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Innovation & Design

Wanted: VPs of Design

More designers are reaching the executive ranks. But where are they getting the general business knowhow they need?

Every Tuesday, John McGuire, the director of product design for the hip San Francisco-based bagmaker Timbuk2 Designs, spends two hours with a tutor, Erin Lowenberg. A veteran merchant at Gap (GAP) under Mickey Drexler, Lowenberg helps the 28-year-old McGuire review developing product lines, prepare for presentations to the management team, align his line planning with revenue goals, and learn other essential business tasks that he wasn't taught in design school.

"School prepared me well for the day-to-day stuff that we do as designers," says McGuire, who joined the bagmaker 18 months ago and now heads a team of five at the 60-person company. "To me the gap is in understanding the bigger picture—how product design merges with branding and revenue planning and so on."

Bringing Designers into Management

McGuire's knowledge gap isn't unusual. "You're not taught about corporate finance or management at design school," echoes Kirt Martin, principal design manager at Turnstone, a subsidiary of furniture giant Steelcase (SCS). While many design schools offer corporate-sponsored courses intended to expose students to how design happens in the real world, and some design schools—such as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford and the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design—are integrating business training into their curricula, the majority of schools still focus on core design skills like drawing and three-dimensional fabrication. Which means most design school grads lack the basic management, finance, and strategy knowhow that will help them be effective in the corporate world.

"There is a shortage of people with management and leadership skills," says Thomas Lockwood, president of the Boston-based Design Management Institute. A decade ago, when few companies gave designers a seat at the executive table, this lack of business training among designers was less of a problem. Lockwood points out that in large corporations, it used to be common for designers to be divided among different departments—graphic designers within corporate communications or marketing, industrial designers as a part of product development or engineering, interior designers within facilities management, etc. There was no centralized design department, and therefore no need for a companywide director of design with a broad set of business skills.

Today more companies are welcoming designers to the executive level. "There's been a big change in the number of VPs of design compared with just three years ago," says Peter Lawrence, director of the Boston-based Corporate Design Foundation. IBM (IBM), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) have all appointed vice-presidents of design in the past couple of years; Nike (NKE), Apple (AAPL), and other design-savvy companies have recognized design at the executive level for much longer. Which raises a critical question: Where can designers climbing the corporate ladder get the business training they need to be effective?

Filling the Education Gaps

While there's no standard answer, companies and individual designers alike are taking steps to address the problem.

For a designer in a small business, McGuire is lucky to be getting formal, one-on-one mentoring. "He has a great eye and his products are great for the brand," says Timbuk2 Chief Executive Perry Klebahn, who arranged for the sessions. (Klebahn also teaches at Stanford's Institute of Design, where students are required to work in interdisciplinary teams in order to get broad exposure to related disciplines.) "But it's important that he learns the business side, that he stretches his mind."

The word "stretch" also comes up in conversation with Lee Green, vice-president of brand and values experience at IBM. "We have something we call a stretch assignment—an opportunity to do something that's outside your comfort zone," he says. For Green, who joined Big Blue as a designer 28 years ago, that meant taking a management job in marketing in 1988 and then a job in advertising as a way to expand his knowledge and skills. In 1993, then-CEO Lou Gerstner asked Green to become director of corporate design.

"IBM is great at providing diverse opportunities for people that want the exposure," says Green, but he adds that he thinks it's unusual for designers to take those stretch positions because many prefer to focus on the discipline that they specialize in.

RitaSue Siegel, a headhunter who has placed myriad designers in upper management and executive positions, insists that all major corporations offer executive training programs to high-potential employees, including designers. She points, for instance, to Procter & Gamble (PG) where "designers get training in memo writing, giving winning presentations, and finance for nonfinance managers." As an example, she singles out Jon Denham, a former associate director of design for P&G hair care, whose broad business training helped him land a job as first-ever vice-president of design at another major consumer products company (a move soon to be announced).

Harvard Summer Camp

Still, designers at many companies must go outside their corporate walls to develop their business skills, to organizations such as Lockwood's Design Management Institute. DMI publishes a quarterly magazine and, in partnership with Harvard Business School, case studies, and it also offers seminars and workshops on various aspects of design management. Interest in the subject, says Lockwood, "has been growing. This year we expanded our program with seven new classes."

Recognizing the need five years ago, Harvard Business School, in partnership with the AIGA, a professional association for design, created Business Perspectives for Creative Leaders, a five-day summer program covering everything from product development and marketing to business strategy and customer relationship management. It's significant that the curriculum presents these subjects through the eyes of a business executive or client.

"You're sitting there in a room full of executives from Nike, Old Navy (GAP), and so on," says Turnstone's Martin, who attended this summer's workshop. "These folks are experts, but you get to the corporate finance section and it's like you're in a room of third graders."

The most valuable lesson, says Martin, was learning the case study method. "Designers carry around a lot of passion, and that's important," he says. "And a company needs to have some people who get really excited about a new product or idea. But other times it's not healthy. You need to be able to deconstruct an issue, to analyze it, and Harvard really helps you do that."

He points to a Corona case that charted the beer's improbable rise from a brew that tasted so bad you needed to squeeze a lime into it to the No. 1 imported beer in America. "They did it by listening to their customers and incorporating what they heard into their marketing," he says. "It's basic, but it reminds me that we can't sit in Grand Rapids and just produce furniture that we are passionate about. We have to be out there in the field and deliver what our customers want."

IBM's Green sees the biz-knowledge gap among designers narrowing as more companies involve designers earlier in the pipeline, exposing them to business strategy debates and so on. "When teams work collaboratively across disciplines, the lines between roles blur and everyone benefits," he says.

The point is not, of course, that all designers should be getting joint MBA degrees. "In many ways, the fact that many design managers never went to business school is an advantage," says the Corporate Design Foundation's Lawrence. "The unique training that they bring to bear is a positive thing."

Staying Creative

Erin Lowenberg, the Timbuk2 designer's tutor, agrees. "In my experience, successful apparel and accessory businesses allow design to stay pure," she says. "If design gets too focused on the numbers, it is my opinion the product gets too safe, maybe even boring. What if there is a trend out there that no analysis could possibly support? Design should be able to bring it to life and present it with enthusiasm and passion. That's when the good merchants take some buying risks and retail magic happens."

Still, while the core design team should be insulated from business pressures to do their best work, that doesn't change the fact that design leaders can be more effective if they have some basic management and business skills. For Siegel, the headhunter, programs that teach designers business skills are part of a bigger trend. "There's a whole transformation of the HR profession into the strategic role of talent management," says Siegel. "Companies focused on talent management develop proactive, long-term strategies for acquiring, assessing, developing, and retaining employees—designers and nondesigners alike."

Whether as part of a larger management initiative or not, the companies that help their design leaders grow by offering them in-house executive training or by supporting outside programs are the ones whose designers are able to make the most positive impact on corporate strategy and on the bottom line.

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