Writing

January, 2024

Who Needs a Chief Design Officer (CDO)?

Who needs a Chief Design Officer (CDO?)
Who needs a Chief Design Officer (CDO?)

Including SVP (Senior Vice President) of Design, Design Executive

“The greatest people don’t need to be managed. They just need a common vision. That’s what leadership is.”

– Steve Jobs

One of the more important roles in design is, to many, probably also the most ominous one. Even in design scenes (creative, visual or UX), most people I talk to haven’t even heard of the CDO role. Some assume the “D” stands for “division” or “data”. The job description Chief Data Executive exists alongside of Chief Design Officer, which doesn’t help with the popularity of the latter.

Who needs a CDO and what makes this role different to a Head of Design or UX Director? Ideally, the CDO has experience in these roles and this knowledge is a foundation for their work. CDOs have a largely binding and unifying role. With help of their design teams, they need to develop a vision for the company’s overall design strategy, across all teams and products or services.

On a meta level, CDOs are ambassadors for the design principles of their organisation. They are taking input and ideas from multiple directions and forging these different expectations into one streamlined, global design direction. CDO’s are also representative towards the public, they are standing for the design philosophy of the company.

CDOs have a clear function: They are challenged with bringing the big picture – business goals, global positioning, the general development and direction of the company – in tune with all the challenges great product development and design represent. They play their role on the same level as their colleagues: CFO, CTO, CEO, and other Chief Directors. A CDO shouldn’t be an isolated strategist, but unify the efforts of all design leaders of the individual design discipline teams. CDOs need to be empathic, informed thinkers, who try to help their company to stay one step ahead of others in the same playfield.

Peter Merholz, who co-founded the User Experience-pioneering consulting firm Adaptive Path (together with Jesse James Garret), has written a couple of excellent posts on the topics of CDOs and design leadership.

The role of a CDO is not very common yet, but it especially in organisations with larger structures it has gained momentum in recent years. Here are a few points of what I feel is relevant for the work of a CDO:

Responsibilities

  • Coordination with fellow Chief Directors team (CEO, CTO, CFO, etc.)
  • Birds eye perspective, end-to-end vision
  • Business scope and goal evaluation
  • Strategic development
  • Recruiting and retention strategies
  • Inspirational and enabling leadership—models the culture
  • Client contact and relations
  • Unifying the efforts of design team leads
  • Advocate/champion for design
  • Establishing quality standards

Requirements

  • Higher education with degree in design or equivalent in experience
  • Ideally more than eight years leadership experience
  • Holistic thinking spanning across various aspects of design, for systems, products, platforms and services
  • Empathic leadership personality
  • Strong creative and visionary skills
  • Up-to-date knowledge of current technologies, systems, methods, patterns and tools
  • Experience with hardware product design, software product design, user experience, user interface, art direction, creative direction, brand, identity
  • Ability to resolve complex issues and challenges
  • Excellence in leadership, organisation and analytical skills
  • Great communication and collaboration skills
  • Great speaking abilities
  • Being able to convey ideas and concepts and address topics in a clear and comprehensible way

Related or Similar Roles

Hiring Mistakes

Resist the temptation to select only people from the top crop of applicants. Only because these candidates check off on every point of your requirements and have a degree from a prestigious university, they are not necessarily your best option. For a leading role, someone with an ability to listen, learn and adapt, who possesses a sense for strategic thinking and who is a great communicator, will serve you better than a candidate that looks perfect on paper.

Experience in research, workshops, studies, analysis, user journeys, user flows and prototyping is a great foundation, but you are searching leadership qualities of a CDO or VP of design and not a hands-on role.

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