In which Peter and Jesse chat with Gordon Ching about the emerging role of the Chief Design Officer, design executive effectiveness, the power of brand, the importance of taste, and other matters.
¶This transcript is auto-generated. We try to clean it up, but quirks remain.
Peter: I’m Peter Merholz. ¶
Jesse: And I’m Jesse James Garrett, ¶
Together: And we’re finding our way… ¶
Peter: …navigating the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership. ¶
Jesse: On today’s show, recently graduated master’s student Gordon Ching joins us to share some of the highlights of his thesis work, in which he studied a number of Chief Design Officers and other senior design executives. We talk about the challenges faced by the most senior design leaders, the career experiences that made them successful and the skills that enable them to take on new challenges.
Peter: With us today is Gordon Ching, Canadian design strategist and management thinker based in San Francisco. He’s currently leading the design operations at Fast and is a founder of something called the Design Executive Council, which I want to hear more about. He graduated… just graduated with a master’s degree in design management from the Savannah College of Art and Design where he wrote a thesis on Chief Design Officers and design executive effectiveness. Try to say, “design executive effectiveness,” three times fast. ¶
Gordon: Hey. ¶
Peter: Well, and I’m the one who brought Gordon into the conversation today. He and I met months ago now on Twitter, when I found out he was doing this research on “What does it mean to be a Chief Design Officer and design executive?” I slid into his DMs and said, “Dude, you got to talk to me.” We had a conversation and then since that time we’ve stayed in touch because we’re both strangely obsessed with this role of design leadership, design executives, being a design executive. Is there actually such a thing as a Chief Design Officer? Is that just branding?
And so we, we continued to compare notes as we, as we go along. So, I think, honestly, where we want to start, Gordon, is just like, Who are you? And how did you end up getting a master’s degree in studying what does it mean to be a design executive? ¶
Gordon: How I got into this was, in the heat of the pandemic when we’re all locked at home, and I was sitting there twiddling my thumbs in my day job, wondering, I need to do something with this time. I want to learn something new. And I also wanted to tap into something I’m really passionate about. And the question here I was asking myself is just how do we make creativity work at scale. ¶
And that eventually led me to discovering, “Hey, there’s roles out there, there are people out there, who are thinking about this every day”, but there’s also programs out there that are looking at this question mark. And I love saying the word “creativity,” because I don’t think it’s just about design. It’s also about marketing. It’s also about writing. It’s all forms of creativity. And I think that the role of designers a lot of times play the central role in shepherding creativity within an organization.
So, I discovered the program at SCAD and was really delighted to see that there was an actual program focusing more on the design management angle of design and not just purely from an interaction standpoint. ¶
So that’s how I got into SCAD. And it’s just been an absolute pleasure to have met some wonderful professors there that have really been at the heart of design management before we were practicing, or at least I was practicing design. ¶
Peter: Right. I, I met one of your professors, I’m spacing on his name, but the sense I got is, through SCAD, you were able to connect kind of, not just with digital design leaders, which is the universe that Jesse and I are a part of, but you were able to connect with design leaders in marketing or physical products, like, what was the landscape of, you know, so you interviewed all these folks for this thesis, like who were you talking to, and how many, and what, what are some of the kind of attributes of, of these folks? Just, just so that, you know, the folks listening can get a sense of the shape of what it is we’re going to be talking about. ¶
Gordon: So I talked to folks, uh, it was really focused first and foremost on software. That was really my angle at first because I’m in Silicon Valley, I’m working in technology, and I knew digital design specifically was really taking a driving seat in shaping the future of the design. However, just by nature of talking to these design chiefs in software-focused companies, I also came across companies like AT&T, Logitech, folks that are outside the direct sphere of what we might go on in Silicon Valley. ¶
So that really helped me open my eyes because we’re not only talking about design from a pure digital lens, but also design companies that have a hardware angle, you know, spanning from creating computer products and electronics, to washing machines over at Electrolux. So, it’s quite a range of how creativity works at scale in different mediums and disciplines through design. ¶
So, a lot of this was thinking through creativity at scale and where are these people practicing such scale? So, the first rung of people that we really spoke to was from public companies, really large design organizations with shareholder responsibility. So, you’re thinking about design organizations that are hundreds of people, if not thousands. All the way down to more unicorn type startups, where you can be more design-centric from the very beginning.
So, it’s kind of two different questions of, What does it mean to drive design at a company where design perhaps was not there from the very beginning and has now scaled and become a legacy component of making design work, to companies that are design-first from the very beginning, and what does that look like if you were to do that from the very start, with a more blank canvas?
So that’s kind of the spread and we’re talking about. 16 different design executives representing public and private companies all at relatively large scales of design. And I think this group could represent some of the largest and most influential practitioners of our current generation. ¶
Jesse: So, what were those, you know, you talked about the, the breadth and the differences amongst all of these of all these different practitioners across all of these different fields, all these different leaders. What were some of the commonalities that you found among these leaders and the challenges that they faced?¶
Gordon: The number one was, everyone is still figuring it out. There was no textbook answer on just what we’re really doing here. But what was really interesting is because the language kind of shifts from person to person, as a researcher, I was really trying to tease out what are the patterns that we were seeing even though different languages were being used. ¶
And I think this is also where Peter also has a really interesting vantage point as a consultant, in being to see these variances but also patterns at the same time. So, one of the things I think I was really learning is there’s a very select group within the interview group that I think are at the forefront of what design leadership looks like and are really molding these new practices, new mindsets, new behaviors, and competencies of what it means to be an effective design leader at that level at the very frontier, almost like the tip of the iceberg. ¶
But there’s also folks who’ve been practicing for decades and they come also with a set of mental models of what they view as effective design leadership. So, we’re seeing some tension, actually, between what people view as effective design leadership, and the kind of two camps that I kind of saw, there was really one is leaning much heavier from a business-first angle. And, there’s another camp that I might argue is a little bit more legacy, which is taking a camp of, “We’re artists and creators first,” And we drive through that mind. So, you can see how these two forces are actually in many ways complementary but it depends also which of these camps they choose to use as the front-facing motives. ¶
Peter: I’m wondering. So, as you say, that I can imagine folks, kind of that older guard, leading through creativity, the folks who’ve been reading the Design Management Journal for the last 30 years, who, like, there’s I guess what I’m wondering is, like the, the context in which they’re operating, which is… which might be different from the context that you’re seeing from some of these more business-driven designers, right?
So, some of these folks who are a bit more legacy, in order to be a Chief Design Officer or a design executive for the last 25 years, you… that’s very rare, which means the company you’re working for was probably pretty strange to, to even kind of think that this was viable. And so what was it, was there anything you saw in terms of that, versus these more modern design leaders, where kind of now every big company realizes they need to have design executives, but they haven’t really shaped their, their company or culture necessarily to accommodate it. They’re just doing it because it’s now considered a standard, you know, if not standard practice, emerging practice. ¶
And I’m wondering if that, if those contexts, in which these Chief Design Officers were operating, what you saw in terms of, I don’t know, likelihood to succeed or, or the way that they lead kind of differing based on these different contexts. ¶
Gordon: I think one angle to think about is, is both from an angle of growth, time, and debt. And for companies who have existed a very long time without that kind of design leader at place, there’s a lot of administrative debt or political debt, organizational debt of just, how do you set up design to be effective and delivering at scale in those organizations. ¶
And those types of design leaders are a different… a different breed of design leaders who have to do different sets of responsibilities because they’re dealing with so much more debt within the organization versus organizations that might be more design native, who might not have that debt to carry on, as they’re performing as a design executive. ¶
So, both of these worlds will ask, have, very different responsibilities and the mindset of how they operate. And I think one, one example I think about is, I know we’ve used Apple as an icon for the longest time, and it’s kind of been the textbook reference point for what design leadership looks like. ¶
However, most companies are just not set up that way. It’s almost like a unicorn of its own. And I actually think it’s not healthy, particularly to use that exact example across the whole industry, because all these other companies are not shaped like that, are not competing like that. So, I think there’s a whole separation to start thinking about just what are the different layers of cultures that you’re navigating as a design executive and how do you match the conditions in which you need to perform to be effective in making design happen? ¶
Jesse: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting because I think that a lot of what makes Apple a unique example in that way is really the relationship that existed between Ive and Jobs in the product development process. That tight partnership between Jobs who was effectively a head of product as CEO of that company, and Jobs and Ive kind of working in these tight creative cycles, especially early in concept development. Whereas a lot of organizations are just not set up to include design at that level. In part, you know, as you’re pointing out, it’s, it’s an organizational challenge, but also comes back to the relationships between the leaders and the credibility that those leaders have been able to gain, in order to earn themselves a C-level title. And so I’m curious about your thoughts about the C-level title and the weight that that bears and whether every organization is even necessarily ready for a C-level design person. ¶
Gordon: I think what’s interesting about that comment, is I think about when you really dissect the meaning behind the Chief Design Officer, both from a symbolic, but also from a, from a governance level, in an organization, a lot of these Chief Design Officer titles are actually quite symbolic, meaning they’re not actually directly in the, C-suite like a COO, a CFO, a CEO. ¶
They may not even be reporting to a CEO. The majority of Chief Design Officers that we see today are perhaps one degree or two degrees removed from the CEO directly. And rather they are representatives, figureheads, and the ultimate authority maker on design, but they still have some layers between the CEO. ¶
So that still shows there is some ways to go to thinking about design as an equal peer to other functions that are directly in C-suite because at this level, the design chief, and also it’s contingent on the relationships that they have on how they push through decisions on how they, you know, make something happen, and whether they have those resources to actually bring those things.
There’s a very small subset of Chief Design Officers who have a direct reporting line to the CEO and also actually interface with the board. And that demands a very different level of responsibilities of the Chief Design Officer and how much they are managing up versus how much are they managing downwards into the organization. ¶
So I think that’s a really important distinction because I think when we say Chief Design Officer, we can automatically assume it’s a C-level role. But I think as Peter has also highlighted in my conversation with him, is that you have CMOs, you have Chief Privacy Officers, you have Chief Legal Officers who might not sit at that level, but they are still representing the most senior authority figure on that function and decision-making. ¶
Peter: I’m curious though, as you, you mentioned, you did engage with a few of these Chief Design Officers who were legit C-suite members and that it felt like that job was significantly different, even from a design executive role, like a VP or SVP of design. What, what behaviors or activities or mindsets, what was the, that quantum leap from being a design executive to actually being a true Chief Design Officer?¶
Gordon: One thing I think about is, when you start to enter the C-suite, what are those duties in that world? Who are you really accountable to at that point? And I think about when you’re applying a, let’s say, a customer centric or design lens, let’s say in a board meeting, how does that actually unfold? What’s the type of language? What’s the type of financial literacy and business acumen that you need to exercise to even be credible in those spaces? Are you showing up to talk about craft or actually showing up to talk about trade-offs in business decision-making?
So, I think there’s a really important leap here where design chiefs have established a team that they trust to take care of a lot of the downwards responsibilities so that they can make time and effort to influence upwards at the highest levels of business decision making. ¶
And so I think there’s an important leap there of just from both a mindset level, but also, can you read financial statements? Can you understand how those decisions are made and how to work around that and actually push for your investment? So there is a definite leap there from both a skillset perspective. ¶
And I think what’s interesting for us as designers, as we’re not coming from any sort of training from an education standpoint, to learn how to do that stuff. So we almost have to do double duty to learn these skills and to adapt as we’re leading at the same time. So I think there’s a very prime and difficult challenge actually for design chiefs to make that jump, if you haven’t had those trainings and skills, ¶
Jesse: I work at now as a leadership coach and this kind of skills development is very much part of the conversations that I’m having with folks all the time. You mentioned that there were some of the leaders that you surveyed, who really represented what you described as the tip of the iceberg, the folks who were kind of at the forefront of, of practice and I’m wondering about their skills and what skills they might be bringing, that the folks who are not quite out there on the frontier, as you put it, might not yet have developed that they might need to develop if they want to be out there on that. ¶
Gordon: One of the areas I highlight is the word ownership. And how close is that executive to owning a business? So, one example of this is one of the Chief Design Officers I talked to. She owns a P&L responsibility. That’s quite rare. Most design leaders do not own a P&L responsibility. So I think in my head, what does it mean when a designer actually owns that? How much more accountability do they have under that decision-making scope and the type of influence that they can exert on the organization? So, when I think about that lens from a financial and accountability and ownership perspective, that’s one of the tips that we started to see.
Another tip that we’ve seen, I think is connected to that is understanding from a financial scope point of view. How are you influencing decision-making at the C-suite level when they’re reviewing these types of pieces of information that delve very deep into financial areas, but at the same time, what’s interesting is some Chief Design Officers have said, I’m almost like a spiritual or human counterweight to the more analytical function of executives.
So, you can see that there is a financial acumen part of some design chiefs that are at this tip of the spear. But at the same time, when you ask them, how are you evaluated on your effectiveness? A lot of it is still very subjective. A lot of it is seeking their unique opinions and points of view on also how they bring that customer centric mindset at the highest levels of the business. ¶
And to keep that customer mindset intact, even while decisions might be made from an analytical reasoning point of view. So, I think of it this, from this perspective where you’re not really letting go of design thinking as a mindset, rather you’re reinterpreting how to use that in a language that makes sense to executives in the C-suite. ¶
Jesse: This is interesting because I think one of the challenges that leaders are facing these days is the tendency to want to cast themselves in the role of user advocate or user defender or the voice of the user in, in decision-making and while as noble and well-intentioned as all of that is, it leads to UX leaders, design leaders, walking into the room and creating conflict that doesn’t need to be there, creating division that doesn’t need to be there. ¶
And so I’m curious about how this plays out for these high performing leaders that you studied, who do have to be that voice of advocacy, but also somehow you know, not create strife and division within the decision, I think. ¶
Gordon: I think what’s interesting about that, one is, I think about what is one of the key skills that these execs are utilizing to drive influence and change. And I think about, yes, there is that analytical part of their jobs that is now more forefront. But I also think about something very simple and human, which is how they involve these executives. ¶
One example I was given is sometimes it’s really hard to see the value of a given design change or something that happened in design, unless you see it and feel it. So what I find happening is that yes, there is that financial and analytical part of your job that has grown so much, but there’s this other part of the job that hasn’t really changed, which is how do you facilitate, how do you invite, how do you cooperate with people who may not be as familiar, but at the end of the day, they’re still human beings who can understand and explore. ¶
So, I see this playing out with folks at this altitude where they’re still exercising their facilitation skills, but perhaps in a way that is more friendly to an executive audience and keeping those objectives and targets in mind. So that, that was a really big surprise to me of seeing that kind of friendliness, building that trust, building that relationship, so that you can be almost like a yin and yang to your executive counterpart to bring in that customer point of view while keeping the context of the business in mind and not overtly, just purely focusing on the user, but keeping all those two facets in mind while you’re walking them through this experience in a facilitator. ¶
Peter: So many thoughts. So, so as, as these design leaders grow and they’re figuring out how to take the skills they have, like you just mentioned with facilitation and, and reshape it in that context, one thing I’m wondering about is, I guess there’s kind of two related questions I have.
How… so something that I hear posed is, well, How different is Design executive from any other executive, aren’t they just another executive? Why, why are we so focused on VP of design as something different than VP of marketing, VP of engineering, et cetera. And I think what you just addressed kind of answers one of those things, but something else that I’ve seen as well is people still don’t really understand design and all that it can deliver. ¶
And there continues to be an evangelism and education aspect, even at that highest level, which their peers don’t have to spend a lot of time doing. Their peers, that’s, there’s, there’s an assumption of the value of marketing and how it works and the value of engineering and sales and HR and how they operate. But they’re still not yet in most of these organizations an assumption of the value of design and an understanding of how it works.
And so I’m wondering, kind of, what you saw in terms of like, if that’s true, right? If, if, if the design leaders, you talked to still feel like they are having to evangelize it, or maybe when you get to that kind of level that they’re at, there is this recognition that, okay, we get it. You don’t have, because, because if you have to still make all that, if you still have to engage in all that effort in evangelizing design and educating folks, that’s time taken away from these other executive functions that we want these leaders to do, in terms of informing vision and strategy, the facilitation work you were talking about in terms of bringing people together as they think about solving problems. ¶
So I’m wondering just how you saw, yeah, how you, how you saw that in the conversations you had.¶
Gordon: What I saw was there’s a, I think there’s a definite sea change in corporate understanding and value of design as a discipline. We’ve seen that change, and that’s also why we’re seeing more designers at the table at the highest levels. However, the specifics of what they do, how they do it is still very mysterious. ¶
And so what I find is design executives, yes, they, they have to play that role, but someone said very clearly, “I like to show, not tell.” And I think there’s a very clear difference between those two exercises of how our taking the best of the work that’s occurring in your organization and demonstrating that and its links to business success, it’s links to cross-functional excellence across the board.
And I think about this because it’s like, there’s a lot of showing, but not telling. And I think the better you can tell, sorry, you need to do more showing, not telling because that raises the credibility and evidence of how design links to various aspects of business success. So, I think that importance has increased, but the specifics and the evidence has to continually be drummed up. So I think there is still that kind of theater exercise that’s going on, but more concretely and not just from a, from a, you know, “I’m just showing you how I’m just telling you how important design is, but rather I’m showing you directly how important design is.” ¶
Peter: And, and when they’re showing, when they’re showing, are they showing, “Here’s this thing that the team launched and it has evidently beautiful design and we should feel good about it,” or are they showing. Numbers and metrics and “Here’s this thing we launched and it downloads went down, went up by 48% or revenue was increased by 25%.” ¶
Like, what is the mechanism of showing? Is it showing results that feel quantified and, and in a spreadsheet? Or is it shown? Cause when I think of design and showing, I’m thinking, showing the work, showing the product, showing the reveal. So, so how, how does “show” work in this regard? ¶
Gordon: I think if you’re just showing it, that’s only one level of showing, I think you have to drill much deeper. So, an example I would think about is if, let’s say market share is a really important. How are you connecting the dots between the activities and investment in design with the objectives of the business, and basically building that bridge between potentially the mystery of what design is and what it does and the material impact it has on the business. ¶
So, I don’t think you were just walking into the room, showing an experience, but which can be felt at a human level, but to a business executive it’s like, how did this move the needle on these targets that we’ve set ourselves to for this quarter, for this year? What is the direct link between design? ¶
But I think what’s interesting here and you’ve highlighted this before is that design is only realized through collaboration. So, I don’t think it’s just designers, just showing just purely from a design point of view, but there’s a cross-functional effort. And I’ve heard many times over with these executives is that from a product-design-engineering standpoint, there’s oftentimes joint ownership of how this piece comes together to demonstrate the evidence for design’s impact across the function and across the business. ¶
Jesse: I’m curious because for so many organizations, all of this, the, the level of power and engagement and influence that design has as a function within the organization, all of that can feel really out of reach for a lot of organizations. I would say even most organizations probably because it, it’s not clear how to get from where they are to toward that vision. ¶
And I’m curious about some of those smaller scale stuff that you saw, that people who are working. Younger organizations, smaller teams who are still able to wield that influence without having to like build an empire to get there. I don’t know. Did I actually ask a question in there? I meant to, like, so, so it, it it’s like the, what’s the, what’s the what are some of the factors that come into play, that that are particular to working at a smaller scale in a smaller organization, on a younger team? ¶
Gordon: One direct example that I heard a couple of times actually at smaller companies, but also was reflected in larger companies, was shifting that mindset of being design-led versus experience-led. And this was a big shift in thinking through, hey, as design, we’re not just the total owners and the only owners of the end experience, rather as the design chief, I’m shepherding through multiple functions of how to really bring design excellence to life. ¶
And it’s changing this kind of mindset of being a little bit more territorial, to one that is actually much more facilitated in how you guide that end result. And so I saw this both in large and small companies have a mindset shift of rethinking your role and how you use that power and how that affects your peers and the trust they have in design and how they think about when to go to you, how much should they rely on you for? ¶
And so there’s this major mindset shift. I found that shifting that mindset from design to experience thinking allows the designer to even at a small company, think more cooperatively, think that any good design happens through collaboration. And you have to nail that because whether you’re a small company or a large company, if you can’t nail that collaboration piece, there’s not going to be any sort of quality product coming out of the train, right? And only going to get worse if you don’t master this skill early, because imagine now you’re dealing with thousands of stakeholders. It’s just going to blow up in your face. So I think that, that, that key piece on collaboration and just reframing how you think about how to exercise your role as a designer is really important on the result of the inexperience.¶
Jesse: I’m curious. Did you explore the backgrounds of these design leaders at all in terms of their career trajectories that brought them to design leadership? ¶
Gordon: I dug into a little bit, but it wasn’t like an extensive initiative. However, most of these folks that have this current generation of, of design executives are pretty much like they went to design school and ended up as a design executive and has held that for, for, for basically the track of their career. ¶
What I think we’re seeing though in the industry today though, is there’s a shift because of the open access to design education and much more roles available. We’re going to see a multidisciplinary mix like myself. I, I didn’t start in design. I started in marketing. So how does that shape the future of design leadership, when you start to have people from different functions enter into design and they can bring that acumen and language to help bridge design to other things. ¶
Peter: I’m wondering, even within design, something that, that comes up, you mentioned creativity earlier and I, and one of the challenges that I’ve had is, is the frame of the word “design,” because when you say “design” people have a sense of what they think it is, and it’s usually smaller than what it is that I’m trying to get at. ¶
Even creativity isn’t quite right, because I think about the role that user research, experience research plays in these functions. And I don’t want to suggest that researchers aren’t creative, but, but the, the role that they’re playing within this context is, is to inform, develop evidence, elucidate. ¶
And so I’m wondering what you saw from this leadership perspective, and I’m kind of thinking about it from this path perspective, just like, was there anything in terms of where you started that would presuppose or predict where you were ending up or is it really like folks are coming from anywhere and in, in this next generation could end up as that, that head of design. ¶
Let me say, let me be more specific. Like, I, I hear concern from folks who practice user research that they’re not ever going to get to be a Chief Design Officer. And it’s like, they’re not, they’re not sure how do they get to be that executive? Though, you know, we both know Kaaren Hanson, I’m, I’m currently working with her, and her background is she has a PhD in social science.
So, so some of these folks are there, but there seems to be this almost bias towards a certain kind of designer becoming a certain kind of design leader. And I’m wondering if, if that is a legacy that you’re seeing change in the conversations that you’ve had, ¶
Gordon: That’s a good question. It makes me wonder, is it so much more of the background of it individual to more so which disciplines hold the power to make those things happen and what they demand of that profile. So for example, we see design chiefs, but I think back then R & D used to be some sort of executive role up there, uh, what has happened. ¶
I’m not entirely sure. Do we see, ¶
Peter: You don’t hear about R & D much anymore. ¶
Gordon: So I think there’s kind of been a breakdown of these general business functions into more specialized routes and certain disciplines have had much more air time and weight around how to position themselves. So in some ways you can almost see it’s a, there’s a bit of jostling here. It’s actually not very clear of what is that? ¶
Is it a Chief Experience Officer and who would come from that? I don’t really know. But I do think that timelessness of the skill set of being able to think through at the basic level or respect of a function, what does it even mean to be an executive? What are those, then where does the layer of the functional and disciplinary area come in to intersect those executive skills? ¶
‘Cause I think sometimes we’re asking ourselves what makes a great design executive. I think the first question is what is a great executive, layered then with design. And when you cross those together, you start to see where does design differentiate versus any other function under still the umbrella of executive? I think that’s really important to think about. ¶
Jesse: And I would add to that, that even within design, you know, as you pointed out, there were a couple of different flavors of that, that you have people who hold more of the creative vision for a product who are like, they are the, their tastes and their judgment helps determine what ships and what doesn’t. Whereas you have a kind of design leader for whom their tastes and their judgment is not relevant to what ships or what doesn’t. They are there to build systems and processes for the delivery of solid creative work on an ongoing basis. And it’s that kind of aspect of it that they’ve really taken on. ¶
I would argue there’s a third type that is a more of a kind of mentorship-oriented leader that is more oriented around talent development within their organization as a, as a primary orientation. These are some of the patterns that I’ve seen. I’m curious about some of the patterns that you might have seen in the study as well, in terms of that orientation or stance that a leader takes. ¶
Gordon: I guess in some ways it could almost be a self-preservation exercise sometimes or either you’re looking at it from almost an assembly point of view of like the talent tree. Sometimes, you know, you might be, you might not be the most proficient designer who ends up as the design chief, and that happens because they trust you for another aspect of your skills and strength. ¶
However, if you don’t complement what you you’re lacking from a, from a function and also responsibility point of view, and to have those leaders with you, then you can fail to deliver the whole value proposition of design. So I think of it from that perspective, like, hey, as an individual, as an executive, you need to be super self-aware of strengths and weaknesses and those gaps, how to place people around you that fill those gaps. ¶
But I think to your question, though, it, you can see where the political and social part of this comes into play because not all the time, the most creative designer ends up in those seats. Actually, sometimes they do. ¶
Jesse: Right. ¶
Gordon: But you can see where the people and social aspect of the nature of executive jobs coming into play and how those roles get opened, how they hire, how they land, how they evaluate and who ends up in those roles and what they do to staff around those competencies that they may or may not have. ¶
Peter: Did you, I think about this a lot, and I’m wondering if you saw this pattern, like did Chief Design Officers tend to be more creative and so they staffed around themselves operational leadership and business leaders, or did they tend to be better executives? And so they had to staff around themselves, creative leaders and operations people. Like, was there any pattern, or, or is it kind of you know not enough data to discern any, any specific. ¶
Gordon: I don’t have a direct pattern on that, but what I can comment on is I think there’s an increasing pattern around operating models of how they staff those organizations. So when I see the, the kind of line of command within the design organization, what that looks like, and you’re starting to see who’s placed in those, and the, the types of disciplines that they hold. There is some pattern there, like the fact that we’re starting to see design operations as a right hand to the design chief to, to execute the vision. But at the same time, as Peter we talked about, is like, there’s also roles for super senior creative designers to hold a non-people management role. ¶
But I think it really depends, but I think the majority of design executives are not actually staffed as the hyper creative, you know, super creative kind of person. It’s actually more from a, a business angle of what they represent and they work with those creatives to continue to shape the product and design direction. ¶
But I think because given the nature of an executive role and how much it deals with managing upwards, also from a financial and governance standpoint, there isn’t a lot of time to actually exercise that creative muscle from a creative director, but more so from a framework and governance perspective of you infuse the organization with your, your vision of design. ¶
Peter: Were you, so, so you mentioned earlier, as, as, as you’re saying this, I was thinking back on, you know, the folks who have these roles, didn’t go to school for them, to put to put it mildly. And I’m wondering what you saw in terms of how folks developed these skills. Did they just learn on the job? Was it sink or swim? ¶
Did you tend to, did you get a sense that they were, that they got executive MBAs? That they spent their week at Harvard learning what it means to be a, an executive? Did, did they work at companies that were supporting them along the way? Like any, anything that emerged there, just in terms of how these folks figured out what the job was? ¶
Gordon: That’s a great question. I did not see any MBA types. What I did see though, was each one of them being just hyper curious, hyper sharp individuals who are always asking the question of How do I improve? How do I change, how do I evolve? And I think that is such an important lesson that I found with these executives is in that role, that the amount of change you have to go through is so constant and so frequent that you have to think through just how do I continue to grow myself? ¶
Because if your company has gone from a hundred designers to 500 designers, and if you’re remaining in the executive job, your scope and your mindset and your skills are completely different. And there was one thing that really stuck out to me was if you look at when you first start your design career, you’re faced with the challenge of how to think beyond oneself. ¶
And as you go higher and higher into the kind hierarchy, every design executive I talked to they’re like, well, now the challenge is how to not lose oneself. And so you get this flip because you’re so burdened with the weight of the responsibility and the question now, because you’re, you’re a design chief, not an HR chief, is what is your specific point of view and how do you continue to express that to really push the boundaries of what design means at that company? ¶
I think that’s, that’s been an interesting, interesting area of just from a personal standpoint of how you continue to find your voice as an executive at that level of responsibility and, and commitment. ¶
Jesse: Well, it’s interesting too, because I think that a lot of people think of a Chief Design Officer type role as being, you know, it doesn’t get any higher than that. It’s the best. And that, that would be sort of like the culmination of one’s career, right? And I, what I’m hearing in what you’re saying is that the people who make it to that place, make it to that place because that’s not the culmination of anything for them, that they are on a path to continue to grow and evolve and advance their own skills. ¶
Gordon: What is true about that is you’re also seeing though a sliver of a trend where designers are assuming also product leadership roles, right? And that’s an interesting move that I started to see was, you know, traditionally, you might see a head of product design from a product management. But now there’s the reverse also with designers becoming more fluent in business, they’re also taking on the product role with design. ¶
So what does that mean from a design standpoint of just the trends and where our careers are going and what skills and expectations are asked of us? I think there’s a really interesting question of just, What does the future of that trio look like as designers become more business savvy and more capable of defending their work and, and, and justifying the investment and what kind of career opportunities that’s going to open for, for, you know, people like us as designers. ¶
Jesse: What do you think the implications of this are for leadership development? As Peter pointed out, you know, they’re all, most of the people who have these leadership roles now were never trained for leadership and some of them were never even trained for design. And so it seems to me that organizations going forward have have a responsibility to figure out how they groom their leaders and how they bring people up through the organization, and then how to help support leaders in developing those skills. What do you think are, are some of the ways that organizations are going to have to address this in order to cultivate leadership talent within their organizations? ¶
Gordon: I think one of the things that’s interesting that we’re starting to see is because we have this large enough wave of design, executive visibility, and also knowledge sharing that’s happening in public, I think there’s now, third-party design executive education that has sprung up and executives are taking these kinds of vehicles to up-level close gaps, as they prepare to become an executive, or if they’re already an executive to take various courses offered by educational institutions. ¶
But I think what the thing here is, is because what’s happening is what we’re seeing is the modernization of design management education that I think has been so behind for some time. And even through my degree, I’ve realized that it is quite behind because some of the content is still rooted in a physical world. ¶
Whereas all of these kinds of business decisions that we’re thinking from a creativity standpoint from a cost standpoint are now occurring in a digital format with different infrastructures and systems to make the best decisions. So I think we’re going to see, at least over this decade is a revolution and design management education. ¶
As the importance of design has increased, as funding for design and investment has increased. And now educators and providers are trying to catch up to, to meet this need. Cause we’re going to see just more design executives. I only talked to 16, but I imagine there’s going to be dozens and dozens more as of Chief Design Officers appearing over the next decade. ¶
Peter: What I was wondering on that note though, is there’s this assumption among digital designers that designed, you know, started when they, in what, with whatever medium they are practicing design. And so for Jesse and I, you know, it started with the web in 1995, that was the beginning of design, or maybe more recent designers started with mobile with the iPhone in 2007, but there is a legacy and a history of design that we could be learning from. ¶
And so while, kind of to, to the point you were saying, while what transpired in the, what, what while design education might feel, design executive education might feel a little backwards looking, right, steeped in brand design management or physical product design management, I’m wondering if there’s stuff that you saw those design leaders, ‘cause I know you spoke with a few and maybe other research you’ve done, that we would be foolish to let go of, right, in our desire to like make it all new and throw out everything that ever happened before, and its all has to be new.
What are those qualities that we should maintain a connection with from prior generations of design leadership that you think would be helpful moving forward that maybe we are losing sight of because we’ve gotten so full of ourselves in thinking that all that matters is, is design for kind of a software context?¶
Gordon: Yeah, there’s actually a key word, me and my professors were brainstorming on and we call it “design acuity.” And the way we talk about this is the depth of design understanding. And if you read to a lot of the books in the 1980s, or even before that about design management, I was reading those again. I was like, all of these lessons are still relevant, the way they thought about design and its connection to business is still true.
It’s just, there’s a new formats and modalities around the software context that hasn’t been fully bridged yet. It’s so new. That means for the last two decades, really. So when I think about, it’s not so much throwing away, but it’s really like entering this new chapter of where we think about design education and it’s complements to software because at the end of the day, the user experience is still physical and digital at the same time. ¶
So I don’t think we should disregard any of that, but I do think because design education has become so much lighter. Like you have a lot of people in design now with, you know, maybe six months of formal training and a lot of is on the job. So there’s a lot of trial and error. And I think that’s actually going to cause a whole different array of consequences to when you lack the depth of design understanding, but that’s not to say you can’t learn on the job, but it’s just not as perhaps structured or formatted against, you know, a common curriculum that can use as a foundation for how we talk and, and understand design. ¶
Jesse: What have you been inspired to research now? Based on what you discovered here, what questions are you most curious to know the answers to? ¶
Gordon: I think there’s two, one of them, one of the Chief Design Officers asked me is, “Gordon. What is my job?” And how do you do it really well?” I’ll never forget that because it was so simple. And I do think we’re still missing a lot of that knowledge. Especially when we think about operating at this scale. Is what’s what, what is the guidance or playbook around this? ¶
Because there is a lack of knowledge right now. But to another question I pose to design chief was like, where does the brand element come into play here? Because when you’re thinking about design excellence, it’s not just the product, there’s also the brand side of the product. So I think about the, some of the frameworks I learned and also looking back into historical frameworks, the brand side doesn’t go away. There’s the brand side, there’s the customer side. And then the business side and how design uses these factors to reflect and mirror. What are the values of the business and what are the values of the customer and how to construct brands that are enduring and lasting and inspiring and constructing products that deliver those experiences. ¶
So I don’t think that road has been fully crossed by actually many of these design chiefs. They are largely in a product development standard. But I think what’s going to be interesting in the next generation is what does that bridge to cross from a brand development standpoint to bridge product and design and brand to create this unified and cohesive thing. ¶
Peter: Yeah. When you, when you mentioned brand, it’s funny because I think, you know, the practice of user experience design that Jesse and I kind of grew up within and, and have done and written about and thought about, in many ways we were kind of running as fast as we could away from brand practices because brand practices felt inauthentic, right? User experience design reflects user desires and needs, whereas brand always felt imposed.
But I think what you’re saying, I, I like, I, I’ve kind of come around to recognize there’s a, there’s a way that brand and the language of brand and the application of brand can be authentic and can connect with these user experience needs and, and could make what we’re doing that much more powerful, so that it doesn’t just feel functional.
But there’s, there’s some other quality to it and something you and I have talked about prior, and I’m wondering how it relates to this. And maybe it relates to that question of like the perspective of the Chief Design Officer, right? They almost get lost. ¶
Their point of view gets lost as they’re running these very large organizations, especially if they’re from a user-centered design background, ‘cause they’re taking, they’re taking in so much from others that they don’t know where they exist anymore. And something you’ve mentioned in our prior conversations is this concept of taste, and taste can feel very ephemeral and subjective and lightweight.
But I think you and I agree that there’s actually a lot of value there. And I’m wondering as you think about taste, and I know you’ve had some of those conversations with design leaders, like what is, how does taste play a role as a Chief Design Officer or design executive? Like what, how, how should we be thinking about it? How should we, how should design leaders be thinking about developing their sense of taste or sharpening their taste or their discussion of taste? Or how do we, how do we turn this into something that doesn’t feel untethered and feels explicit? Kind of a tool in, in someone’s tool chest? ¶
Gordon: I think one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about this, it’s almost like somewhat philosophical, but I’m sure if you ask certain practitioners of brand, it’s not potentially as subjective as we perceive it to be. When I, you know, when I worked with Tom Hardy who’s a professor at SCAD, he was the corporate design director at IBM in the eighties and nineties, and he showed me this framework of how he evaluates brand attributes in making these types of decisions. I’m like there are common frameworks similar to how we apply somewhat of a rigor and analytical framework to user-centered decisions in making the subjective, not so subjective. And when I think about that, I think about looking at the landscape of software today, and this is where some of the more artistic design chiefs will say, “Oh God, it’s become so commodified, everything looks the same. Everything feels the same.”
Is that good? Is that bad? Where is this taking us? If everything is becoming so similar, everywhere and everywhere. And so this, I think this interesting notion of the taste factor is interesting because it’s kind of, what is the percentage of taste implied amongst the system. ¶
And I think about design systems in which how it’s become pervasive in almost every company omplements standardization, but also allows some expression of taste at scale. And so I think about these brands of what they’re trying to construct here is how do you apply and know where to make these special cases of expression at various levels to, to make something original, to make something enduring, to make something memorable to consumers and in society. ¶
And not just as another thing that has come out of an assembly line but something that is, you know, something we really want to treasure as a, both as an artifact and also as something we use every day. So I think there’s an interesting line to straddle here, thinking through both the brand and product exercise. ¶
And I think the ultimate form of design excellence is considering both to bring it to life. And I don’t know if many practitioners have fully crossed this road of both the brand and product side to create this unified vision. ¶
Jesse: Gordon. Thank you so much for being with us. It’s been really great to have you on this. ¶
Gordon: Thank you.¶
Peter: I think this is an excellent,that’s an excellent point to end on. I couldn’t actually ask for a better capper. But before you go, is there anything you want to promote? Anything, that you’re, anything you want to plug or promote? ¶
Gordon: Well, since I’m ending this research and really, I don’t want to end it, but formally it was ended through my graduation. One questions every design executive asked me is, “Hey, what’s next? Like how do we continue to help and push this conversation?” And one of the things I started to noodle on with many of these execs is co-creating, it is what we now call the Design Executive Council. And it’s a body that represents the interests of design executives to advance the state of design. This I believe is the inception of a new group that could really push this conversation through active practitioners and really going through the same questions that we asked on this podcast and having the space to do so and contribute to various missions that would push the boundaries on things like, can we finally define the job definition of the Chief Design Officer the playbook of how to do it how to negotiate board rules for design officers. ¶
And so there’s a whole area of opportunity, I think for the CDO area that is just starting to unfold. And actually Peter, you’ve done so much great work in laying the bricks here. But I think potentially this group could be a really exciting place to, to drive more missions around this space and do it in a program. ¶
Peter: Excellent. Two more things. First. I’m curious. So you did this research, I’m curious, separate from the conversations. It sounds like you did some like book learning in, you know, old books, magazines, et cetera. Was there any single resource that you uncovered in your research that is not, well-known, not, not, not appreciated that you would want to make sure, like, if you were all to just read one book or one magazine article for those who are listening to the recording….he’s actually gone off to get whatever this one resource is. ¶
Jesse: He just walked away. He’s bringing something back. Maybe he’s just…¶
Peter: Yeah… ¶
Gordon: Um, right here. ¶
Peter: Design Management by Brigitte, I can’t see the bottom, Borja de Mozota. Well, we’ll put that in show notes. ¶
Gordon: So this was really one of the first books, if not the first book on design management that considers the full scope of both the brand side and how this connects to corporate innovation. And if you read through this, all the evidence we needed for justifying design, investment and business, I’m like she’s done the homework. ¶
Uh, There were academic studies done many years ago before I was even probably born on showing the evidence. But what I think hasn’t happened is like this evidence somehow wasn’t surfaced to the world and we’re in the software world, still jostling with a lot of like question marks. So I’ve gone through this book a couple of times, and it’s continually been a really important textbook for just the fundamentals of design value and corporations. ¶
Peter: Interesting. And I’m, I did a quick Googling and it’s available as an ebook for less than 20 bucks. So it’s, I’ve found that oftentimes these academic textbooks end up costing like $180 or something, but this one is affordable. So thank you for that. We will make sure that that gets reflected. Last thing. ¶
Where can people find you out on the internets? ¶
Gordon: On Twitter, they can find me at gordoncching or you can just find me directly on my website, gordon-ching.com. ¶
Peter: Excellent. ¶
Jesse: Fantastic, Gordon, thank you again. This has been great. ¶
Gordon: Thank you so much. And design executives were starting this council, so hit me up. ¶
Jesse: Of course the conversation doesn’t end here. Reach out to us. We’d love to hear your feedback. You can find both of us, Peter Merholz and Jesse James Garrett on LinkedIn or on Twitter, where he’s @peterme and I’m @jjg. If you want to know more about us, check out our websites, petermerholz.com and jessjamesgarrett.com. ¶
You can also contact us on our show website, findingourway.design, where you’ll find audio and transcripts of every episode of finding our way, which we also recommend you subscribe to on apple, Google, or wherever fine podcasts are heard. If you do subscribe and you like what we’re doing, throw us a star rating on your favorite service to make it easier for other folks to find. ¶
As always, thanks for everything you do for all of us. And thanks so much for listening.