Move over CIOs. Designers are taking over corporate boardrooms.

Design has emerged from the original architecture and furniture studios, automobile factories and Silicon Valley’s computer labs, and is heading to a corporate boardroom near you. Its new form is not a designer chair, handbag or technology. It is human. This new type of designer is equally comfortable in a navy suit or black turtleneck. Fuelled by top selling business books and management consultant reports, this new design movement is all about customer-tailored companies thriving in today’s uncertain economic and political climate.

Design and Business Books over the past 10 years

Over the past 15 years we have seen an exponential growth in new design-related jobs — from UX designer, service designer, customer experience designer, business designer and chief design officer. Over the past five years we have seen job ads pop up in unexpected places. Designers are now inside banks, accounting firms, telecommunication departments and manufacturers. What is driving this design renaissance? It is a combination of influence, proof and timing. Early influences can be attributed to a series of published works over the past ten years, particularly those authored by big thinkers like Roger Martin, design consultancy leaders like Tim Brown, and design executives such as John Maeda. They, along with a growing academic and industry community, have long connected design to business processes, operations and strategies.

The proof would be collected over many years and finally published in 2013 by the Design Management Institute (DMI). Their Value of Design report aimed to nudge the capital markets to invest in design-infused companies, as they were surpassing traditional firms with an average of 220% return on their share price value. The report was the first to offer proof that a well-designed product, service or experience sells itself.

Top business magazines such as Forbes followed, supporting DMI’s findings in their 2014 article ‘What Is Behind the Rise of the Chief Design Officer’, explaining why design is moving into the C-suite. In 2017, the Harvard Business Review provided more reasons for the need for design leadership, with their article on how CEOs were admitting to costly over-engineered processes, products and business models resulting in loss of customers, jobs and brand loyalty. A few weeks ago, global management consultancy McKinsey published their “The Business Value of Design” report, making the case for how integrating design across an entire company will have positive impact on employees, customers and the bottom line. It is perhaps this most recent report, authored by trusted management consultants that is creating the real design buzz in the boardroom.

If you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed the business transformation activities by the world’s top management consulting firms — they have been actively acquiring design agencies, creating their own design-leadership practice, placing Chief Design Officers and even offering design-thinking training for their multinational clients. Design has officially emerged beyond products and services (e.g. Apple and Starbucks), to experiences (e.g. Amazon and Uber) and strategies (e.g. Designed in China). Design and its cousin ‘design-thinking’ are now being lauded as a much-needed mindset for leaders — those seeking a customer-centred approach to business innovation, reimagining operations and rethinking supply chains and financial models. Why? Design is proving to be extremely effective as a creative problem-solving approach for business, and appears to be an antidote to the over-engineering mistakes of the past.

Package goods corporations are seeking to understand how Spanish clothing brand Zara is able to get street fashion trends into the hands of retail customers in record time. Manufacturers are watching Amazon’s bold and encroaching actions in redefining supply chains. Financial institutions are following Apple and Google as they are competing with tech companies for mobile payment transactions.

In Canada, designers are finding their way to corner offices. IBM is growing their design leadership studios, Scotiabank is expanding their Digital Design Factory and Deloitte is establishing their Greenhouse design advisory group as customer insight departments. Make no mistake these are not your typical designers, they are armed with graduate degrees in business, strategy and design. In early 2018, the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management created a new professorship in Business Design (the first of its kind in the world), to teach and research the next generation of design leading MBAs. These graduates are uniquely positioned to make a business case for design’s ROI for their organizations while integrating customer needs.

To better understand customers, companies are starting to rethink their processes and management teams. Designers are now heralded as those who will guide global corporations and local government organizations in offering services, experiences and strategies will both delight customers and shareholders. Interestingly, Canadian design educator Robert Peters once stated “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future”. It appears companies are finally responding.

A version of this article was published on The Conversation:

professor, business designer, innovation agent, strategist, inventor, tech passionista, renaissance woman.