Challenges for design managers

Design managers had a good 10 years between 1997-2007. The challenges in the good times were the result of positive developments such as design’s elevation up the management agenda, the expansion of its remit, and the resulting complexity that came with more responsibility and exposure. A harsher business climate will lead to a different set of demands.

In hindsight, two events in 1997 set the scene for design’s rise. In the UK Tony Blair’s New Labour were elected with a mandate to modernise Britain, and quickly elevated its Creative Industries to the forefront of economic policy. This was a strategy that was replicated around the world in the form of countless policies in the creative sector. Creativity and innovation were set to become buzzwords amongst political and business leaders. 

In the same year Steve Jobs returned to Apple, which soon became the totemic case study of how to out-innovate the competition through smart design. As a design strategy consultant in this period, I lost count of how many brand directors’ strategy amounted to little more than aspiring to be the ‘Apple of our category’. The days of putting the case for the importance of design were replaced by fighting off calls from different parts of the business wanting to join the design party.

‘Design thinking’, the hazily defined notion that designers are well equipped to tackle a wide range of business problems, can be seen as a high water mark of this euphoria.

A critique began to surface in 2007, with questions raised about design’s sustainability credentials and its obsession with superficial novelty. Business Week magazine also reported an ‘innovation backlash’ in the same year. The recession has only served to sharpen the questions for design managers.

The idea of design as a silver bullet has lost currency. As one design manager put it to me recently, ‘Even Turkeys can fly in a tornado’; but when the tailwind dropped many design managers were left gliding. Greater exposure to senior management had left many… well… exposed.

The concern is that too much time has been spent trying to outsmart the MBAs, and that design managers have lost their focus on delivering great design. The most common response to this feeling of corporate over-stretch is to regroup and go back-to-basics, with many managers pining to just roll up their sleeves and get down to designing.

While this reaction to a sense of mission creep is understandable, it risks jettisoning some important gains. It is vital that design does not become viewed as part of the froth of the go-go years. While design is not a replacement for business strategy, it also has more to offer than experience aesthetics. One of the big challenges in the next period will be to define the boundaries of what design departments can and can’t usefully contribute to with more rigour and precision. 

Design and innovation have undoubtedly become emptied of much of their meaning through over use (and abuse), but we should also resist the flight to new buzzwords. There is no alternative to explaining – in longhand – how design can contribute to business success as specifically as we can. We should also not shy away from explaining how difficult it is to deliver great design; and while there is a design process it is not a general purpose business methodology, but a specialist one that must be executed by experienced and talented designers.


Kevin founded Plan in 2004. Before this, he was a director at product design consultancy…

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