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'Design and Leadership Are Inextricably Bound Together.' How Design means Business to the Modern CEO

6 min read
At the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Mar. 6 2018, Clay Chandler, Brainstorm Design chair, talks to (L to R) Maria Giudice, vice president, experience design, Autodesk; Justin Maguire, senior vice president, product design and user experience, Salesforce; Mauro Porcini, chief design officer, PepsiCo; and Harry West, CEO, Frog.
Photograph by Stefen Chow for Fortune

By ELI MEIXLER March 6, 2018

It’s no secret that great design can unlock revolutionary business opportunities, and the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore kicked off Tuesday with a panel including thought leaders, who asked big questions about what design has to offer modern businesses: What’s driving all this corporate interest in design? And what does it mean for corporate leaders?

According to global design and consulting firm Frog‘s Harry West, it’s actually customers who are driving interest in design. Digitalization has given customers “much, much more power than they have in the past” to choose between brands and “more ways to express that choice,” he said, drawing knowing chuckles from delegates.

Frog began life as an industrial design house in 1969 and today is an industry leader in personal computing, software engineering, and mobile applications, pioneering tools in virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

“Today, a brand is not what it says, it’s what it does,” West said. Companies and executives are “recognizing that design is going to be central to how they compete in the future, but I’m not sure if companies know how to do it yet. There’s a big different between saying that design is important, and then actually following through.”

Maria Giudice, co-author of Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design, “couldn’t agree more.” Guidice, formerly Facebook’s (FB, +2.07%) director of product design and now vice president of software firm Autodesk (ADSK, +14.71%), pushes for CEO’s to think like “DEOs” — designer executive officers — and to value design as an investment, rather than an expense line.

“Everybody wants design now,” she said, “but actually doing design, inside companies, is easier said than done.” Part of the difficulty “bringing design in-house” is effecting a “culture change” inside organizations, she says. “Design used to be considered a weakness.”

Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo’s first-ever chief design officer, was recruited by CEO Indra Nooyi five years ago to help plant a design culture in the company. Doing so requires a “top-down push” from executives, Porcini said, but it also needs a “bottom-up” effort from what he calls “co-conspirators” in the mid-levels of a company, who have the power to create products or brands that “resonate in the market. “That’s where you’ll start to see bottom-line results,” he told Brainstorm Design.

But just as important, Porcini said, is broadening the design process as a “holistic” approach that avoids turning departments into “silos” but instead demands respect for every part of the business, from R&D to business development. “That respect is key to driving innovation,” he said.

Enterprise software development may not conjure images of a designer with the drafting board, but at cloud computing firm Salesforce (CRM, +0.68%), design “covers the entire structure,” from marketing creatives and product design to departments who work with clients pre- and post-sales to connect with customers across their entire experience with a product “without leaving a gap,” said Justin Maguire, senior vice president of product design and user experience.

“You don’t necessarily associate design with [enterprise software], but the challenge for anything back-office or enterprise is actually the customer,” Maguire said, recalling a time he sat down with a customer to discover that a troublesome template was overloaded with 5oo fields.

“Why did we make the developer tools for this person allow them to put 500 fields on this page?” he asked, drawing laughs. “Making it hard to do dumb things,” could be just as good a tagline for designers’ role in a large corporation, he added.

Both Giudice and Maguire were keen to hit back at “design thinking”—a now fashionable industry term. Design thinking “sold the idea that a process can stand in for really smart people,” Maguire said. “But you can take really dumb people and hand them design thinking, and you’re going to get really dumb solutions.”

“Design is about thinking and doing,” adds Giudice. “You can think until the cows come home, but then you have to go and do it. Design thinking is really a stand-in for design strategy.”

And that readiness to act on design is going to be “vital” for CEO’s going forward, says Frog’s West. “Any company that thinks that their current products or services don’t need to change, well, you’re not going too around for very long.”

“Customers are going to demand better products and services, and what is the way you get to better products and services? Design is a vital part of that,” he said. “Design and leadership are inextricably bound together.”

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Singapore’s highest honour for designers and designs across all disciplines
One of Asia’s premier design festivals that champions design thought leadership
National Design Centre