Should Designers Lead At All?

Dennis Hambeukers
Mar 17 · 4 min read

As a writer of the Design Leadership Notebook, I was triggered by this article on FastCompany about how John Maeda critically dissects the idea of design leadership. The title of the article is “In reality, design is not that important.” In the article, the author reports on how John Maeda, a long time hero of mine, told his audience at SXWS this year that if designers get into a leadership position, things can go terribly wrong. If designers get too much power or, even worse, start playing the boss, a company runs the risk of making wrong decisions. This is totally correct. Because beautiful design means nothing when paired with poor engineering or poor business strategy.

Because designers did not have much power in businesses up until recently, they run the risk of abusing the position of power they are given today. Because design is good for business and being design-led seems the best road to success, designers have more power in organizations today. Couple that with the fact that most designers today still only care about making things beautiful and you have a recipe for disaster.

So far, I totally agree with Maeda. But I don’t really agree with the conclusion Katharine Schwab, the author, presents on FastCompany. She concludes that designers should not be in leadership positions but be good team players. In Maeda’s own words:

“Closing Advice: Earning Best Supporting Actor/Actress is the goal.” — John Maeda

From this Schwab concludes:

“Maeda, who is the head of inclusion and computational design at WordPress parent company Automattic, thinks that design should play a secondary role in tech companies rather than a leadership role.” — Katherine Schwab

I think this is a wrong conclusion and comes from old school ideas about leadership. The traditional idea about leadership is that of the boss who tells people what to do, who has the biggest say in discussions. In a Taylorian Scientific Management world this works, but today these ideas about leadership are outdated and don’t work anymore. Modern leadership is much more about support, enabling and vision. So a supporting actor/actress can be a leader much more than a traditional hierarchical boss would. And designers are ideally positioned to lead with their design tool-, mind- and skillset. The idea that the designer should be the boss is totally out of tune with the workplace of the future which is much more agile, self-steering, lean and in which people have much more autonomy. Leadership in that context will come from people who can connect, who can develop a vision, can create energy. Designers can do these things and can lead from their supporting actor role.

I think it is typical that authors like Schwab jump on this occasion to put designers down. Saying that they should be limited to secondary roles is demeaning. On the other hand, I think it’s good to be critical when it comes to giving designers more power in organizations because designers need to up their game considerably if they want to fulfill leadership roles. Leaders should lead and designers should be considered for leadership positions as much as MBA educated people. But in the world as I see it emerging, everybody can lead and leadership should be distributed. I think it is far more productive for everybody if designers think about how they can lead from any position and if business people don’t jump on every occasion to put designers or design thinking down.

I have been following John Maeda for many years and the way I read his #designintech report this year is that it’s good to be critical and that we are arriving at a more mature vision of how design can lead. Once we get past the peak of inflated expectations, I think it is good to be more critical as we become more mature but we should not try to dismiss the immanent leading role of design.


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :)

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht. https://www.zuiderlicht.nl/

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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