Can senior corporate designers rise again as internal innovation consultants?

Recent job losses in big tech and other sectors have targeted design leader roles, reversing a trend to grow design capability inside businesses. Where next for these experienced professionals?

These have not been the best of days for professional design leaders working inside corporate organisations, especially in the US where the recent round of job redundancies in large technology, management consulting and insurance firms has targeted senior design roles. Some of these positions have not just been left unfilled but eliminated entirely.

It is all a far cry from the goldrush era after 2010 when large companies welcomed experienced designers into their organisations to help accelerate recovery from the global financial crash. The rise of user experience (UX), the need for digital transformation, and growing business interest in design thinking all fuelled an in-house design boom. Hiring a Chief Design Officer was de rigeur.

Now, a design chapter has closed, leading Fast Company to ask: ‘Did business really break up with design or did it just break up with a generation of design leadership?’

Pondering the future

Perhaps design thinking frameworks did too good a job in training up non-designers to steer through an innovation project from discovery and insight to creative ideation and development. Perhaps senior design professionals got too comfortable and complacent sitting inside large and well-resourced corporate organisations, particularly the tech giants.

Whatever the causes, senior design leaders are left pondering their future – and they’re doing so at a time when generative AI is threatening to revolutionise many aspects of the design process. Designers coped well with the first phase of digital disruption that introduced 3D printing, digital twins and the like – by moving upstream into more strategic and evaluative design decision-making. But AI represents a different challenge: its key dimension is generative and not just about making.

In-house innovation consultants

So how to chart a new path for designers working inside large businesses?

One idea floated by strategic designer Kevin McCullagh, founder of the Plan consulting firm, is for proactive design leaders to train their senior colleagues to play a wider role in their organisations as in-house innovation consultants. You can read his recommendations in WORKTECH Academy’s Innovation Zone for members only here.

McCullagh, a regular speaker at WORKTECH events, sets out why strategic designers have the necessary capabilities to coordinate cross-functional teams on complex projects and pinpoints those areas where they need to upskill. He argues that ‘the types of projects to which these designers add the most value are not highly technical. Instead, they cut across departments and involve a subjective human experience, as opposed to drilling into narrow financial or engineering problems.’ A typical project might be to improve the staff onboarding experience, says McCullagh.

Future of work problems

This opens a new door for senior designers inside large organisations and makes a lot of sense. Instead of leading on developing new products and services aimed at customers – the traditional design leader role – they might concentrate on the new terrain of internal systems and communications that are struggling to be defined amid the emergence of new ways of working.

There are several knotty problems around hybrid working we can all think of where the craft, vision and discipline of design could be applied, although such a course of action relies on company boards seeing the value in hiring or retaining design leaders as internal innovation consultants.

Back in 2010, designers were seen as saviours amid a global productivity slump. In 2024, is it possible that they might rise again and repeat the act in a new guise?

Jeremy Myerson is director of WORKTECH Academy, emeritus professor of design at the Royal College of Art  and co-author of Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office.
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