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What Is Design Management, and Why Will It Make You a Better Business Leader?

Think of design management, and visions of overseeing large teams of designers or managing the production of design-led projects might well be at the very top of your mind. However, in reality, the picture is a far more complex one. Over the past 20 years, brands from Electrolux to BT, Apple to Tesla have used design management as an overarching business ideology to create winning strategy, sharpen their competitive edge and place their customers at the heart of their business.   


What Is Design Management?  

Design management has rapidly emerged as a management style that isn’t limited to overseeing the production of design-led projects. Instead, it is a strategic tool that has been adopted holistically by some of the globe’s most successful businesses to ensure that they continue to innovate and lead in their field rather than simply respond to market needs. As the Design Management Institute defines, it “seeks to link design, innovation, technology, management and customers to provide competitive advantage.”  

Indeed, a study by the Institute showed that design-focused businesses like Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike, Procter & Gamble exceeded the performance of most S&P 500 companies by 219% over a ten year period by using design management tools –  from deploying design staff and practices over all major business units and ensuring that design was represented in the corporate hierarchy, to showing a deep commitment to design as a key strategic enabler and resource for innovation and change.  

In practice, design management helps businesses to take a practical and proactive approach to problem solving. For many, this encompasses using design thinking to work efficiently and effectively across all business units.  


person drawing design sketches

From Simple Product Design to Creating a Human-Centric Business  

In these design-focused companies, there’s a shift away from viewing design simply as the remit of a separate team who are concerned with how a product looks or feels. Instead, the needs of end users are at the very centre of the problem-solving equation that permeates throughout the business — from marketing to HR. As McKinsey explains, “with this focus, design becomes a tool for change, capable of transforming the way companies do business, hire talent, compete, and build their brand.” Find out more about how Apple and Netflix are using these design management tools in practice to fuel their success. 


Could Studying A Design Management Course Make You a Better Leader? 

From the approach outlined above, it’s clear that design management isn’t only the domain of designers. Instead, many design management courses welcome students from a plethora of different backgrounds – from sales to strategy, innovation to project management, business development and more  –  all interested in grasping an in-depth understanding of how design-led strategy can contribute to leadership, sustainability and innovation within their organisation. These students recognise that in order to get to the heart of what their customers really want and need, they need to draw upon new ways of: 


  1. Improving innovation cycles - by eschewing the slow traditional product development process in favour of more agile, flexible methods. 
  2. Putting customers first - by getting closer to their end users to determine how a problem or issue affects them, in order to create a product or solution that improves their lives or enhances their experience of the business.  
  3. Creating more effective strategy - by adopting design management methodologies to help find fresh solutions to organisational challenges, building a bridge between traditional business disciplines and the creative world of design to find a better way of doing something. 
  4. Fostering a positive organisational culture - by using design-focused management skills to create a culture that’s both nurturing (recognising that it’s rare to get things right first time) and encouraging, giving employees the confidence to put forward new ideas without the risk of losing face.  


woman presenting at whiteboard with post-its

Harnessing Design Management to Drive Opportunities 

Here at Northumbria School of Design, we have a long history of helping our students to employ key design management skills to drive growth and innovation within their organisations. With an illustrious alumni list consisting of individuals in influential positions globally – from Rob Law MBE, founder of Trunki to Sir Jony Ive, former chief designer of Apple products such as the iPad and iMac – we understand what it takes to harness the power of design management to unlock innovative solutions. 

Be a strategic leader. Learn more about how our Design Management MA will help you to unlock innovative solutions in your business.  



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