Slush 2016 - The importance of a designer’s role in the C-Suite

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 30, 2016
Airbnb, Fjord and the City of Helsinki discuss how designers can unify an organisation’s vision in a very practical way.

As one of Europe’s largest start-up events kicked off in Helsinki this week, leading digital brands took to the stage to discuss the importance of having a design influence at the very top of an organisation.

Airbnb, Fjord (a leading design agency, now owned by Accenture) and the City of Helsinki spoke on the opening day of Slush 2016 about why designers are growing in influence at a strategic level and how they can work with siloed divisions within an organisation to align around a unified goal.

Lead designer at Airbnb, Karri Saarinen, began by explaining that at the ever-popular home sharing platform that everything “starts with design”. He said that every new product or feature will begin with designers in the room, who will figure out the best way to execute, and then engineers will be brought into the discussion later.

Saarinen said that a strong design capability can give an organisation a competitive edge. He said:

Generally if you look back at computers and the internet - it was pretty easy to come up with an idea and there wasn’t much competition. But I think as the markets have matured and there are more companies doing things, you will have more competition and you’ll be competing for the same users.

And I think design is one of those key things that can set you apart from the competition. Most companies or founders I talk to, they always ask me about design and they want to do design earlier on.

Olof Schybergson, founder and co-lead at Fjord, agreed and said that since his company had been acquired by Accenture in 2013 he has gained insight into a number of large organisations across multiple regions, and all of them either have or are looking to get design into the C-suite.

Schybergson said that companies need to invest in design to even get “the minimum benchmark” in competitiveness. He added:

Ten years ago they spoke about their engineering team, but now they talk about their engineering and design team. The mentality has changed that design is now central.

Especially the larger companies are facing a crisis of innovation. They feel like the start-ups have it all sorted it out and they think they’re going to come and eat their lunch, nibbling at the profitable edges of their business.

They’re frustrated with their own organisation’s inability to innovate. They’re trying to innovate through technology, which didn’t quite work. They’re trying to innovate through cutting costs, which gave them some advantages. But design is a third way of addressing innovation and it’s delivering results.

Anne Stenros, chief design officer at the City of Helsinki, concurred with the pair and said that she is not sitting in a design office at the City - but rather in a strategic office, showing the importance Helsinki places on the role. Stenros added that she believes that organisations are becoming more demanding of design people because they are able to prepare better for the future. She said:

There is a bigger trend going on that all organisations are facing more and more ‘unknown unkowns’ today. Nobody really knows how the future is going to look like and what tomorrow will bring. But designers can illustrate, they can use their imagination to say what’s next. They’re very sensitive to the sentiment of the coming era. I think in the future we are going to see more strategic design.

Breaking down silos

Moderating the guests on stage was Marko Ahtisaari, CEO and co-founder of Sync Project, a start-up that is exploring the relationship between music and health. Ahtisaari said that for him the one skill that good designers always have is the ability to ‘think through building things’. He said that rather than talking about the direction of a company, designers typically show what that direction might look like - taking the conversation further, a lot quicker.

Fjord’s Schybergson agreed and said that good designers have the capability to show the C-suite what an abstract idea may mean in practical terms. He said:

One of the biggest values through the C-suite in large organisations is the ability to visualise something that is abstract and theoretical, in a very concrete way. So, as designers, we actually have the ability, the gift, to apply.

Not every science and not every practice has that. You can facilitate a discussion, you can innovate, you can dream up a vision for the future - but we can also find ways to visualise it and making it concrete. Showing what it might look like in someone’s hand or someone’s home. That’s super powerful.

Equally, Schybergson said that because design tends to require an understanding of all areas of the organisation, this can be used to bring disparate operations closer together. He added:

Many of the large organisations struggle with their businesses being in silos. And people are stuck in their habits in their parts of their organisation. You chuck in design in their and they can really bring people together and facilitate a discussion and co-creation to create the future.

A point which the City of Helsinki’s Stenros agreed with. She said:

One benefit of designers is that they have a holistic approach. Designers can see big picture and then they can zoom to the small scale, and then go back out again. That is quite helpful also.

Are designers ready?

Arrows hitting bullseye on row of targets, sun behind © psdesign1 -
(© psdesign1 -
However, whilst there is a growing trend to incorporate design within the highest ranks of an organisation, given designers historically haven’t needed to adopt this position, one has to ask - are they ready?

Airbnb’s Saarinen believes that good designers are certainly up to the challenge. He argued that the whole point of a designer’s job is to be able to justify making certain design decisions. And this ability to explain a thought process works well in the C-Suite. He said:

I think there’s still a lot to learn, but I think designers are well equipped. For one, anyone who does design always has to present their work, they have to talk about why they’re doing it. You always have to explain everything, you have to explain every decision you make because someone is going to ask about it. You have to think about every project you make, why you are making it, how you are making it, what the strategy is for getting buy-in, etc.

I think in a designer’s skill set there is already a lot that designers can use. I also think designers generally see things systemically. You can even think of a company as a design problem itself.

However, Schybergson said that the demand for designers can’t make them complacent - they need to ensure that they are willing to continue to learn. He said:

My perspective is that no one, designers included, are quite ready for tomorrow. Because we don’t know what tomorrow will be. Therefore what you need to be ready for, as an organisation, is to offer a workplace where people can continuously learn and evolve.

As a designer, you need to be curious and hungry to learn all the time. Don’t think you will come into a job with the full package that you can apply for your career - that’s the old model. The new model is that you get a historical package of education and then you constantly learn.

My take

Companies that I admire the most have design at the centre of their strategy. Ultimately, design is about understanding the user needs and building that into everything you do. Ignore it at your peril.

Image credit - Arrows hitting bullseye on row of targets, sun behind © psdesign1 -; Creative businesswoman writing on adhesive note by colleagues @ WavebreakmediaMicro -

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