What does the road to Chief Design Officer look like in 2023?

Back in 2015, The Guardian published an article explaining why businesses must have a Chief Design Officer (CDO). Fast forward to today, the majority of tech giants have a CDO, as do the most innovative startups. But despite the prevalence of the role, a report from McKinsey revealed that many CEOs still don’t understand the role and responsibilities of design leaders.

CDOs encompass multiple duties, including both people and process management. And in the rapidly unfolding digital transformation, CDOs are at the helm of ensuring that workflows make sense and that users can navigate the tools they need for daily life. All in all, CDOs are a vital component of any company’s success.

Naturally, the CDO role has evolved since The Guardian article was shared, reflecting modern changes in business, UX, and customer expectations. Not only should CEOs keep up to date with these advances to better understand and leverage CDO capabilities, but CDOs themselves need to recognize the growth of the position to best carry it out.

Here’s what the road ahead looks like for Chief Design Officers in 2023.

Cross-collaboration will bridge business gaps in design

Design doesn’t (and shouldn’t) exist in a silo – it’s an inherently collaborative sector and demands input from multiple players. But more than working with other designers, CDOs have to foster cross-team and cross-functional collaboration.

Designers aren’t just tasked with shaping the optimal experience for users, they also have to support the health of the business. That means harnessing intelligence from departments that designers typically don’t interact with. For example, sales teams speak to customers and end-users all the time and can inform designers about user preferences and sentiments much more deeply than abstract metrics. Moreover, sales know the monetary cost users are willing to exchange for the value they receive from products. At a time when designers tend to overserve users and underserve the business, sales can help establish a better equilibrium.

Of course, data and research teams have to be close partners to design too. The quantitative information they provide can make hypotheses more sound and validate initial decisions to build. For CDOs, who often have to manage excited stakeholders who want to do too many things, data keeps choices informed and gives projects a clear direction.

As CDOs continue to advocate for design in boardrooms, collaboration within the business is where the long-term benefits are.

Design leadership is an IC role too

Tech workers care about having a culture of learning that contributes to their career progression. Designers therefore want pathways that allow them to become CDOs – and not solely via leadership tracks, but as individual contributors.

Current CEOs have to be hyper-aware of the characteristics that highlight the people with the potential to be design leaders. They need to recognize the right values for the role and how to measure them, starting with looking at a person’s ability to learn, organize, and build. CDOs should be asking questions like “What kinds of structures do people lay down for themselves?” and “How much agency do they give themselves in a project?”. They should identify people who don’t wait for the stars to align, but rather people who are proactive, take a long-view approach, and are flexible.

At the same time, because CDOs lead by example, they have to think about the principles they apply to themselves. What support networks do they have in place? In what ways does the company invest in them as much as they invest in the company? Especially following the remote shift, when people may feel like they have lost visibility at work, how are CDOs projecting behaviors that give everyone a voice and access to promotions?

Active leadership at all levels

CDOs run ops in the design space. They observe what’s happening at the executive and practical levels and ensure that designers aren’t overwhelmed or restricted by decisions. With so many spinning plates, prioritization will always be a large part of the CDO role – there will rarely be binary decisions to make, with most involving a number of factors. CDOs will have to answer things like “How many people in the business could complete this task?” and “Is this strategic enough to justify the given deadline?”.

Yet beyond the usual tactics for prioritization, CDOs should also be taking a more macro view to fuel important decisions. In a global business sphere, CDOs can take note of emerging trends in parts of the world that influence other locations. For example, if what’s popular in Japan now will spur consumer interest elsewhere in six months, CDOs should be ahead of the curve, diving into consumer behavior drivers before the drivers become trends in other markets. With this knowledge, CDOs can prioritize design that furthers business expansion.

Chief Design Officer - conclusions

In 2023 and beyond, Chief Design Officers have to integrate design more deeply into business processes, accommodate designer needs, and re-envision how they prioritize. Much like design itself, CDOs are required to think outside of the box and keep people (whether colleagues, users, or boardroom members) at the center of their work.

Read on our blog how to become a team lead.

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