- Design leadership is an essential catalyst for innovation and success, blending sharp business acumen with nuanced people skills.
- These leaders are communication experts: able to translate vision into actionable stories and numbers that motivate, educate, and identify core customer needs.
- Design leaders are collaborators who ensure smooth operations, understand tradeoffs, remove blind spots, and push creative limits to find competitive advantages.
- Ignoring this critical role leads to missed business opportunities and lackluster results—design leadership is not a luxury, it's a necessity.
Listen: Design leadership is vital—here's how to explain why.
In today's ever-evolving business landscape, design leadership has emerged as an essential catalyst for innovation and success. It's not just about design technique, visuals, or aesthetics. It's about visionary leadership that shapes the future of companies from the inside out.
However, there's a flattening going on in our industry. Big organizations are cutting design leadership roles under the guise of “improving efficiency.” But in-house design leaders know that with clear goals, these roles are mission-critical to delivering great work (read: business success) and doing so efficiently. Eliminating design leadership is a costly mistake on many levels.
So whether for yourself or to support your team, it's important to articulate the value of design leadership to executives. Not just to save jobs (yours or a colleague's), but to secure future growth opportunities for everyone. Design leaders are magically versatile, a vital bridge between clients, teams, and the C-suite.
How do you push for this from within? Why is design leadership so special?
These are the questions we posed at five InsideOut roundtables in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, gathering senior design leaders at high-profile brands. To foster open dialogue and reduce bias, we purposefully don't share findings from city to city; we like to see what organically comes up at each roundtable. And, we were amazed at the strikingly similar themes that emerged from these sessions. Universally, members believe that design leaders add tremendous value to their teams and, thus, to company profits and success.
We think you'll be inspired by what was revealed to help leaders articulate their unique value to any organization.
People in design leadership roles are communication masters: With clients. With sales teams. Across the C-suite. With their direct reports. With other (non-creative) departments like Legal, Finance, or IT. The list goes on.
This is the art of empathy and strategy all in one. It takes unique talent to blend sharp business acumen with nuanced people skills. Most leaders excel at one or the other. But design leaders excel at both. According to McKinsey, that's why they make a big impact on the bottom line.
Here's just how design leaders weave their magic:
Translate the vision and ignite action
Design leaders have to operate fluidly within the C-suite. They need to take lofty, vague business objectives back to the team, which isn't about repeating—it's about translating. Too often, there's a gulf between broad corporate strategy and … everyone else.
So design leaders become an ally. They “own the why” and make it relevant to everybody, from the Junior Copywriter to the Creative Director. They push top leadership by asking hard questions, turning complex goals into actionable stories that motivate. Design leaders understand business needs and the needs of their creative teams—which can often be in opposition. They take the company forward while bringing staff along with them.
And in the reverse, design leaders know that two things make a difference in the boardroom: stories and numbers. Design leaders use both to educate executives on what design really does for the company and the customer. They can show that sales alone doesn't cut it, and translate what customers care about the most.
Know the voice of the customer and center it
Design leaders are not just customer-friendly, they're customer-obsessed. Through regular research and customer insights, design leaders identify the core needs and values of end users at every step. Design leaders bring emotion, delight, and inspiration to the equation. They know how to find the soul of the product and voice of the brand and make it the north star.
Armed with that knowledge, design leaders shape products and services that resonate deeply with customers and bring lucrative business opportunities. Customer-centricity is a way of life that builds brand loyalty and trust from clients and internal teams alike. It's a key ingredient in the “everybody wins” recipe. And it starts at the top.
Advocate and show support
Design leaders inherently understand the value of two-way feedback. They're trained to constantly ask for feedback and to give it. And, they know when and how to share feedback back up the chain. Even (or especially) if unsolicited.
In companies without clear feedback channels altogether, design leaders are the missing link. They give voice to the voiceless. They provide a safe space for new ideas (particularly important during periods of change). That's real advocacy. Making people feel seen and heard is critical to employee happiness and, in turn, business growth. It's why there's so much talk of the need for empathic leadership in today's workplace. Design leaders lead with empathy because creativity itself demands putting people first.
Drive collaboration and inspire learning
Creativity naturally breeds collaboration, critical thinking in groups, and a team mindset. So design leaders aren't content with departmental silos or bureaucratic barriers.
By championing a shared vision, design leaders spark unity and camaraderie between cross-functional teams. They believe design is a partnership, not just a department. That goes a long way to fuel creativity and productivity, and signals genuine support.
One InsideOut member said, “design leaders can see the forest and the trees.” That special bird's-eye view can't always be taught. But it's what makes design leaders so adept at identifying the right people and processes to focus on business goals. What's more, design leaders act with purpose. They feel a responsibility as coaches and mentors to help others grow and learn. They're always thinking about what design can do in the next 3-5 years.
“Design leaders see the forest and the trees.”
Ensure smooth operations and build powerhouses
Design leaders know that excellent creative work doesn't happen by accident. It requires best-in-class operations, and systems become a non-negotiable principle embedded in design DNA. Streamlined workflows are key to turning visionary concepts into market-ready realities. By establishing clear design guidelines, leaders sow consistency across the organization, and teach others to do (and expect) the same.
Smooth operations also elevate design teams from just being seen as “executors.” Structure and process nurture a culture that values curiosity and experimentation—with the room and the tools to do it. It protects space and time for teams to learn.
Push creative limits and unleash brilliance
Innovation isn't just a buzzword in the vocabulary of design leaders. It's their creed. They challenge the status quo and push people to explore new ideas, uncovering competitive advantages that leave rivals behind. Design leaders tend to be relentless in their pursuit of excellence, which means a willing embrace of risk and failure to get there. As one InsideOut leader put it, design leaders “drive through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.” For creative folks, that's just the kind of energy it takes to go from good to brilliant.
What's more, design leaders also “show tradeoffs and remove blind spots that often lead to missed business opportunities”—a testament to the storytelling skills these leaders have at the ready. And while to some that's hard to quantify, it's precisely the kind of vision companies need to find a lightbulb moment in the darkness.
“Design leaders drive through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.”
In our modern business landscape, companies have no choice but to navigate an increasingly complex future. Design leadership is thus not a luxury, but a necessity. Ignoring this critical role is a risky proposition that leads to missed opportunities, stagnation, and eventual decline.
The magic of design leaders is their diplomacy and the ability to look around corners. Building a business into a hive of innovation and growth from the inside out requires empathy, verve, and flexibility. Uniquely, design leaders can translate the corporate vision into tangible goals, center the customer, foster collaboration, and uphold operational excellence—all while expanding creative limits. They're the nucleus. And the glue.
Design thinking is so much more than pixel-pushing. It's strategy. To do it well means backing a bold leader who, above all else, makes an impact by mentoring others. The next time you're weighing the value of design leadership, I hope you'll use this article to fight for it.
Why do I care? My mission is to connect leaders to find solutions. If you're a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team at a high-profile brand and want to connect with others who share your unique challenges, let's talk. Our InsideOut community hosts virtual and in-person roundtables to support the learning and growth of our members, and I'm honored to facilitate those discussions.
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