The design business leacership gap

The design business leadership gap

The Australian design scene has matured rapidly in the last five years. We are seeing design agencies become a central part of start ups, buy-outs by large corporates and amalgamations but we have a design business leadership gap.

In my work I’ve come to realise that professional development has not kept pace with this growing sophistication. While we have many designers working at the leading edge of design we don’t have enough design business leaders.

So what does it take to be a design business leader?

The design business leader has left and right brain skills in a unique combination.

Here are the 10 characteristics I see in good design business leaders.

Industry knowledge. Design business leaders know their peers and their competitors. They understand the Australian design landscape and their place in it.

Empathy. Design business leaders have empathy with their design teams and their clients. And their clients’ customers. Empathy mapping has become a core design skill. A good example is one of the studio’s in my Business of Design Leadership program. Empathy mapping helped them understand why a client kept stalling the sign off. It also led to an alternative explanation and subsequent sign off.

Vision. They have a vision for how design can be used to benefit their clients. Their vision is focussed on return on design investment. They push this through to their mission and then set values that will deliver these results within a harmonious workplace. They underpin this with a purpose that goes beyond the almighty dollar.

Value. The design business leader is driven by the desire to prove the value of design for clients; and get remunerated for that added value.

T-shape. Design business leaders have not lost sight of the fact that they are designers, but they also have deep understanding of business, consumer psychology, technology and anthropology. Tim Brown, IDEO CEO and the ultimate T shape person, explains.

Business models. They understand the benefit of a unique business model. They also understand how it delivers good design and focussed service to a defined market with managed costs and new value streams. They know that the traditional studio structure is not always the right set up.

Benchmarks. They understand the financial management of the business and can benchmark it against peers and competitors.

Researchers. Discovery is at the core of their design approach. They understand empathy mapping, job-to-be-done, value proposition, customer journey mapping and user experience mapping

Business designers. Design business leaders have a kit of tools they can use to analyse a clients’ business and identify activities that add value. They then demonstrate how design can add value to all business activities.

Play to win. They are focussed on winning, for the client and for themselves. They know how business strategy works. They can interpret a clients’ strategy and convert it into creative strategies and tactics that help the client reach their goals.

Take away point

The design business leader needs a set of unique business skills to marry with their unique design approach. A big ask.


Got a question? Want to share your point of view? Please feel free to email me.

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Greg Branson

Contact Greg Branson if you would like to learn more about the many programs the DBC offers.

Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.

Greg has developed The Design Business School to help owners manage their business better along with showing designers how to get more involved in the studio and develop their career path. Contact Greg.