How to go from designer to chief design officer / by Gavin Lau

As design school grads launch into their chosen professions, it’s a good time to remember that your career is the one design project that you control. And, like design, there is no single right answer, but there is an array of options. So the path you take is entirely up to you.

Just consider the dazzling career trajectories of the following industrial designers:

Mark Parker, CEO of Nike, started as a footwear designer. Designer Bob Schwartz became the General Manager of Global Design for GE after heading up the Industrial Designers Society of America. Mauro Porcini, a long-time designer at 3M, became a SVP Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo. Jonathan Ive joined Apple as a young designer in 1992 – his second job following an ID stint at Tangerine in London – and the rest is history. And after woking on designing the Microsoft mouse, Steve Kaneko has gone on to become Director of UX Design for the company.

Other industrial designers successfully forged very different paths. Nathan Shedroff, designer turned entrepreneur, has lead California College of Art’s MBA Design Strategy program. Former IDSA chief Cooper Woodring went on to become an expert witness in patent litigation. And Brian Cheskey, a RISD alum, co-founded and is the CEO of Airbnb.

And what about former visual and communication design students? David Butler is now the VP of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Coca-Cola. Dana Arnett became the CEO of VSA Partners. Kate Aronowitz rose to the Director of Design at Facebook and has since joined a finance startup, and Shelley Evenson became Director of Organizational Evolution at Fjord.

Ask yourself – what is your own professional destination, and how will you get there? To answer that question, I’d suggest to apply design-thinking methods to your career and treat it like a design problem. And keep in mind that designers can take on important leadership roles in all types of companies.

Here are a few challenges that might arise between your first job and your dream job.


Design problem #1: You don’t have a direction
What should guide you in career planning above all is your passion. Ask yourself these questions: What do you believe in? What values influence your work? What is your vision for the future, what do you want to be known for in three years, in five years?

There is nothing like contextual, user-centered research, even in career planning. Find two or three mentors and explore alternative design careers from their perspective. By shadowing and consulting with others you will learn more about yourself, which can help you decide what direction you want to go. For example, at one point in my career, I decided to shift from visual design to either product design or architecture. I couldn’t decide until I shadowed an architect, a stint that made it very clear that architecture wasn’t for me. A new path only becomes clear if you are in motion, so break down the goals into bite size projects and get started.


Design problem #2: You’re not excited to be a manager
In a corporate setting, usually advancement goes something like this: Designer to Senior Designer to Design Manager to Design Director. And management is just part of the bundle; managing projects, people, budgets and clients. In fact, it’s core. So think of it as an all-inclusive opportunity. But what if you’re not the manager type? You can let your career stall, or find another career path by becoming a niche design expert.

Granted, it’s almost impossible to advance and move way up the pay scale without becoming a manager of people and projects. But there are some great “semi-manager” roles without all the baggage of formally managing staff. Consider the paths to Creative Director, Concept Creator, User Experience Architect or Design Strategist; all with great opportunities for advancement, higher compensation, and a focus on content.

Defining a career progression completely sans management responsibility is very rare, but some large companies like Lego, P&G, Microsoft, GE, Mars and Philips have career tracks for top designers to advance via non-management positions. The trick is to get onto a “fellow” track and progress from Designer, to Senior Designer, to Chief Designer, to Design Fellow. A few examples are Bill Buxton, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft, and Lawrence Murphy, a Chief of Global Design at GE Healthcare.


Design problem #3: Stiff competition
You’ve got to be on top of your game, because there are oodles of designers out there who all want a piece of the action. In the U.S., about 70 schools offer degrees in industrial design, but in China, there are 866 industrial design schools with about 50,000 graduates every year. And there are considerably more graduates in visual design. The competition for design jobs is global and intense.

And don’t forget, there is competition for the top jobs from non-designers too: Bill Grant, the President of Grant Design, majored in English and psychology; the first global VP of Design for P&G, Claudia Kotchka, started out as an accountant; Stanley Hainsworth, who held a design leadership role at Starbucks started out as an actor; and Boris Anthony, head of Experience at Nokia, studied linguistics.


Design Problem #4: A shifting design landscape
The role of designers and design leaders is changing fast, and becoming far more complicated as the desire to coordinate all user touch points increases – connecting product design, UX design, service design and customer experience. For example, who “owns” UX, a UX designer or a technologist? Who owns customer experience, a designer or a customer service pro? Who owns service design?

Can future design leaders really design their careers in such a shifting landscape? The answer is a definite yes. Designers are experts at problem-solving, so when you encounter a challenge on your way to becoming Chief Design Officer, just take a step back, empower yourself, and design your way through it. Plus, designers are in high demand because every company in the world needs great design in order to compete today. It’s what HR calls a scarcity function, so there should be many opportunities.

Here is a little glimpse into What’s Next in Design Leadership.

Becoming a top design leader doesn’t just happen, it takes planning, strategy, and hard work. An aspiring designer should simply treat his or her career like any other design problem – define it, work the problem, and then solve it.