Designers as Leaders, by Richard Farson

Design is one of the few professions dominated by its clientele. Compared to physicians, attorneys, and academics, designers are inclined to do what they’re told. That posture is so widely accepted among designers it sometimes seems that the only ones who can occasionally insist on having things their way are the superstars of design.

Of course, having one’s way is hardly the ideal manner in which to conduct a professional relationship. Nevertheless, design judgment, even in matters of social responsibility such as health and safety, let alone matters of esthetics, efficiency, productivity and visual impact, is often subordinated to the client’s or employer’s wishes.

That is such an old story among designers that perhaps it is small wonder that designers tend not see themselves as leaders. If they have learned not to expect their professional judgements to sway clients or employers, how can they imagine leading corporations or communities, to say nothing of exercising leadership in the developing global arena? It is simply impossible for most designers to think of themselves as having a place in high councils of decision making.

But that is where designers are most needed—at the top. It is a travesty that the only professionals close to the CEO’s are lawyers and accountants. Designers have more to offer, because increasingly our organizations need to be design driven, not just market driven. To truly prosper, our global society must have its needs met, not just its wants.

Instead, designers who work in organizations worry about not being appreciated, worry that their work is not understood by top management. As a result they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to educate the CEO about the benefits of design consciousness, not realizing that every other department is also trying to educate the CEO about the potential contribution it could make, because its members feel similarly misunderstood and unappreciated.

The truth is that CEO’s don’t understand any of the professions or groups represented in the organization—and never will. Because things change so fast, they don’t even understand the departments they came from. They have other concerns. They have to see the big picture. Most of their time is spent on matters having nothing to do with the internal operations of the organizations they head—industry wide issues, government relations, community needs, raising capital, and so on.

The better strategy for designers would be to regard the current effort to educate the CEO about how designers see the world as a lost cause, and instead try to educate themselves on how the CEO sees the world. Is it possible for designers to try to gain that top leadership perspective? If and when they do, they can become the indispensable people occupying chairs at the directors’ table.

Designers, however, are understandably reluctant to leave their drawing boards or computers, preferring hands-on work with their design problems. Leading, making it possible for others to work with those design problems, somehow seems non-creative, not what they were trained to do. Nevertheless, that is the necessary change that that designers are going to be called upon to make in what has been called The Design Century. If design will be the byword of the next century, designers will have to take their places as leaders of that century.

The fact that it is a difficult change to make shouldn’t deter design professionals who have already made many fundamental changes. Indeed, anyone who is still doing what he or she was trained to do is obsolete. In the past few years many designers have become cyberdesigners working in electronic space, metadesigners helping laymen create their own designs, entertainment designers who never expected to be designing experiences rather than things, and so forth. The change to a leadership posture shouldn’t be more difficult.

A coroner I know was once asked the question, “Whatever made you want to become a coroner?” He thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t know…I guess I just like people.” That remark is amusing because we often hear people justifying their decisions to take a job or enter a profession with those words, and we tend to regard that motivation as rather superficial. It turns out, however, that when it comes to leadership, it isn’t at all superficial. Liking the people one is leading is crucial to success.

Liking people depends not only on the personality and background of the individual, but even more on the role relationships one has on the job. Certain professions are engaged in work that systematically erodes their respect and liking for people—police, journalists, lawyers, etc. Other professions—psychologists, for example—tend to create relationships in which their liking and respect for their clients grow.

Where does design stand in this respect? It all depends. When we only see people at their defensive or deceptive worst, or when we feel victimized by them, we tend to like them less and less. When designers become lackeys or victims, they will dislike their bosses or victimizers. On the other hand, when they can feel that they are genuinely helping their clients or employers, they will like them more. We tend to like, not the people who do things for us, but the ones we do things for. That explains why the best leaders are those that serve the group. Paradoxically, it is more important for leaders to like their people than for their people to like them. Eventually it will be reciprocal.

Many years ago my friend, the late designer George Nelson, told me a story I will never forget. Early in his career George worked for a time with Frank Lloyd Wright. One day when George and the great prairie architect were taking a walk and talking, Wright was struggling to find a metaphor that would explain the essence of architecture. At one point he stopped and pointed to a flower, saying, “Architecture is like this flower….no, that’s not it.” He then walked a bit farther, turned and said, “George, architecture is like being in love.” After he told me that story George said, “Dick, I hope it doesn’t take you as long as it took me to figure out what he meant by that.”

Well, I’m afraid that it did. But I’m beginning to get the idea. It is a paradox. In order to be a professional, one must be an amateur. The word amateur comes from the Latin amator, meaning to love. An amateur is one who does something for the love of it. Of course. Love and passion are the organizing forces in leadership and management, overriding technique or skill, just as they are in almost everything worthwhile doing—romance, parenthood, creativity. Paraphrasing Wright—leadership, then, is like being in love. And paraphrasing George—I hope it will not take you as long to understand that as it took me.

Leadership is like being a good host at a dinner party. Consider what that entails. A good host thoughtfully plans the evening, carefully composes the group, takes pains to create the proper environment, arranges the appropriate seating, sets the agenda or program for the evening, introduces subject matter for discussion, lubricates difficult situations, soothes relationships, takes responsibility, moves things along, attends to details, keeps controversy at a manageable level, adds humor and optimism, comes early and stays late, brings guests into the conversation who previously may have been marginal, handles one thing after another, shifts attention easily, listens well, doesn’t dominate, is at ease with self and others, and, most important, enables the guests to be at their best.

Leadership is not a skill. There are no “expert” leaders, just as there are no “expert” friends or husbands or parents. The more important a relationship, the less skill matters. Leadership is a high art. It is too important to be a skill. It needs to be understood and appreciated for its esthetic qualities, for its gracefulness and beauty, just as we appreciate these qualities in a great athlete—quite apart from that athlete’s contribution to the victory. While we can appreciate them in their own right, in both sport and leadership these esthetic qualities are fundamental to success.

All this must make it seem that becoming a leader is a rather tall order. But there is good news. You already know how. One of the amazing facts about leadership and management is that you can take people right off the production line and make them managers. Without an hour of training they start right in, and the great majority succeed. That’s not because the job is easy. In fact, leadership is the most complex, difficult, responsible job our society offers. It makes brain surgery look easy. The reason that brand new managers can do it is that they already know how.

We all have a mastery of roles that we seldom if ever get a chance to play. That new manager has experienced leadership in so many situations in life that he or she has unconsciously acquired the role, and only needed the right situation for the right behavior to be elicited.

Designers have even better preparation than most to assume leadership. They are especially qualified. Designers are already good at seeing things in context, already understand the sweep of history, already are conversant in the arts, sciences and humanities (as are the best leaders), already are good at working in ensembles, already are environmentally aware, already understand the limits of technology, its backfiring nature, already are capable of a high level of creative thinking, already can appreciate the esthetic dimensions of leadership. The first step, then, is for designers to begin to imagine themselves as leaders—of design firms, of communities, of cultural organizations, of corporations—and beyond.

The next 50 years will determine the survival of our civilization. We will succeed only if design becomes the organizing discipline of the future, and that will only happen when designers become leaders. The world needs what designers have to offer—not just on the drawing board, but on the board of directors.


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