Why companies ought to be led by designers

The pandemic forced digital transformation upon many companies sooner than planned, but digital-first experiences and brand interactions are undoubtedly here to stay. Consensus is growing that design deserves a seat at the top table of global business as we shape how the brands of the future look and behave.

In a blog post explaining his choice to invest in collaborative interface design tool Figma, Peter Levine dubbed the 2020s ‘The Decade of Design’. He sees a radical shift in the role of design in organisations of all sizes, especially for digital interactions. “Products and companies will live or die by their product design and design literacy,” he wrote.

“Design is fundamental to this,” declares Mauro Porcini, chief design officer at PepsiCo. “It’s about understanding people, and how they interact with platforms in unexpected ways. We’re makers and doers, and companies need designers in-house to build that culture.”

People don’t have the patience they used to with digital products that are difficult to use

“The companies that are leading these changes are the ones that have invested in design,” points out Ash Snook, head of product design and UX research at Vodafone Smart Tech. “YouTube, Airbnb, Netflix, Uber – they all disrupted industries beyond imagination and consequently changed the way we now live. And yet, most applications and websites still don’t offer an adequate user experience.”

“People don’t have the patience they used to with digital products that are difficult to use,” agrees Noah Levin, senior director of product design at Figma. “They don’t want to, simply because they don’t need to anymore. It’s easier than ever to start a company these days, so design then becomes the differentiating factor for success.”


Having been chief design officer at PepsiCo for over a decade, Porcini is at the forefront of a growing trend for global companies across a broad range of sectors to appoint executive-level design leaders: he has counterparts at Nike, Salesforce, YouTube, and Barclays, to name just a few.

“20 years ago, those few companies with design at the top were in sectors where aesthetic was a competitive advantage: fashion, furniture, automotive, and more recently consumer electronics,” says Porcini. “Now, wherever I turn there is a new position – in every kind of industry. As designers, we must make sure we play the role they expect us to play.”

They might recognise the need to transform their practices, but you can’t just bring in one person. You need a cultural shift

The idea that senior design leaders can transform the fortunes of brands is gaining traction, but Levin believes there’s more to be done to get the balance right. “Not many companies know what to do with those roles yet,” he says. “They might recognise the need to transform their practices, but you can’t just bring in one person. You need a cultural shift.”


With globalisation and new technology slashing manufacturing costs – and digital channels levelling the playing field for sales and marketing – once insurmountable barriers to entry are falling across every sector.

“It’s the age of the start-up,” says Porcini. “In the past, big companies could protect their products and brands even if they were mediocre, and not fulfilling people’s needs and wants. Not anymore. If you’re weak, even in one area, that’s where newcomers will enter.”

Faced with an army of challengers, design is once again the answer. “Big companies and small companies alike are left with one solution: focus on people,” he continues. “This is what designers do. We are obsessed with creating extraordinary quality for people. Either you create excellence, or someone else will do it on your behalf.”

To build a house you need an engineer. But to build a beautiful house, you need an architect

In the past, a decent digital platform could set a brand apart. Now, decent simply isn’t enough. “The more the competitive landscape levels, the more you have to play on the nuances of how good that experience is,” explains Porcini, noting that user friendliness and emotional engagement are increasingly vital factors for any brand to consider.

“To build a house you need an engineer. But to build a beautiful house, you need an architect,” he says. “It’s so obvious that you need the same thing in the digital world, but the digital world may not realise it yet.”


According to Margaret Cyphers, UX director at Google, design and innovation are too often the first to be cut in a crisis. “In my opinion, it’s the most powerful way to drive change,” she argues. “Does your product feel stale? Are you falling behind the competition? Seeing user frustration or abandonment? It’s likely you’re undervaluing the power of design thinking.”

A decade ago, companies would spend months on strategic planning before releasing any kind of digital product to the public. “It’s now possible to prototype in a day or a week what would have taken a year before. You’re learning 10 times faster,” says Levin.

There’s no shortage of people in a company with ideas, but design takes those ideas and makes them real

“It’s a humbling moment when you realise you have to try stuff, iterate, and study what’s really going on in the world,” Levin continues. “Even the smartest person can still be wrong about what customers need. There’s no shortage of people in a company with ideas, but design takes those ideas and makes them real. And it does it faster.”


Design and engineering used to be much more siloed disciplines, until collaborative tools such as Figma helped facilitate two-way communication at every stage of the process. “In the past, designers would do a big Steve Jobs-style reveal, and developers would reply, ‘What the heck? That’s not even feasible’,” smiles Levin. “That kind of working is hopefully going away. Developers should be involved early in the design process so they not only feel more invested in it, but also have the chance to make it better.”

A Forrester Consulting study, commissioned by Figma, found efficiency gains when stakeholders get involved in the design process earlier. Late-stage changes from executives are less likely, and developers can do their jobs better. “If they’re going to spend two weeks implementing a feature, they want to know why it’s good; why it’s helpful,” reasons Levin. “Figma can help a lot here, as everyone can be in the same place just by sharing a link.”

Statistics suggest that, as well as within executive positions, designers are getting more seats at the table within the teams at the coalface of digital product creation: according to a recent survey by Nielsen Norman Group, many companies reported a 1:10 designer-to-developer ratio in 2020, a dramatic shift from 1:20 in 2017.

We need to include design in early planning, prioritisation, and strategy,

But while such ratios are important, Cyphers points how that how you work is even more vital. “We need to include design in early planning, prioritisation, and strategy,” she says. “If your ratios feel appropriate, but the outcomes are still lacking, look at your cross-functional processes. Is design being treated as a service or a partnership?”

For Snook, there’s a sweet spot to be found. “Increasing the number of designers to a certain extent adds value, but too many and you’ll slow everything down,” he argues. “I’d recommend curating a small group of very talented designers, and a larger group of developers to translate ideas into functioning products that scale.”


Driven by the hallowed profile of individuals like Jony Ive, some may dismiss executive-level design influence as a passing management fad. While C-Suite design leaders are on the rise, many face pressure to prove progress or risk losing influence.

The problem with measuring design by conventional ROI methods, argues Porcini, is that its impact isn’t restricted to a single product or campaign. “If Apple had released the iPhone and all their other products, packaging, and experiences were mediocre, it wouldn’t have got the same result,” he suggests. “The secret lies in creating a full ecosystem of extraordinary experiences across every touchpoint. Before you can deliver that value, you need a few years to invest in the brand.”

Understand your customers, and from there, hire designers

“It’s up to design leaders to help deliver value, but also for a company to build good design into its core,” agrees Cyphers. “The best way to demonstrate the value of design is to keep delivering work that resonates with users and inspires them to share it with others.”

“It’s easy to find someone who’ll tell you what you want to hear,” Levin points out. “It’s harder to find someone who’s truly using your product, making that purchasing decision, and will tell you what you don’t want to hear.”

“Understand your customers, and from there, hire designers,” he concludes. “Pay them well, they’ll hopefully change your business. Sales and marketing won’t solve a bad product. You need to make good ones, and for that you need designers.”

Image via Shutterstock; Discover how companies like yours are redesigning how they design at figma.com.