Design Leadership

7 qualities of design-thinking leaders



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What does it look like to apply design thinking to the discipline and practice of leadership?

Let’s start with a few quick reminders on what we mean when we refer to design and design thinking.

Design is more than applying an aesthetic coat to a specific idea—it’s applying a method for solving difficult and chaotic problems.[1] Victor Papanek, in his seminal manifesto Design for the Real World, defines design as “… the conscious effort to impose meaningful order.” [2]

There’s a specific design ability that can be developed and nurtured. Its qualities include: [3]

  • Creativity, lateral thinking, and intuition
  • Effectively clarifying and communicating concepts and ideas through models, sketches, and stories
  • Being solution-focused—meaning designers make sense of a problem space by proposing and trying solutions
  • Focusing on how things ought to be versus how things are
“Design-thinking leaders see the world in terms of problems and products.”

Design thinking is a way of thinking based on cognitive processes typically employed by designers. Tim Brown of Ideo listed the following as characteristics of a design thinker: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism, and collaboration. [4]


Characteristics of a design-thinking leader

  1. Sees the world in terms of problems and products. Richard Buchanan adopts a broad view of products that includes information, artifacts, activities, services, systems, and environments. All of these can be designed in order to solve specific problems. All of these entities are within the scope of practice of leaders. [5, 6]
  2. Views self as product. A leader viewing themselves as a product means adopting a designerly approach to their own attitude, behavior, and outlook. Design-thinking leaders iterate on versions of themselves that will lead to exceptional team performance.
  3. Rigorously cultivates the abilities of a designer—especially empathy and optimism. Tim Brown did an excellent job of identifying the traits of a design thinker, many of which have direct correlations to the tenets outlined in the theory of transformational leadership. Once again, these include: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism and collaboration. [7]
  4. “Design-thinking leaders know how to act as a catalyst for creativity.”
  5. Deeply understands the process of creative problem solving and knows how to act as a catalyst for creativity. Within the creative process, leaders should seek to be conduits, provocateurs, shepherds, and motivators.
  6. Collaborates and communicates outside of PowerPoint. Design-thinking leaders think of new ways to engage groups, drawing upon methods from books like Gamestorming [8] and Thinkertoys. [9]
  7. Embraces ambiguity and seeks opportunity to use models and other forms of making to tame chaos and create order. It’s not a new concept that leaders should embrace ambiguity and chaos,[10] but doing this with a design attitude empowers leaders to tame this through designerly activities like modeling, sketching, and storytelling. This is echoed in Jon Kolko’s latest Harvard Business Review article, The Evolution of Design Thinking. [11]
  8. Prototypes visions, not just products. Prototypes are typically used to test out products in various stages of fidelity in order to get meaningful feedback from stakeholders. Design-thinking leaders should look for ways to prototype and test out different visions for their organization. This could include things like role-playing, or writing magazine articles about the future success of the company. There are always opportunities to “prototype” a more desirable future.
“Design-thinking leaders prototype visions, not just products.”

Design thinking is undoubtedly emerging as a hot topic, gaining wider awareness and adoption. These practical qualities of a design-thinking-focused leader will hopefully help you apply this approach in your discipline and practice of leadership.


  1. Richard Buchanan and Victor Margolin, Discovering Design, (University of Chicago Press, 1995); Buchanan, “Design Research and the New Learning”; J Kolko, “Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: the Drivers of Design Synthesis,” Design Issues, 2010; V Papanek, Design for the Real World, New York, (Pantheon, 1971).
  2. Papanek, Victor: Design for the Real World.
  3. Buchanan and Margolin, Discovering Design; Buchanan, Design Research and the New Learning.
  4. T Brown, “Design Thinking,” Harvard Business Review, 2008.
  5. Buchanan, R. (2001). “Design Research and the New Learning.” Design Issues.
  6. Bass, B. M. (1991). “From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Learning to Share the Vision.” Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19–31.
  7. Brown, T. (2008). “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review.
  8. Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J. (2010). Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, 1st edition.
  9. Michalko, M. (2006). Thinkertoys. Random House LLC.
  10. Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (1997). “The Work of Leadership.” Harvard Business Review.
  11. Kolko, J. (2015). “Design Thinking Comes of Age.” Harvard Business Review.

This was originally published at Handsome. Header image by #WOCinTech Chat.

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Jonathan Lewis
Jonathan has worked with teams ranging from seed-round startups to Fortune 100 companies to design and ship successful products and services. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Psychology and Communication from Trinity University, a graduate certificate from the Austin Center for Design, and an M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University.

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