The need for design leadership.

A good design always leads to a good product. Right? Together with Jeroen van Erp, I looked critically at dozens of Fabrique projects and our conclusion was: a good idea is no guarantee for success. So what is?

Merijn Hillen

Delft Blue Eyes + Nails is a design by Francine LeClerq and Ali Soltani from the United States. They won the audience award at the Rijksstudio Award 2017.

Imagine: you are contacted by a potential client with a challenging project, a project that immediately gets you bubbling with ideas. Your team of designers and the client are enthusiastic and motivated. Everybody is geared towards how cool the end product is going to be.

Ambition is no guarantee

But then, during the process, bumps in the road appear. A lack of company vision, perhaps, budgetary constraints or problematic company politics. This is the moment that frustration enters the project, on the part of the client and of the designers. It’s no longer full speed ahead, there are more meetings and people start worrying if the choices they made were the right ones. The original idea is no longer a sufficient motor for a fluid process. As a consequence, the team’s ambition sinks; the team has entered the dreaded phase of motivation loss.

“We want something like Rijksstudio”

Many people think that a visible end product can guarantee an innovation’s success. Existing cases are often an inspiration for new projects. After the launch of Rijksstudio, the new website for Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, organisations would come to us time and again asking for “something like Rijksstudio”. A pitfall, because a product can be imitated, but the process needed to get there and the effect of the end product cannot.

Rijksstudio was the result of a client with courage and vision, the right team of designers, keen choices and commitment to an elaborate objective. This combination made it relevant to the public and allowed it to win multiple awards.

Expanding our design skills

We believe that the “design of the transition” is at least as important as the design of the product. Every design team should be able to contribute ideas concerning the changes needed in the client’s organisation. At the start of a project, every designer automatically forms his or her first ideas about the end product. We believe that ideas about choosing the right leadership for the project should form in the same way: automatically and with the same urgency. How do your achieve that?

The two gold influencers of innovation

We see two factors that determine the impact of a new service or product: ownership and vision. They form the basis for four possible situations which each require a different style of leadership and design

How do you recognise vision?

When we say vision we do not mean the company vision, but a vision on the product or service and how this fits into the grand scheme of things. The questions to ask are:

  1. Is there a project vision? How is it related to the company vision?
  2. Does the project vision have clear goals and is it a good fit with the company goals? (It sometimes happens that a company reacts impulsively to a trend which does not serve the greater goal.)
  3. Is the vision shared in the organisation? Are people in agreement about the start and the implementation of the product/ service?

If all three questions have been answered affirmatively, the project belongs in the top of the matrix (in quadrant 3 or 4).

Organisations with a shared or a diffuse vision

It is often the successful corporations or organisations with powerfully synchronised DNA that show a strong shared vision. When you are designing a new retail formula for CoolBlue or a sustainability platform for Unilever under Polman’s leadership you know right from the start that things will run smoothly.

It’s the traditional organisations, possibly being plagued by disruptive technology, that lack a strong, shared vision. Often there’s a small group of active people who want to get things moving, but who do not have the momentum or the power of persuasion yet, or any longer. Imagine Shell gets to design the petrol station of the future... do you think they would be able to agree on a strong shared vision in the space of a few months?

How do you recognise ownership?

Good ownership exists when the goal, the road and the management of the product development has been well thought-out and is supported by one or several people. The questions to ask are:

  1. Is one person clearly responsible for the innovation, implementation, management, and further development of the service/ product?
  2. Does the product owner have a mandate for carrying out and developing the project, even if there are unforeseen events?
  3. Does the product owner have a realistic grasp of the budget and the time needed for the envisioned end result, and are these available?

If all three questions have been answered affirmatively, the project belongs in the right-hand side of the matrix (in quadrant 2 or 4).

Organisations with strong or weak ownership

Typical companies that have good ownership are energetic, young (tech) companies with lots of ambition to grow, like Blendle or Vandebron. You also often see SMEs here, or family-owned companies with strong leaders.
Weak ownership is usually seen in (ex-)governmental organisations. Designing tram stations in Amsterdam is difficult when the local government is re-elected every few years. We also often see companies in these quadrants that are part of a disruptive market; these companies have to innovate, but have not yet adapted their organisation or organisational culture to deal with that. What would the process have been like if you had been asked to design all the digital applications for V&D in 2015, the Dutch retailer which famously went bankrupt at the end of that same year?

Careful management

It makes sense that projects with strong vision and ownership have the biggest chances of success. But there is hope for other projects: projects can be moved to a different quadrant, and therefore a more favourable starting point, with careful management. We know from experience that it is not realistic to aim for growth in both ownership and vision at the same time. The rule of thumb is: vision first, then ownership. As soon as there is a clear direction, it is also easier to get people on board for the next step of improving ownership. How do you do all this? To find out, read our next blog: “How designers can lead without being the boss”.

What about you? What were your experiences as a client or a designer? Which projects did not run smoothly despite a good design? Are you able to recognise a lack of ownership and/or vision? Do you recognise the organisational characteristics that we described for the quadrants? Let us know!

This blog was also published (in Dutch) on and was based on the chapter “Designing Transitions, pivoting complex innovation” by Merijn Hillen, Jeroen van Erp and Giulia Calabretta (Delft University of Technology). From the book Strategic Design, edited by Giulia Calabretta, Gerda Gemser and Ingo Karpen (BIS Publishers, 2016).