What 250 design leaders say design-forward orgs have in common

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This year, we’ve broken bread with 270 design leaders at 11 dinners all over the world. We’ve eaten heirloom tomatoes in Atlanta, steak in London, roast chicken in Austin, and gnocchi in New York.

We’re not just trying to eat our way around the world though, or take a cue from Jerry Seinfeld and film “Dining in Restaurants with Designers.” We’re picking the brains of the design leaders in each city and solving problems together.

Related: The books, podcasts, and TV shows that inspire design leaders

The Design Leadership Forum is a community where 700 design leaders at companies like Lyft, The Home Depot, Capital One, MailChimp, and more have frank conversations about the challenges they face at the tops of their organizations and the opportunities presented to the design community today. The community gathers over dinner in cities around the world to discuss these topics in person. One recurring theme at the dinners so far is the characteristics of a design-forward organization. There are three we’ve uncovered.

Photo by Knox Photographics

A design-invested CEO

The most sophisticated design-forward organizations feature a dedicated CEO-to-design leader relationship, including dedicated one-on-ones where they discuss not only design projects but how design can affect other business objectives—and solve for the user—as well.

We’ve also seen a clear executive sponsor of design efforts at the most forward-thinking companies.

“In the best situations, the CEO is also the sponsor of design transformation efforts and is evangelizing those efforts in every outlet, both internally and externally.”

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Validation of design transformation at scale

Moving from little d to Big D at any company will look differently, but we’ve learned that it usually operates on a scale that features a formulaic approach at one end and an organic one at the other.

On the formulaic side, you see design leaders creating hypotheses, testing them, and then showing results—they create a plan for design transformation and the system to support it.

On the other end of the scale is the organic approach, where you prove that a transformed design organization could be a strategic resource for the entire business by identifying what executives care about and what problems could be solved with a UX mentality.

“In any situation, we see design leaders using design thinking to transform dark corners of the broader enterprise into profitable and well-performing business units.”

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The importance of the dual career ladder

If you follow Todd Zaki Warfel, design leadership author and speaker (including at workshops), you already know that mature design organizations have mature career ladders. One of the things we’ve found is that for designers faced with a single career ladder, advancing often means a lateral move into a management position. However, we’ve heard it echoed among some of the most senior design leaders in the world that the way to retain top talent is to have dual ladders. This means a dedicated path for creative, a dedicated path for managers, and is often accompanied by an established set of norms and a rubric for evaluation.

What do you see as other common characteristics among design-forward companies? Share with us on Twitter.

Do you know a head of design you’d like to nominate for the Design Leadership Forum? We’d love to know about them. Want to grow your own career? Attend one of our workshops on topics like design systems, design sprints, and design leadership.

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