Oct 4, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Located at the juncture of creativity and technology, product design and development has world-changing potential. If you’re already working in this exciting and innovative field, you may be wondering about your career trajectory. Is a Director of Design and Development job right for you, and if so how can you position yourself to land a sought-after job in the discipline? Here’s a closer look.

What is a Director of Design and Development?

“Design, as everyone pretty much knows by now, is not merely the act of pushing a cursor around a Creative Cloud application or outputting assets from Sketch. ‘Hands-on’ designing is a misnomer. Design happens in the head, not the hands,” explains 100 Days of Product Design, Imprintli Publishing, ChicoButter and Rits&Co Founder Susan K. Rits for Medium.

The people responsible for shaping the design process? Directors of Design and Development. Rits adds, “The value a design director brings to a product team is her ability to make strategic decisions about the extended future of the product. Depending on the lifecycle of the company, that may be a six-month or a six-year period, but it’s more than just what’s launching at the end of the next sprint. The director combines the goals of the user with the goals of the business to prioritize, stack-rank and intelligently roll out features that achieve the greatest impact.”

Another way to look at it is that a Director of Design and Development is the “voice of design” for a company and its products. As such, this professional works closely with product designers, engineers, and user experience design professionals, as well as with administrative higher-ups, to conceptualize, develop, implement and influence thoughtful products toward a consummate user experience.

The Director of Design and Development Skillset 

Directors of Design and Development above all else have a critical eye: They know amazing design when they see it. When referencing ‘design’ they are not just talking about the aesthetics, but rather talking about the totality of the product. But that in itself is not enough. They must also be able to communicate their vision to others in a compelling and inspiring way, and in doing so “they have to take a seat at the table,” as often described by Walter Herbst, PhD, and director of the Master of Product Design and Development Management program at Northwestern University.

Furthermore, strategic thinking, project management, and attention to detail are also crucial. “[Being a Director of Design and Development] requires a far-sighted and decisive individual who can ensure that everything coming out of the design department adheres to the business goals and meets [...] benchmarks and standards set by the product team,” asserts Rits.

Logistical expertise, such as knowledge of supply chains, is also integral -- and something many creative types lack on their resumes.

Becoming a Director of Design and Development

If all of this sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is. In 'Master's Degrees in Design Management: What's in a Name?', recently published in the Design Management Institute’s FuturED: The Future of Design & Innovative Management Education,  authors Walter Herbst, PhD, and Deana McDonagh, PhD, propose there is a chasm behind what’s being taught and what today’s employers are looking for when it comes to design professionals.

Walter Herbst, PhD
Walter Herbst, PhD - Northwestern University

“Our recent research indicates a major disconnect between the way management of design development and innovation is taught in graduate education and what is desired by those in the professional practice of leadership -- that is, the CEO, CDO, and CTO in US-based design-centric organizations. We suspected that what students were taught in these programs varied as much as program titles and course requirements did,” Herbst and McDonagh argue.

Enter the Master of Product Design and Development Management (mpd²) at Northwestern University’s Segal Design Institute within its McCormick School of Engineering. Created for mid- and senior-level design professionals and taught by a team of experienced professors and academics, this groundbreaking program aims to bridge this gap in order to produce senior design professionals with the talent, knowledge and skills to successfully lead product development.

In addition to giving participants the opportunity to master design, product development, end-user research and innovation skills, the mpd² program’s cutting-edge curriculum also focuses on the development of essential management skills in marketing, finance and project management.

mpd² director Herbst and co-director Stephen H. Carr, PhD, say of their motivations for developing the program, “We recognize there are many others like us with a passion for product development. mpd² was conceived as there was no venue for fine-tuning product design and development skills that so many of our colleagues wanted for themselves and for their organizations. Thus the mpd² program was born in 2003 at the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, as the first program teaching this subject matter.”

Even better, flexibility is a hallmark of the mpd² program. In addition to a full-time master’s degree option which can be completed in just nine months, mpd² also comprises a two-year part-time master’s degree track as well as a three-day certificate program. Because of the fast-moving nature of design, meanwhile, students also benefit from the option to continue to audit classes for the rest of their lives.

There’s a reason why the mpd² has become USA’s premier master’s program in product design and development. If you’re ready to take the next step toward acquiring the skill set today’s employers are really looking for when hiring Directors of Design, learn more about applying to the  Master of Product Design and Development Management program here.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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