Design and Leadership?

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Design has crossed over into a strategic dimension. In organizations that have made innovation their modus operandi, designers have no other choice but to assert themselves as leaders there within.

If, just a few years back, it was almost unheard of to speak of design in a management discipline light, nowadays, the opposite is inconceivable.

Thanks to the plethora of “Design Management” and “Design Thinking” training opportunities made available to both schools and the field of design by business schools across the globe, brainstorming and creativity have transformed “post-its” into pillars of complex thinking. Unlike design, design thinking does not convey or create; it is solely a means of doing so. That said, design would have remained in its comfy, tech-specific shell had it not been for design thinking and its push to put design on the management map. Back when design schools systematically turned a blind eye to the undeniable benefits resulting from collaboration with business, as well as when management schools claimed exclusive rights to the leadership dimension, design thinking was there all the while, breaking down the barriers. Business schools caught on quickly to the “design” asset, and incorporated it into their offering to turn designers into managers, although design schools were doing it naturally all along.

Design thinking does not go much further than the idea. And what good is an idea if it is not put into action? “Nothing!” according to Karl Marx for whom not only theory, but also implementation underlined the core of his work. On the design front, an idea has value but if it furthers society.

“Everyone’s got ideas; however, that does not make us all designers.” Design thinking will remain at a standstill if not partnered with the notion of “Design doing”. Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” resonates with the very nature anchoring the field of design.

More simply, design thinking is inexistent without design.

It goes without saying then that design falls under the management umbrella. For designers, it means bringing engineers, marketers, financeers, philosophers, sociologists, researchers, technicians, office workers and manual laborers together under the same roof and providing therein a platform for exchange. Design’s role in the workplace is a constantly moving target due to the ever-changing business models. A shift to a more equitable, human-fueled and cooperative approach is gradually overtaking organizational silos and triangle hierarchies.

For this to truly happen though, businesses need to exhibit greater flexibility and adaptability when it comes to change and innovation without compromising decision-making capacities in any way. This evolution is in the making.

If taken even further, design as strategy could subsequently bypass technology and the role the latter has played up to now in both industry and retail. Technological advances and market forecasts would also take a backseat to the uses stemming from design’s contribution and influence.

If such were the case, designers would, ultimately, be the ones running businesses.

This is what Stanford University’s Director of the “Design for Change Center”, Banny Banerjee, defended during a recent conference at the Politecnico di Milano (June 5, 2015 at the Cumulus* Conference, one of the non-profit’s two annual events). Up to now, designers have done little to stray from beaten paths. They have chosen, on the contrary, zero-risk, well-traveled ones well within their comfort zones, enabling them to flaunt their creativity, but not their leadership skills. For Banny, this is key: A good designer, whose responsibility it is to spark and spread innovation via a diverse mix of fields, specialties, backgrounds and competencies, must be a leader; however, not one who gives orders, but one whose energy and vision woo wary and enthusiastic followers alike, embark them on a journey full of potential and possibility, and enable them to see their ideas through.

* Cumulus: International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media.

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