Why are visionary designers better business leaders?


Hi, for those people who might not know me. My work mainly focuses on experience design, business design, strategic design, and more subjects related to human-centered design or design-led innovation. I have always loved to work towards understanding the needs of human through multiple design research methods, and drive disruptive innovation or transformation in various sectors based on deeper insights.

Starting this year, I have decided to share my thoughts on some interesting topics. In this article, I will cover the current definition of design, 3 important pioneers, 6 key takeaways from SCAD design management 10th-anniversary conference, and 3 characteristics of visionary designer.

Definition of Design

Everything is design. Design is not only about visual appearance, but also includes strategy, conversation, mindset, leadership, employee & customer experiences, services, and even organizational culture.

Based on my personal experiences, regardless of my SCAD DMGT Master’s journey, the internship in IBM, and the current business consulting work, I found that people still misunderstand what a “Visionary Designer” can do nowadays. Here, I am using “Visionary Designer” (or some people called “Design Strategist”) because I would like to clearly divide it from traditional designers.

If you are interested to understand the transformation of design education, please see here >> State of Design: How Design Education Must Change by Don Norman and Scott Klemmer, 2014.

(If you are a traditional designer who is looking for expanding your career, I would highly recommend you read this article because design as a discipline is transforming and becoming much broader than you think.)

Three Important Pioneers

“Thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop products, services, processes, and even strategy.” — Tim Brown, Chair of IDEO, 2008.

The truth is that people in the business world have started to notice the value of design and already utilized it in many sectors to optimize their innovation developments across all layers such as culture, business strategies, workplaces, services, and products. As far as I know, many MBA courses or training have already included design thinking and design-related topics, or even there are some design strategy MBA programs that came out. In addition, IDEO, a leading design consulting firm, has created practical design kits for business strategies and organizational culture transformation.

The intersection where design thinking lives, IDEO, 2009

“Everyday is a prototype.” — Phil Gilbert, GM of Design, IBM, 2018.

IBM is one of the iconic companies that has embedded design thinking throughout all organizations from top to bottom. During my time in IBM, I was surprised how everyone keeps design thinking in mind and leverages it in different ways. Phil Gilbert, GM of Design, IBM, (2018) proposes that in a complex world that is moving faster than ever, design thinking can help organizations quickly adapt and respond to constantly uncertain changes. IBM Design Thinking Model: The Loop successfully shifts a very engineering-centric culture towards a focus on customer outcomes.

IBM Design Thinking Model: The Loop. The heart of IBM Design Thinking is a set of behaviors focused on discovering users’ needs and envisioning a better future.

“A brilliant solution to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all: solve the correct problem.” — Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, 1988.

Back in 1988, Don Norman, co-founder and principal of Nielsen Norman Group, created the 6 principles of design that fundamentally made a huge impact on the design or the UX world. His unique perspective from usability engineering and cognitive science brings out more possibilities in the design field. Recently, Don Norman (2018) points out that designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be. Most importantly, the process is iterative and expansive. Therefore, design can guide businesses to avoid the wrong decisions by perceiving human needs at the very beginning. Business is all about human beings; Involving designers on the table is the key to develop a successful business solution.

Don Norman’s Three Levels of Design: the visceral, behavioral and reflective levels

Key Takeaways from SCAD Design Management 10th-anniversary conference — Crosswalks 2018

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to attend this remarkable celebration during my time in SCAD. Our department organized a conference about the future of design management. We invited several important guests in our field, such as Don Norman, Phil Gilbert, V.J. Kumar, Tom Lockwood, and Jules Pieri.

Here are 5 key takeaways extracted from my notes:

  1. Design is not only designing a product but also solving real-world problems.
  2. Everything we learn today could be different tomorrow, so we have to trust the design process no matter how the content changes.
  3. We also have to learn how to argue the design process and how to contribute to the design team.
  4. Design managers have to build a multidisciplinary collaboration because designers have to deeply understand the different perspectives from various experiences, cultures, and communities.
  5. Entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship is one of the crucial elements in design management/design leadership major. Designers have to imagine you are an owner when you arrive at a company the first day. Moreover, designers have to be leaders and create their own points of view.
SCAD Design Management 10th-Anniversary Conference, SCAD Museum of Art, 05 May, 2018

Three Characteristics of a Visionary Designer/ Design Strategist

Here, I am sharing some of my thoughts about why I think visionary designers or design strategists could be great business leaders, and that they play a key role in the success of a business in an uncertain environment. There are three characteristics that can usually be found on visionary designers that can really bring huge benefits to a business, and help to fix the discontinuance of the S-Curve Innovation Model.

S-Curve Innovation Model

1.Respect everyone’s voice

As visionary designers are always considering all stakeholders for design research practices, they are extremely respectful of everyone’s voice and stories. Developing a great business strategy or organizational culture also needs all voices involved to build consensus at all levels, rather than just consent. Frederik G. Pferdt, Google LLC’s Chief Innovation Evangelist, proposes (2021) that “Empathy is the skill of the future, and practicing empathy every day as a business leader, for example, helps you understand what your employees need and what your immediate team actually needs right now, So, putting yourself into their situation, to really understand how they really think and feel, helps you come up with better solutions for your employees.” Empathy is one of the crucial phases of the Design Thinking Process. A visionary designer as a leader can truly keep empathy towards the end-user and whole team by nature.

In addition, one of the core elements of design leadership is to drive innovation and transformation by building multidisciplinary collaboration. Respecting different perspectives in the team will help businesses to build better culture, strategies, and solutions.

2.Always think outside the box

As we live in a fast-changing world, what we learn today will change tomorrow. Design research methodologies allow visionary designers to take one step earlier to uncover customer needs and sense the preferences of the next generation. Furthermore, visionary designers strongly believe that everything is possible and they are born to have the ambition to change the world and avoid status quo. This inherent mindset keeps pushing them to move out of their comfort zones to look for new tools to generate creative ideas.

Moreover, according to the current design strategy-related education, Master’s students have learned deeply about social innovation, business design, experience design, service design, inclusive design, and design for sustainability. Being creative is not only for the ideation part but also the whole process from research to design such as workshops and design research tools or crafts. They truly care about customer behaviors, innovation news, business cases, and technology trends. Overall, they have gotten solid training and tangible design tools to tackle real-world problems before they graduate. That is why visionary designers can always lead disruptive innovation or transformation with a fearless attitude. They are applying design thinking into various sectors and empowering more people to embrace ambiguity in an uncertain world.

3.Never stop prototyping

Prototyping is one of the crucial tools for visionary designers. It is not only a development tool but also a mindset shifting the way you work. This fundamental technique allows visionary designers never to be afraid to make mistakes and then embrace failures. Ben Holliday, Chief Design Officer, FutureGov (2020) mentioned that “the prototyping mindset is the principle of learning by doing. It’s prototyping as a process of making things real enough to learn more about them.” Furthermore, many articles point out that prototyping can help business people make clearer decisions on cultural transformation and business strategies. Future scenario planning in business also needs strong storytelling techniques which also is another similar tool visionary designers have.


“Businesspeople don’t just need to understand designers better; they need to become designers.” — Roger Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Management

More and more experience design or service design roles are coming out in the market as businesses need design perspectives on the transformation or disruptive innovation to maintain competitive advantages in an uncertain world. Business executives need to identify visionary design leaders to be part of important partners or strategic planners.

In one of the latest McKinsey’s quarterly reports, Are you asking enough from your design leaders?, Melissa et al. (2020) point out that “design leaders needed to be brought into the C-suite to make strategic decisions alongside CEOs and CMOs. In addition, 40 of the top 100 companies hired a chief design officer (CDO) in the past five years, and the previous research shows that design-led companies have 32% more revenue than other companies.”

However, at most companies, heads of design are ineffectively, and confusingly, integrated into executive teams. Top executives need to deeply understand the business value of design and the new “strategic role” of the visionary designer.

In addition, the McKinsey’s quarterly report also reveals that design leaders have the ability to utilize both qualitative and quantitative research to create better solutions. In many cases, qualitative inputs provide the “why” that illuminates the quantitative “what” and show the best route to solutions.

Overall, more and more people see the business value of design. Design management or design leadership as a discipline is creating a huge impact in our society. A great visionary design leader has the ability to uncover human needs by multidisciplinary collaboration and empower more people to prioritize empathy and envision the future.

McKinsey Quarterly Report, Oct 2018 — The business value of design

All thoughts expressed are my own. If any questions, welcome to reach out to discuss further.




Innovation & Strategy Consultant @ EY // SCAD MFA Design Management

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Alan Liu

Alan Liu

Innovation & Strategy Consultant @ EY // SCAD MFA Design Management

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