inspire at every level of the business. The good news is that Design has a significant advantage in its ability to make ideas tangible – something peers and CEO’s love to see and engage with.


Mauro Porcini, SVP & CDO at PepsiCo is a Design Leader who understands how important it is to communicate why a company needs Design, what Design delivers, how Design works and how it drives innovation. Having built a strong presence in social media, PR platforms and business forums, Mauro has always prioritised PepsiCo Design, but at the same time advocated Design across the rest of the business world. Combining literature, philosophy and creativity as his inspiration he’s a strong believer that Design can create a better world, and doesn’t hold back in letting others know. His numerous lectures, videos, articles have positioned him as one of the biggest influencers in the Design world today.

8. Democratise understanding

With so many connotations and meanings it is crucial to ensure that all potential collaborators understand Design and its impact on the business. Design Leaders we’ve worked with have (for example) recently created platforms and events to train and educate large numbers of peers about Design and Design Leadership. These trainings can even involve users, external Design partners and suppliers to make it more real and impactful for the participants. By democratizing the understanding of design, the activation of a Design Strategy is significantly accelerated, the appreciation for Design is multiplied and more doors begin to open.

Graph 5:
If design leaders want more investment in design they need to make sure everyone in their companies understands how important design is to its success.


Matthias Willner, Global Product Design Manager at Dräger, has always believed in empowering engineers and product managers to collaborate and co-create with his Design function. The combination of feasibility, viability and desirability will only work if Design’s role as integrator at Dräger is truly understood and lived at a strategic and project level. Matthias recently began to establish the Dräger Experience Design Academy, a basic through to advanced Design program for non-Designers that elevates their knowledge, skills and competencies and will boost the acceptance and understanding of Design as a core competence.

9. Designers as business people

Broadly, Design education across the globe still lacks an appropriate level of business knowledge and skills training, yet it’s one of the most critical aspects of being a Design Leader. Many Design Leaders still want to explore, create and make, but to be efficient and have impact in a business environment you need to manage and lead Design through a business lens too. Most Design Leaders know this, and we have worked with them to establish academies or coaching programmes that improve their ability to manage teams, develop strategy, manage business interfaces, control budgets, and oversee complex project portfolios. It’s no coincidence that the very best Design Leaders that we know are some of the very best Business Leaders that we know.

The LEGO Group

Nanna Ulrich Gudum, VP Design at The LEGO Group, made it clear in 2012 that the organic growth of the company (and the Design function) could not happen without an acceleration of the (business) professionalism of the Designers at The LEGO Group. We developed together with a small core team within the Design & Innovation department the LEGO Design Academy, which facilitated and boosted the management and leadership qualities of all Designers. With support of Jørgen Vig Knudstorp (4th President of The LEGO Group from 2004-2017) the LEGO Design Academy was a great success in establishing Design as a key driver of innovation and new business development at The LEGO Group.

10. Emotional intelligence

Intellectualising design through definitions, strategies, frameworks and other tangibles are valuable activities, but not enough in the complex and competitive environment of business. In our experience it is the emotional intelligence of the design leader that drives real change. Listening and looking, being empathetic towards peers and empowering others to engage with Design gives Design Leaders credibility and space to operate. Being (self)-aware, taking responsibility and showing (genuine) empathy are fundamental characteristics for all Design Leaders.


Han Hendriks, at Yanfeng, has progressed from designer to global VP of design and now all the way up to Chief Technology Officer at one of the world’s biggest automotive suppliers. A key success factor is his ability to adapt to changing leadership, being empathic towards their needs and at the same time constantly pushing for Design as a key driver for innovation and new business development. Well respected, he has also ably navigated through the different cultural backgrounds of his top managers from Germany, USA and China. Emotional intelligence is at the heart of his success.

To compliment these 10 principles, we’ve developed a very simple Design Leadership framework. The framework can be used as a simple diagnosis tool for personal development, or as a foundation for future Design Strategy creation, clients have even used it as a tool to communicate the potential role of design at a C-Suite level. Perhaps as a first step it would be worth reflecting where you sit in the framework and where you could focus additionally to become a successful Design Leader?

Graph 6

Design Leadership Framework by PARK

Where business meets Design amazing things can happen, let’s keep it this way. The world is facing serious social, environmental and financial challenges, and the necessity for Design Leadership has never been greater. The success of Design Leadership in the future will demand self-awareness, self-critique, and a desire to continually improve – then, and only then will Design reach its full potential.

About the author

Frans Joziasse is PARK’s co-founder and Senior Consultant in PARK’s Hamburg (Germany) office.

The author wishes to thank Andy Sharpe, James Hall and Denisse Bronsoiler for their support.

Also thanks to Darragh Murphy of DUCO for researching and providing the graphs to support our narrative.

PARK and DUCO have recently announced that they are combining their expertise to create new services for Design Leaders. With PARK’s 21-year experience of working with top brand design leaders and DUCO’s expertise in business design intelligence they are a formidable collaboration to support Design Leaders.

In the newly established partnership, PARK and DUCO want to equip Designers and Design Leaders with insights specific to their circumstances and business challenges. Such evidence could be used to improve design performance, gain more recognition for what they achieve, and even grow their influence within a company. For example, Business Design Intelligence utilises over 200 metrics to review the design practices, performance and management of an organisation. Through benchmarking it is possible to articulate the advantages the design function has brought to an organisation and where future opportunities lie.


Data sourced from Duco’s Business Design Intelligence database. The sample for the analysis consists entirely of European manufacturers with 40 employees or more. The sample size is 312 companies.


1 McKinsey Report Dalrymply, M., Pickover, S., Sheppard, B., 2020, ‘Are you asking enough from your design leaders?’, McKinsey Quarterly,

2 Trained design management experts working internally or as external consultants.

3 An ‘integration’ score based on agreement that design management was effective in: improved performance of processes by integrating design, align design activities with core objectives, more alignment between functional departments, improved product and marketing innovation activities.

4 New to market products are products released first to market and under three years old. Mature products are products on the market more than 3 years. The percentage represents the average sales of each new to market product divided by the average sales of each mature product.

5 The ‘end-user’ score is based on the frequency of use of the following activities: user feedback to develop & test prototypes, customers involved in NPD, work with trade partners, interview a representative sample of users, systematically observe and analyse target groups, other user centered design research tools, personas, the lead user method.

6 Grow Module Design Value, Joziasse, F., Selders, T., 2018,

7 New products are new to the company but not new to the market and have been on the market for under three years.

8 A ‘formalizing’ score is based on the frequency of use of several activities: design policy, design guidelines, product/brand platform, design policy awareness training, and level of design coordination.

9 Allocation to design investment as a percentage of total investment in: design, equipment, IT, marketing, premises, R&D, training and other.

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