Why boardrooms need a designer redesign

by Andy Ingle on 15 February 2018

The make-up of boardrooms is under constant scrutiny. There are too few women, rarely anyone under 40 and too many over 65 (and/or they're heavily biased towards Oxbridge and public school graduates). There's another glaring omission that businesses urgently need to address...

Designers should be in the boardroom

Don't laugh, or think that my opinion is biased in itself. Of course I want designers in the top tier. But this is no act of self-aggrandisement. Truly collaborative leadership needs the input of design thinking. And, just as crucially, designers need the experience of leadership to become even more valuable to the companies they work for.

If a business refers to itself as digital in any way – the way it operates, the products it sells, the experience it offers, the sphere in which it seeks to grow its influence – then design must be at its heart. If the experience of customers is poor then they'll find a more responsive alternative in a matter of seconds, so competitive is the market.

Which makes designers some of the most essential assets a company possesses. They may lack the gravitas of a Chief Financial Officer, the sensitivity of  the Head of HR or the networking skills of a the Marketing supremo but they keep things moving forward as much as anyone with a seat on the board.

So why are designers still stuck in a corner, beavering away with essential technology that no one quite understands, called upon only when things need to be fixed?

Where are the design leaders?

Of course good ones with widened perspectives and intuitive understanding do exist but they are like gold dust. Who, other than Steve Jobs, has truly made an impact?

In part, there's an unfair historical legacy attached to designers. They've never been seen as 'people' people. They're valued but unloved, hidden lower down the food chain, their role somewhat whimsical and stubbornly unaligned to business goals.  In fact, just a decade ago design was considered a low level activity - business leaders knew they required it but didn't quite understand why.

And designers didn't help themselves. Somehow part of an organisation but not truly collaborative, they lived in their own little world. I speak from experience here. Businesses didn't understand them and, in turn, they chose not to understand business – far too complicated that, even for designers.

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But in a short period of time influence has dramatically shifted and boardrooms need designers to help realise the CEO's ambitions.  Strategic decisions cannot be made without their involvement and problems can be more readily fixed if there's a seat for them at the top table.

And when that happens, a similarly seismic change will occur among designers. They'll learn about business. Actually, it's more than that. They'll care about business. They won't just design things, they will design things with KPI, ROI and business outcome considerations to the fore. Just as designers become more entwined with the business, so business will better understand them because of their presence on the leadership team.

It's a virtuous circle of learning at a time when collaboration is meant to be the mantra of the moment, even though it's not always effectively practiced.

Truly far-sighted and inspirational leadership requires designers to be a part of that leadership team. They have the kinds of skills and insights that most boardrooms currently don't possess – and they need to add to their abilities by experiencing the dynamics of boardroom decision-making.

It's why our design leadership training courses, in which we help companies and brands become more design-led, have become so popular. And, we hope, more essential as design experience imperatives come to the fore.

If design is more influential to business proposition than it's ever been, then by definition that means designers have been elevated up the chain of command. It's time they opened the door on their world – and found out what really goes on in the boardroom.

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