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How to prove the value of Design to your CEO

Design leaders from Ellevest, Varo Money, Xbox, and more share where the design discipline stands in proving the value of design in organizations.
How to prove the value of Design to your CEO

A McKinsey study of 1,700 companies, which included interviews with 200 senior design leaders and 100 CEOs, recently revealed that “66% of CEOs couldn’t say what their CDO (Chief Design Officer) actually did, or how that success should be measured.” 

We reached out to design leaders from Ellevest, Xbox Design Studio at Microsoft, Varo Money, and more to get their take on the research findings. The responses we received were richer and more insightful than we could have hoped for, so we’ve decided to divide their insights into two posts. 

In this first piece, we’ll share their thoughts on where the design discipline stands in proving the value of design in organizations and what the focus of work right now for Chief Design Officers, Heads of Design, and VPs of Design.

In a followup post, we asked Heads of Design for advice to they' give to up-and-coming designers and design managers who want to move up the ranks. 

Find sponsorship and the visionary words to galvanize your team

Chris Novak

Partner, Head of Xbox Design Studio at Microsoft

One of the most important things design leadership can do to prove value is to map out where you believe design sponsorship exists. Who is the person with the hire/fire/budget authority to balance a design effort within the business? If the sponsorship comes from the CEO or the CFO, the world is considerably different than if it sits elsewhere in the C-suite, multiple levels down, or just you. 

There is a lot written about the various roles in any change process, and as a company goes through phases of design fluency and maturity, it’s critical to understand your role: 

  • Are you an advocate for change? 
  • Are you an implementor of change? 
  • Are you a sponsor facilitating that change? 

A design leader is obviously an advocate for the reasons and methods to raise the design maturity within any organization, but often needs sponsorship. Methods for driving design maturity are completely different if you’re working to garner sponsorship than if you already have it. Without sponsorship, design advocacy is a treasure map without a legend.

From birth, people learn by playing – and this learning process should continue at work. At the highest level of any design org, you’re learning from your staff and from the experiences shipped by others. You are judged by the work of the team. When a team is large, most of your time will be spent learning about the successes and failures of how it is working with its creative direction. 

The levers you can use at that scale are limited. You get the ability to make talent decisions and to decide how projects are prioritized. But truthfully, if you are some combination of lucky and good, you might get five visionary words per year to galvanize the team. These words must be well thought out, and they are exceptionally powerful.

Principles are aspirational culling devices. Principles need to provide directionality and understanding of the bet the experience is making. They are not goals you want to reach, nor are they containers or groups or methods to logically arrange “good ideas.” They are the beliefs behind how your experience will reach your goals. 

The design challenge is to enable an entire org to feel good and understand that even if something is a great idea, it may not be a great idea right now or for this user or product. When you’re pointing in a direction use a laser, not a floodlight.

Learn the art of translation: Become a good host, as Ray Eames put it

Melissa Cullens

Chief Design Officer at Ellevest

It’s been proven that design is Important to the Bottom Line — round of applause! But we have not finished the work of translating that value into measurable, objective outcomes that go beyond how things look. Boo.

Imagine being a CEO. You’re faced with a paradox. It’s clear that Design is important but, what is it? Or better — what isn’t it? There are so many roles — graphic design, communication design, visual design, UI design, UX design, product design, service design, experience design, industrial design, business design, design thinking. It makes me tired just thinking about it. When one word can equally mean the look of the label on a yogurt cup AND whether or not yogurt is the right product for your market, it’s easy to see how it would be hard for a CEO to quantify responsibilities, let alone success.

I love how Ray Eames defined it: “The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.”

Good design increases the strength of your customer relationships. It can help a business weather bad product launches, market shifts, a broken revenue model. So it’s important to look for ways to measure those relationships, as well as the bottom line, which is sometimes the last place relationship problems show up. KPIs like Net Promoter Score, engagement, and churn come to mind as leading indicators, though I’m sure there are more. 

Good design can also build new revenue streams. Because design combines business constraints, customer behavior, and culture in a way that is unique to the leadership, design leaders can identify business opportunities that may not be visible in a competitive analysis or a customer service report. To make sure those innovative ideas make it into the strategy, companies need to ensure that teams are equipped to do more than just optimize what they've already built. Having KPIs for internal processes is a good health check to see if you’re creating space for creativity.

  • For example, when you look at your product roadmap, do you see only features that will keep up the competition, or are there industry adjacent ideas that were discovered in partnership with your customers? 
  • When it’s time to build something, is there time for creative exploration (i.e. having 100 bad ideas in order to get one or two good ones)? Or do you move into delivery mode as soon as the most obvious or most technically feasible solution is voiced? 
  • Are teams given what they need to experiment on their own so they can try lots of ideas and see what sticks? 
  • Is your marketing team committed to understanding the customer, beyond aggregate data and focus groups?
  • Do they spend time with users and really understand their lives? 
  • How integrated are your marketing and product organizations? 
  • Do they share ideas and influence one another? Good design leadership creates a culture of service, and a pride in the details far beyond the design team.

As far as where designers are at in proving their value in organizations, if we look at the evidence from this study, it would seem that we have a long way to go. 

The biggest mistake I’ve seen Heads of Design make when joining an executive team is to think that everyone else understands what you do, how to apply it, and why it’s valuable. Adopting a service leadership mindset for your peers, as well as your team, enables you to demonstrate what you can do to solve internal problems for your colleagues that can help them imagine ways you might apply your approach to other areas. It builds trust and opens the door for you to be invited into more conversations.

Be radically inclusive by example 

Josh Silverman

Design leader and design operations consultant

The study actually made me wonder if the reverse is also true. Do CDOs understand all the things that CEOs do? Likely not – and that’s ok. I’m not certain that being a C-suite leader requires 100% knowledge of each of the other’s C-suite roles. 

The focus for CDOs and their design-identified peers, ideally, can be radically inclusive leadership by example – to create space for emerging leaders at the table. With design’s value increasingly understood, Heads of Design (and other design leaders) can set a holistic vision (brand, marketing, product, engineering, HR, operations), for their product’s or service’s experience that inspires and guides the company, and create conditions that support the business in achieving that vision.

Reframe the responsibilities of the CEO through the lens of design

August De Los Reyes 

Chief Design Officer at Varo Money

Coming to an agreement about the responsibilities and accountabilities of the CDO role is paramount. This articulation helps when people and teams get lost in the weeds of execution. One good analogy of articulating the CDO role is to consider this person as the “CEO of Design.” By reframing the responsibilities of the CEO through the lens of design, many become clear: setting and socializing the design vision and strategy, defining the quality bar for design and design leadership standards, securing resources and funding, identifying strengths and talent gaps across the organization, and so forth.

Design’s unique contribution to an organization is “cultural equity,” in other words, the non-economic and non-functional benefits afforded and organization. What is a company’s contribution to culture? How is it viewed in a broader societal context? Many current topics exist in this orbit: relevancy, accessibility, inclusion, representation, ecological sustainability.

In terms of the focus of work for Chief Design Officers, Heads of Design, and VPs of Design, it’s no different than before — the scope of the work is now different, particularly with the advent of CDOs which extends Design’s reach to the C-suite and Board level.

Push organizations towards empowered team models and alternative problem solving techniques

Ryan Rumsey

Mentoring people and teams at Second Wave Dive. Led design at Apple, Electronic Arts, USAA, Nestlé, and Comcast

The fact that McKinsey is surveying CEOs about their understanding of design and design leadership is incredible. Ten years ago, there were very few design executives. That this survey even exists is evidence that companies are seeing the need for design. The findings aren’t surprising. Not because designers are so misunderstood, but because CEOs have a ton of lenses to consider. 

If the survey asked about Chief Marketing Officers, Chief People Officers, or Chief Innovation Officers, I believe you’d have similar results. I think a more important question should be asked to these CEOs, “Do you trust that the decisions your CDO is making is having positive impact(s) for your organization?” Without trust, there are few measures that will translate to any employee being seen as successful.

In terms of where designers are at in proving their value in organizations, I really see value in two different ways. There’s actual value, the impact to the bottom line. And there’s perceived value, the meaning and feelings people have towards something. When it comes to proving value, designers have come a long way in demonstrating the perceived value of their work. We can see this in hiring trends over the last 10 -15 years. 

Our creative problem-solving, storytelling, and visualization techniques have provided clear differentiation to our partners as to what we bring to our organizations. The conversations “at the table” are somewhat different, though. Those tasked with leading organizations have to consider a variety of lenses and make difficult trade-off decisions. These decisions impact both perceived and actual value. While we’re making progress in demonstrating impact to the bottom line, we still have a lot more room for improvement here.

For any CDO, Heads of Design, or VP of Design, I believe the focus right now is two-fold. One is to continue to push organizations towards empowered team models, alternative problem solving techniques, incorporating a variety of qualitative research insights into decision-making, and supporting designers in their career journeys. Two is to understand the expectations of you as an executive or senior leader and demonstrate how design is meeting those expectations for the customer, for colleagues, for partners, and for organizations. 

Revolutionize design education 

Alen Faljic

Founder & CEO of d.MBA

I think it's completely normal that most CEOs don't understand design leadership yet. Design has only recently become an independent function in companies. Most business people are still learning what Design is. 

It is our job to explain design better. We have to design the design function. We have to prepare plans for integrating design in organizations and communicate them in a way that business people understand. But that’s where I see the biggest challenge.

Most design leaders don’t speak the same language as business people. We try to explain our value through empathy, aesthetics, and user experience. These are all important factors but they are one level away from what business people understand. They understand numbers, metrics, and strategic arguments. We need to become better at explaining and selling what design does. 

I think a whole generation of designers has been let down by design education. It completely overlooks a fundamental skill that we need — business literacy. If we don’t understand the business setting, we can’t design well and explain the design's value. 

Design education needs revolution. Leaving out business literacy in design schooling, is like teaching someone how to drive a car without explaining road signs. 

If you’re a designer or design leader, we’d love to hear from you. Our research team is gathering responses to a survey on the impact of design. Join over 1,000 respondents and share your experience