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What makes a good design leader?

Posted by: Helen Walters on May 5, 2008

I was in London last week, and attended a breakfast meeting at the Design Council, the UK’s “national strategic body for design”, which is funded by the government and which does a pretty good job of promoting the importance of design to business in both theoretical and practical terms. (See Kerry Capell’s piece for specifics on the Designing Demand program, which helps small businesses use design strategically to build their firms.)

Three people, including Paul Edwards, senior design manager from Virgin Atlantic and Mat Hunter, the London partner at IDEO, briefly gave their take on design leadership. The ensuing discussion was a little all over the map, with apparent ongoing confusion among designers about how to define their role. (Note to designers — please stop the navel gazing and just get on with it. You have earned your place at the table. Business leaders are taking you seriously. Now prove your worth.)

So that’s probably why I was taken with the views of Ralph Ardill, Founder and CEO of The Brand Experience Consultancy, who said firmly “the number of designers I hear who say a client is a nightmare or a project is a nightmare. Get real! Design is change. It will hurt and you should expect it to hurt.”

For a long time, Ardill worked at Imagination, one of the first firms to understand that experience, not product, is at the heart of everything a designer does. These days he works with the C-suite on long-term projects that make a difference. And he was smart, down to earth and had some slick aphorisms for all to bear in mind.

After the jump: some of Ardill’s tenets for good business and good design leadership.

Empathy & the Extra Mile
-- This one really resonated with me. Falling at the last hurdle is such a common business failure. You just feel like you can't give any more so you give up, just at the moment you should be sticking to your guns and ensuring that things don't fall through the gaps... Managing to galvanize yourself and your colleagues to make it to the end of a project with head held high is critical. Inspirational leaders make that easier.

Excite & Evangelize
-- Keep the why alive. Because it can be easy to forget, 6 months in, why you're doing a project.

Success & Sharing
-- Because there's no 'i' in "team". And there's no 'i' in "leader", either.

Happy & Hungry
-- Projects have a happiness quotient. Positivity breeds productivity.

Inspiration & Ingenuity
-- Go and look for inspiration. And know when to say no -- or you don't know.

Reader Comments

Kristina Goodrich

May 12, 2008 10:46 AM

Spot on commentary, Helen. And your list applies very well to all designers, not just design leaders. While design observers like you are becoming annoyed with design whining, the real design leaders see the whining for the self-distructive and dysfunctional behavior it is. These leaders share one trait that I would add to your list: alignment within the business on the business' goals.

Ravi Sawhney

May 24, 2008 11:07 AM


We've never met nor corresponded but I agree with Kristina. Design is a hot topic in the board rooms and back rooms of business but no one told the designers.

Its up to us to come of age and answer the call for inspiration and leadership with contagious enthusiasm.

Leave egos and negativity at the door.

Antonia Ward

May 28, 2008 11:00 AM

For those who'd like to hear more from the event, audio of Ralph's talk - and Mat Hunter's - is on the Design Council site along with transcripts of what they said.

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