The State of Design Leadership

It wasn’t long ago that we were debating for our seat at the table, and rightfully so, given the impact designers can have on a company’s value.

In fact, companies are realizing design is incredibly important. CNN expects the UX designer job market to grow 18% in 10 years compared to the 5–8% national average. Since 2008, job listings for “UX Designer” have grown a staggering 20,000%. It’s safe to say companies are noticing the importance of design. So why are VPs of Design and CDOs/CXOs so underrepresented within the tech industry?

The UX Designer was born

It all goes back to 2008. We can draw a clearly defined line in the sand once the iPhone was introduced. Before touchscreen smartphones, UI/UX design was a less respected practice (often completely pushed off to programmers and engineers). While UX and human factors are nothing new in some industries, modern UI/UX design practice in the tech industry is new. The only companies needing UX designers were a few startups and large companies building apps during the web 2.0 era. There was a significantly smaller ratio of UX designers in the industry. Design was only a tiny blip on the radar.

The rise of the UX designer.

Compared to the software engineering industry, the design industry is just now growing out of its infant stages. We see VP of Engineering represented far more often than VP of Design. Software engineering has decades more organizational experience and maturity, dating back to the early days of the internet and software development.

The design leader will become necessary

Within most tech companies, the engineering team owns their vertical — or “seat at the table” — from entry level engineers to the CTO or VP of engineering at the top. The average age for a C-level executive in a tech company is 52, and most CTOs possess 10–20 years of experience. Considering UX design had a slower hiring start in tech, it’s not surprising there are fewer designers with executive-level titles and corresponding years of industry experience.

Additionally, because companies rarely hired UX designers before 2008, there was little need for design managers. And without design managers, there was less need for design directors. This continues as we ascend upward, with few reasons to justify a Chief Design Officer in most startups and larger organizations.

But I believe that’s about to change. Years later, after huge hiring sprees, the industry is starting to respond. While the demand for UX designers is still among the nation’s highest, it’s specifically rising for experienced and late-career designers. Now is a great time to be a leader in design.

After the explosion of UX jobs, it might have been easy to predict the need for UX management. However, it wasn’t until 2012 that we began seeing hiring spikes for Head of Design and VP of Design. That’s 4 years after the explosion of the UX designer. If this pattern continues upward, we can expect to see Chief Design Officer and Chief Experience Officer positions becoming significantly more commonplace before the end of the decade as the state of design leadership matures.

Note: During this week’s Design Details podcast, I discussed how to become a leader in design.

Jumpstarting a Design Community

Understand Your Compensation

Designer Monoculture

The Science of Product Design

Interview with Michael Flarup: Co-Founder and Lead Designer at Robocat

The Importance of Design Conventions

Interview with Aaron Quint: CTO-turned-Cookbook Author