The three pillars of design leadership

Jaan Orvet
Everything That’s Next
5 min readJan 19, 2023

--

Many of the answers to key strategic, product, and communication questions posed across organisations are found through solid design leadership. It all starts with getting the three foundational pillars in place.

By Jaan Orvet, Partner, Global Strategic Design Director, Manyone
With
Stine Skotte Mikkelsen, Service Design Director, Manyone

From strategic decisions and daily interactions to creating and improving products and services, design leadership affects everything and everyone in an organisation and — through its output — also society at large. And of course the future of work itself.

There are hundreds if not thousands of design leadership rituals, methods, approaches, events and tools to make use of. In our opinion, however, solid design leadership rests on three pillars:

Insight
Foresight
Mandate

How well we maintain these pillars will decide everything else, every step, every outcome of our work. What we build on top of them is mostly guided by team and project specific circumstances. Yet if you ask design leaders they will likely suggest the following approach:

Insight

Insight is not static, something one “has” (or not). It is continuously acquired and refreshed by observing the world around us, interacting with the people we meet, and learning from the successes and failures we experience.

To us as designers this tends to be a comforting state of affairs; we listen, learn, and grow.

And we keep it all up to date and relevant by doing two things.

Firstly, we stay human.

Never get lost in who or what a job title tells us we are. A title is a construct based on regional, economic, historical and structural needs. Insight flows from the opposite: Seeing the world from a broader perspective, giving equal billing to all views and considering rather than judging.

Secondly, nothing is what it seems.

No tinfoil hat needed. A journalist will ask “why” many times after any given answer. The assumption that each response tells a deeper, more nuanced part of the full story and often contradicts the first answer, is true. In journalism, research, and in design.

Foresight

Wiktionary defines foresight as “the ability to foresee or prepare wisely for the future.”

This is a key ability of a design leader. Trends, shifts or changes in, say, audience behaviour were almost always predicted and expected by those who knew where to look.

It’s about being rigorous and making considered decisions on how to acquire the information needed to have foresight.

First step, reject trends!

When something becomes a trend it has already been shaped and packaged for consumption. It will be too late to contribute to it or to help our teams or clients do anything meaningful with it. It will also have spawned into myriad interpretations, even if its source may have been quite clear and singular.

Secondly, keep notes.

Track and compare what you see, to what becomes reality. Soon patterns will emerge and you and your teams will grow your collective understanding of how early signals develop and mature into significant shifts.

Thirdly, ask for help.

Work with a company whose methods you believe in. You’ll soon find one that aligns with your way of working. Look for an overall shared belief system (ethics, culture) and an ability to surprise each other.

Mandate

This is the easy one.

Our mandate in design leadership should be a carte blanche to use insight and foresight to inform and ideally affect every strategic decision made in an organisation or in a project.

Nothing kills belief in insight and foresight (or a business) as swiftly as ignoring the design leadership. And few things deliver as much value to an organisation or a project as design leadership that is comfortably resting on its foundational pillars.

Jaan Orvet

Establishing these pillars in your organisation

For all of their value and comforting qualities, working with the pillars can seem daunting or even utterly terrifying.

That is until we see they are extensions of the way we all already work. To build a strong foundation on them, start by acknowledging the connection to what already makes you a good design leader, and build from there.

Insight

A direct result of curiosity and humility, two of the key driving forces behind being a professional designer.

Making it one of your pillars:

Be proactive by regularly asking your colleagues and team members what insight their contributions are built on, and how it was acquired. This encourages individual analytical evaluation and provides teams with additional information to evolve their work on a collective level.

Foresight

This is the extension of our existing ability as design leaders to analyse, challenge, and connect seemingly disparate topics and findings.

Making it one of your pillars:

Visualise the connections between what we know, what we see, what we learn, how it evolves, progresses, becomes irrelevant or vanishes. Map them, on a wall or a Miro board, to document how current affairs, economics, expectations, interactions, and societal changes are connected. Over time this board will, with your guidance as a design leader, become a source of learning for the whole organisation.

Mandate

Given to us by company management.

Making it one of your pillars:

However…

Just like the best design teams carry the mandate of the end users of their work, we as design leaders must make sure we earn — and as a result are unequivocally given — the mandate to impact our whole organisation. Yes, the whole business.

By showing our organisation’s decision makers how the first two pillars positively impact our way of working, our deliverables and our team, we lay the groundwork for pillar number three: a strong, farther reaching mandate.

In conclusion

Design leadership is about understanding and through insight helping others do better. Yet it all starts with us. Ask yourself how you relate to the three pillars. Or maybe you have a different set of pillars to build upon? Either way, people are looking to you for leadership.

As a design leader you can and must provide it.

We’re curious to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment or reach out directly to us with any feedback.

Manyone is a strategy-design hybrid with offices in 13 locations around the world. Visit us at Manyone.com or follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

--

--

Jaan Orvet
Everything That’s Next

Partner, Global Strategic Design Director at Manyone. Co-host of podcasts 'design, Design, DESIGN, design!' and 'Dauer & Orvet'. Opinions my own. www.orvet.se