Inspiration, vision, integrity, communication, and passion are considered most essential for tomorrow’s design leaders.

The 2015 DesignIntelligence Leadership Survey, published in the July/August issue of DI, highlights the most profound challenge facing many design firms today. It’s not efficiency, profitability, or marketing prowess, as important as those things are. It’s maintaining those special qualities that win great clients, attract the best talent, and truly distinguish a firm in the industry.

You know it when you see it: a design team that always delivers amazing work, a group whose performance is consistently greater than the sum of its parts.

There’s an inventiveness and exuberance that surprises you, even when you know the team well and have developed very high expectations. The people are prolific. They work hard, sacrificing their personal time and interests when the job demands it. They obviously love what they do and love working with each other. It shows.

So what is this? It’s a cultural quality, an ethos — a manifestation of an organization’s real vision and values, not something out of a management memo or policy manual. It’s very personal and authentic.

You also know it when the magic is not there, or when it’s lost. Some firms never had it and always struggle to rise above the ordinary. Some had it but lost it in transitions to people with different priorities. One respected United States design firm had a kind of bipolar leadership pattern, alternating every few years between creative entrepreneurship and preoccupation with internal operations. That firm is now gone, absorbed into a much larger public company.

Daniel Pink talked about these challenges at a Design Futures Council Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design a few years ago. As he had written in Drive, the most critical requirement for today’s young professionals is a sense of purpose in what they do and the people they choose to associate with. It’s no coincidence that many clients value the very same thing. A design firm has to be able to express its purpose and mean it.

That’s why the most important leadership characteristic cited in the 2015 DesignIntelligence survey is “the ability to inspire others with vision” — almost twice as important as the second-ranked quality. It’s followed by integrity, communication, passion, and collaboration — all ranked higher than business acumen and more traditional management skills for the leaders of tomorrow.

So how do you build that magic in a design firm, and sustain it when it’s there?

Insist on diversity of backgrounds and ideas at all levels of the organization. There is no substitute for the creative energy that contrast, discussion, and debate provide for a group of people. A firm’s work for its customers can’t be inspired if the firm itself is not a stimulating and inspiring place to be. As Walter Lippmann famously said, “When everyone thinks the same, nobody thinks very much.”

Demonstrate a strong vision, or purpose, in everything you do. This can be challenging, particularly for large organizations, but it is essential. As Daniel Pink advises, the most talented young people want to be part of a significant cause that will improve the world around them. Ed Friedrichs wrote recently that “inspiring employees is the most important thing a leader can do.” This motivation is more important than compensation and other traditional rewards.

Practice real servant leadership. Your people need to feel that you support their individual growth and success, toward their highest potential, within the context of your firm’s vision and business model. They need to know that you listen, that you care, and that your decisions will be fair. With this confidence, they will be free to do their very best for your clients and their colleagues in the firm.

Some early and compelling arguments for this kind of leadership came from our own industry: Leadership is An Art and Leadership Jazz by Max De Pree, former chairman and CEO of Herman Miller.

Accept and nurture the unusual personalities. Your most creative people may be your most eccentric. They probably like to communicate differently than others and need the same consideration in return. They’re probably strong introverts, quite different from their more engaging and decisive leaders. In my experience, they can be some of your most effective team members if they’re positioned correctly.

Promote and reward your most creative people. The best creative firms promote their brightest minds externally, using their names, faces, and ideas to represent the whole organization. They attract new clients and talented new team members. It’s also critical to reward them internally with compensation and benefits that reflect their true value. Don’t let “management” appear to be their only advancement opportunity.

Make sure everyone understands and supports your business model. Creative diversity is a good thing, but different visions of business success can lead to anarchy, unproductive conflict, and poor performance. It takes some effort to help right-brained team members understand the firm’s financial goals, performance metrics, and rewards. Like everyone else, the creative folks need to understand how they contribute to business success and a sustainable firm.

Keep at it — you’re never finished. Like practicing a piece of music you’ve known for years, a leader must constantly work to refine the creative magic in his or her organization, especially as it grows and changes over time. The vision must always be relevant, and every member of the firm must be consciously engaged and developed.

As reported in the DesignIntelligence Leadership Survey, these leadership principles aren’t taught in most design schools. Tomorrow’s leadership demands emotional intelligence, a cross-disciplinary perspective, communication skills, and mature judgment that are usually developed outside a profession curriculum. Practitioners and firms have an obligation to develop young leaders in this way. While we’re at it, we must make a special effort to increase opportunities for women and minorities in professional leadership. Our emerging leaders and our clients expect it.

Our firms’ futures depend on these leadership qualities — and for those that are successful, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.


Clark Davis, FAIA, LEED AP, is principal consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group and former vice chairman of HOK. He is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and longtime member of the DFC executive board.