The Case for Design Leadership

Shubhra Bhargava
June 14, 2021

There has never been a better time to talk about Design Leadership than now. Business houses or startups that have launched brands and products and managed to beat their competition, use disruption through design thinking. The business world is peppered with success stories that have achieved growth by being true to the spirit of this disruption. These include Apple, Tesla, the Nokia razor, Pepsi’s Naked Juice brand, and multiple clothing brands. Despite the scale of success these brands have achieved, design has been a somewhat nebulous area in the corporate corridors. Let’s take a closer look at the why’s and wherefores:


The C Level Approach

There are three levels of approach that business leaders follow:

  1. CEOs that understand the layered nuances of design use it as a business solution function, repeatedly to get successful outcomes.
  2. C level leaders who don’t understand design, but understand the importance of it; often work with designers who can achieve their business goals. This can be tricky since your design to business integration will be dependent on the designer's understanding of your business. In this case, the design brief must be watertight to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. CEOs who think of design as styling, graphic art, or an artistic impression. They consider only the visual aspects of design, without taking into account, the strategy behind it.


How to Apply Design to Business

The third approach mentioned above, unfortunately, is the most common and design gets restricted to its art. A direct fallout of this is constrained growth. To break away from this perspective, there are a few key aspects businesses should remember:

  1. The business touchpoints for customers operate primarily on design, whether it is user interface, content layout, service design or a product. The question to ask here is: Does the design address the key aspects of your message
  2. Iconic designs are often based on purpose. Take the example of the Google home page, Swiss Army knife. The architect Louis Sullivan coined the maxim “Form follows function” and it is often a primary principle of design that is adhered to by most trained designers.
  3. Consistency is key. This is notoriously hard to achieve and especially true, but probably the most critical aspect to stay relevant. The acceleration in change in the digital world has made it impossible to not accept the value of design, or the inherent deviations that occur with better technology and communication. Therefore, having a design leader who knows how to balance design with changes and growth is as critical as an operations leader who can pivot to market cues.


The Numbers Speak for Themselves

The final case is in the numbers itself. Mckinsey & Co. tracked the design practices of 300 publicly listed companies over a five-year period in multiple countries and industries.

According to Mckinsey in a study, the Top-quartile MDI scorers increased their revenues and total returns to shareholders (TRS) substantially faster than their industry counterparts did over a five-year period—32 % points higher revenue growth and 56% points higher TRS growth for the period. Forrester estimates the size of the global design industry to be $162 billion and believe multiple software categories used in design will grow more than 20% this year. Their recent global survey of design teams found that half expected to grow in 2021 and one-third expected to grow by more than 25%.

This shows that industries across the world are waking up to the need for design leadership globally. Unfortunately, whose who don’t will have a difficult time sustaining growth.


Author: Shubhra Bhargava, Vice President - Design @ExcalTech

Shubhra is the head of design for Excal Design. She is a branded-environments specialist with experience in design, CMS, User Interface, general management, brand and retail identities.

Some of the brands she has worked with in leadership positions include, Levi Strauss, United Colors of Benetton and Reliance Retail.


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