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Are Designers the New CEOs?

There’s no denying that CEOs need management skills. But in today’s intensely competitive and continually evolving marketplace, they also need something else: design thinking and innovation. Unfortunately, many leaders fall short when it comes to the expertise they need when it comes to these aspects of leadership. Here’s a closer look at why design is driving innovation, along with one school in particular, IED Madrid, where you can get the skills necessary to navigate this complex landscape.

Dec 11, 2019
  • Education
Are Designers the New CEOs?

Leading by innovation

The world’s best leaders have often been innovators. A name that first comes to mind for many when it comes to innovative leadership is Steve Jobs, hailed by New York Times blogger Nick Bilton as “Designer first; CEO second.” Consider Jobs’ passion for typography, which started after he dropped out of college and was a constant throughout his career. Bilton attests, “That is what made Mr. Jobs’s products feel so impeccable. He didn’t just pore over spreadsheets, personnel issues and revenue numbers, as most CEOs are expected to do. He thought about design, too. In fact, he went beyond thinking about it. He obsessed over it — every curve, every pixel, every ligature, every gradient.”

Fjord’s Christian Lindholm also spoke of Jobs’ inspiration in a blog post for GIGAOM. “What does it really mean to be a designer? I think it’s someone who can take abstract ideas, turn them into reality and delight users. [...] Users do not only need new objects. What they need is constantly improving and empowering experiences. Form may be what ignites the lust in us, but it is experience that sustains our love. Steve Jobs was, and through his incomparable influence still remains, a true design genius,” he proposes.

An absence of innovation skills

Jobs’ legacy highlights the power and potential of design in business. And yet this is exactly what many of today’s CEOs are missing. In an article, Stefan Lindegaard cites several reasons why CEOs and other C-suite individuals lack the ability to spur innovation, including pressure for short-term gains, risk aversion, control, lack of vision, failure to understand the importance of networking culture, and distance from the actual action.

Another critical piece of the puzzle that is often missing, according to Lindegaard, is innovation education. “Many of today’s top executives got their business education before innovation was a significant part of the curriculum at many MBA programs. They could compensate for this with experience, but many also missed being trained on the job, because innovation training usually goes down through organizations, not upward. And when they gained most of their experience, innovation was even more underserved than today. They were trained to be problem solvers, not innovators,” he writes.

The mindset is changing

According to Lindegaard, however, change is underway. As more thought leaders have gained attention for their success, more business and management programs have taken note. In introducing more innovation-forward programming, they are creating a new breed of CEOs for whom innovation and design are at the forefront.

“A positive sign of change is that many capable – and often fairly young – innovation-driven leaders who transfer to new companies have begun reaching the top executive level. I know of several people who have advanced to the top level when they transferred to companies in need of better innovation capabilities. They started as leaders of innovation, disruption or transformation projects, but they were quickly promoted when the CEO of the new company realized the potential of their mindset and skills. This change of guards will happen even faster in the coming years,” adds Lindegaard.

The design leadership imperative

So the importance of design and design leadership cannot be overstated -- both in terms of company outcomes and career progression for employees who drive change. Bryan Zmijewski asserts in ZURB, “It's been shown that companies that embrace design driven principles produce better financial returns. Design-driven companies need leaders that can drive this value. But we don't see enough business structure in place to help companies and designers thrive together. Creating design value is more difficult than throwing designers at problems. We need leaders.”

Take the story of LaiYee Ho, a UX designer at home automation company Wink, for example. Vexed by lack of understanding about their users, Ho brought engineers into people’s homes to see first-hand how users were interacting with products within a real environmental context. This led to new discoveries about potential product uses, increased product adoption, and a promotion for Ho to design leader as the company’s head of research.

Enter the Master of Design and Innovation

If you are looking to join Ho in following in the fabled footsteps of Steve Jobs, the Master of Design and Innovation at IED Madrid is the perfect way to position yourself for success. Aimed at professionals who want to make a difference in the world through strategic design, sustainability and innovation, it offers essential training and experience designed to facilitate the development of unique skills and competencies for a successful career at the cutting-edge intersection of business and design.

Design students talking

In addition to a concentration focused on transversal training in innovation, sustainability and strategic design, the Master of Design and Innovation also offers specific training in three different disciplines through Craft & Project, Business & Strategic and Communication design labs. In each of these, students have the opportunity to work on real projects with real clients, scenarios, and subjects. There’s also a Final MDI Personal Project which gives students yet another chance to apply their newfound knowledge and practice sought-after skills.

Art project

No discussion of the Master of Design and Innovation is complete without mention of its unique community of people committed to creativity. This mindset is a common theme among both students and instructors.

The program’s focus on sustainability is also worth noting -- especially given sustainability’s increasing role in fueling innovation. “By treating sustainability as a goal today, early movers will develop competencies that rivals will be hard-pressed to match. That competitive advantage will stand them in good stead, because sustainability will always be an integral part of development,” asserts Harvard Business Review. In building this into the curriculum, the Master of Design and Innovation further establishes itself as a game-changer for aspiring design leaders and CEOs.


Certainly, getting ahead in the business world of today (and tomorrow) will rely on more than mere management skills. As awareness grows regarding the paramount importance of the design and innovation mindset, an advanced degree in these areas can offer an invaluable inside edge.

Article written in association with IED Madrid.

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IED – Istituto Europeo di Design Madrid
Joanna Hughes


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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