With over 20 years of industry experience, PARK is a leading consultancy firm based in Germany and the United States working with global brands to elevate the impact of design via education, leadership and management. We spoke to them about what it takes, and what it means, to be an effective design leader – through continued learning and professional experience.
While today’s academic models do succeed in establishing great designers, the current pace of technological advancement and the clock speed at which things are moving is creating a growing chasm between the skills mastered and the skills needed. Increasingly, the industry is being forced to reflect on what skills designers are missing.
Most designers begin their careers as passionate and skilled makers and doers, developing market solutions for the masses. At some point however, they find themselves at a proverbial fork in the road: Do they continue doing design (the WHAT, most often limited in advancements), or steer toward managing people and processes (the HOW), which can eventually lead to leading business and market strategy (the WHY)
Living in both the age of experience  and the Anthropocene adds tremendous pressure to designers today as they can no longer simply create beautiful objects in a vacuum. In our ever-connected world, a product, whether physical or digital, can manifest an entire experience.
Many studies (see references 4, 5, 6) confirm that approximately 90% of 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. Indeed, throwing things over the fence is no longer an option.
Design Leadership is a Never Ending Journey
Realizing that everything is not only connected, but also interdependent, designers must begin to think like systems engineers or at least employ a systems thinking approach . Moreover, design leaders must strive to understand the big picture to ensure that all required design disciplines (industrial, service, interaction, experience, UX, graphics, etc.) are interwoven and plugged into their organizational product development process.
As they progress along their career path, and add a breadth of business acumen to their design knowledge, designers naturally transition from being designers as artists and craftspeople to becoming more T-shaped, a term made popular by IDEO’s Tim Brown. Extending off of this idea, PARK made the case during a Design Management Institute Summit in Chicago that the next evolution is designers as polymaths, specialized generalists , design hybrids or Pi-shaped.
Pi-shaped simply means that the letter ‘T’ grows another leg of specialization, such as design + business, design + entrepreneurial or design + sustainability. In other words, one’s expertise needs to effectively manage the complexity of today’s design leadership requirements.
The road to becoming a design leader does not have a set path, but rather a set of critical checkpoints that one must pass through. Missing one of these stages will require some work – but given that not everyone can afford to necessarily go back to school full time or learn on the job, this process can often be life-long.
Design can impact all companies across every sector – not just consumer or product centric industries. Similarly, design departments that are well-led and well-managed can impact the entire organization and drive innovation across all departments – especially those that are part of the product development process. In a recent article by PARK founder Frans Joziasse, he outlines 10 principles that are paramount to success in design leadership.
Designers who want to transition from doing design to leading or managing design departments and organizations must aim to widen the scope of their holistic systems and design thinking skills to rethink the process of design.
PARK believes leading and managing require similar skills that are applied differently. Managers focus on the tactical, and leaders drive the vision and the strategy. As part of this, the firm developed Grow, a professional education and training service in Design Leadership and Design Management. Through this programme, 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?
Designers who have made the journey will discover that just as they reach the horizon over the hill, the journey has only just begun. Focusing on design excellence through continuous improvement, it’s now time to lead their organization and ensure that all relevant aspects of design are enabled and maturing in their team.
You are no longer doing design, but using the design thinking process to design your organization. There are several models that can offer guidance on the design maturity journey, such as the DMI maturity matrix, Danish Design Ladder or Marty Neumeiers’ Ladder of Design Leverage.
For this transformation to take place, designers must not only have a seat at the table, but also a voice loud enough to be heard.
 UCSD, IBM Design, WDO, “The Future of Design Education Initiative Overview”, 2021 https://www.futureofdesigneducation.org/
 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.
 Pine, J. and Gilmore, J. (1999) The Experience Economy, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1999.
 National Research Council, “Improving Engineering Design: Designing for Competitive Advantage”, National Academy Press, USA, 1991.
 Institute for Defense Analysis, “Unified Life Cycle Design”, Technical Reports IDA, USA, 1988.
 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.
 Norman, D. , “ Systems Thinking: A Product Is More Than the Product”, jnd.org , 2018 https://jnd.org/systems_thinking_a_product_is_more_than_the_product/
 Diffrient, Niels. “Confessions of a Generalist”. Danbury, Conn.: Generalist Ink, LLC, 2012
As Managing Director of PARK USA, Jay Peters works with Fortune-500 companies, (non)governmental organizations and academic institutions on using design and design led innovation practices to develop and deliver on the many facets of design value and is an authority on Design for Business. Jay is an active educator in Design Management & Leadership for working professionals amongst world leading brands, and is an active speaker and presenter at design and design related conferences across the globe.
Stephan Clambaneva, Sr. Consultant & Director of Strategic Partnerships USA and Board of Directors for IDSA who has decades of experience working for global enterprises IBM and Dassault Systemes, and leads business transformation projects through design & innovation for clients around the world. A Curator, Developer and EmCee for the Inaugural Sustainability Deep Dive Conference for IDSA, a speaker at SxSW, Design Management Institute, the International Design Conference, Innovation Summit & more, he is an evangelist and expert on the strategic value of design while balancing the triple bottom line.