Seven Peaks Insights

Trends in Design Leadership and Its Impact on Global Business

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As a seasoned design professional with a six-year tenure at McKinsey, culminating in his current role as Associate Partner and Senior Expert, Gordon Candelin has the privilege of spearheading the digital and service design practice in Southeast Asia. His journey across diverse sectors has provided him with a comprehensive understanding of the evolving trends in design and their impact on global business dynamics. In this interview, we explore the intricate tapestry of design, where it is positioned according to McKinsey's definition as an agnostic problem-solving tool, seamlessly integrating digital, customer experience (CX), and digital product dimensions.

“As a keynote speaker for this upcoming event, I would like to share some insights for other aspiring design leaders and how they can still forge a unique path for real creation and effective collaboration.”

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I've been a developer longer than I’ve been a designer actually — I started with Basic when I was about 10 years old, and loved coding from books and changing things to see what would happen. I didn’t really understand how it all worked, but I loved being able to create something from code.

It took me longer to get into design — my father was a designer and it wasn’t something I was really interested in at the beginning. Eventually in my late 20s, I began apprenticing with him as an artworker — doing all the technical design work, like trying to get too much text to fit in newsletters or ads, and hence, I spent a lot time tweaking copy. Fast forward about 15 years, I had spent time in branding, digital and advertising agencies as a sort of hybrid — design, art direction and interaction, and it all made sense to me — I wanted to make things, and knowing as much as possible about the process of creation meant I could do it on my own.

“Design is really about creating things.”

This became a lot clearer when I had my first big freelance web project in the early 2000s - it was a massive travel site that had over 200 travel package pages, which were all the same apart from the details. I thought there must be a more efficient way of creating the site than making 200+ html pages, so I did some research, found out about data-driven websites and then just jumped in head first. It never occurred to me that I could do it — I just knew there was something I wanted to create – and so I learned PHP and MySQL, and how to set up a server as part of it.


The Call to Adventure

Before moving to Thailand in 2011, I was in London, and that’s where I really began to think of myself as a designer — there is so much respect and opportunity for creative people in the UK and I realised it was what I wanted to do. I had a lot of catching up to do, but it was an amazing 5 years during which I had the opportunity to work with amazing people who taught me a lot. It’s also where I really formalised my approach to design and creativity.

“The most important realisation for me was that my creativity is connected to my experiences - and the more collaboration and exposure I have to things, the more creative I am.”

It really unlocked a process that was  much more open, honest and interesting for me — and what ultimately brought me to where I am today. I believe that “big D” design is agnostic in its approach — meaning it doesn’t have to be tied to any particular output (which is how most people think about design - the end result).

“What’s powerful about Design, as an approach, is its inherent inclusivity - it recognises that for a problem to be truly solved, it needs to consider the impact on all the stakeholders.”

The opportunity for this approach in the business world is that, for businesses to be successful there needs to be an exchange of value between the business and the customer and vice-versa. It’s a two way process that has become ever more important given the myriad channels and touchpoints consumers have to actually impact business. I think this is much more equitable and fair, as opposed to a scenario where the business holds all the power and consumers are left out.


Trends and Challenges for Leaders in Design Today

The last year or so has seen massive changes for design, particularly in the digital space — and exposed the hard reality that a design leader is not the same thing as a design executive. I think this will go on for some time, and when the dust settles we will be in a very interesting space. Generative AI will play a big part in that — I’m very excited about the possibilities — but there are very big changes coming and as a result, there is going to be a lot of soul searching around “What is design, anyway?”

I’m very excited about AI - it’s one more tool, and like with Figma we’ve seen what a great tool can do in terms of making things. And I have no doubts the next generation of designers know this too, and will do amazing and wonderful things with it that we can barely conceive of now. In the digital product space, I’m not surprised by some of the pushback surrounding the topic. There has been such massive hiring of young designers who were never really given the right opportunity to learn the right skills, driven by hiring teams who don’t may not fully understand those foundations themselves, and as a result – I think in a lot of cases, we are seeing less impact being created, more churn, etc. Everyone loses.

“Good design requires the right time and space to create. That’s hard to come by in a large organisation that is constantly pressuring inexperienced teams to deliver.”

For business leaders more generally, I think Design Thinking is still relevant, but there is also some fatigue — practically everyone has gone through a Design Thinking workshop by now — but the framework is not the thinking. Meaning you need more than a workshop, you need the right people — skilled designers, design strategists, BAs, experts, etc. — and they need to work together. This is where it often falls apart, because often organisations only bring these different profiles together for a one-off workshop. 

Ultimately, I think design leaders should be prepared to play a few roles — visionary, antagonist, truth teller — and my particular style of design is really about curiosity: I want to know as much as possible about a thing. It can be very challenging to make that time and space when everyone else seems to be pushing for an answer right away, but then again I believe that this type of consensus will never result in very interesting things.

Challenges to Design Thinking and Agile Frameworks

It frustrates me to see designers working in Jira — at least at the concept stage. Jira is an implementation tool, but I often see it being used to manage the full product design value chain. I think this is a mistake for obvious reasons - the mental model of tools like Jira is around implementation, and as a result, I think the exploration process gets swept along and diminished.

Again, I believe that designers have some responsibility for this — for example, in my experience there is a clear lack of solid UX skills in product teams, who overemphasize user testing as a result (possibly due to a lack of confidence, or inability to leverage expertise). This creates a lot of churn, and also conflict within larger product teams - i.e. it can take weeks to plan, schedule and deliver user testing. In short, I see a lot of teams struggling to make sense of a process or framework and as a result, end up wasting a lot of time.


Whenever I talk about Design Thinking, I always boil it down to a few key principles — collaboration, prototyping and testing. That’s it. What those 3 things look like will depend on what you are trying to do, how much time you have, who is involved, etc. So some flexibility is required to account for the dynamics within each organisation or team. Frameworks are ok, but too many people become fixated on them. The real question should be:

“How do we approach this particular problem in a way that we can quickly get as good an answer as possible?”

I would love to see more teams developing that organisational mindset rather than sharing another framework.


At the Crossroads of Design and Business Collaboration

I think business-minded design comes naturally with experience, and there are also new designers I am seeing who are just more naturally inclined and open minded. I spent many years of my career believing that design was about making something look really great — and I still love doing that. In some situations there may be a need for designers who do only that: make great interfaces. And that’s all they should do. “Design” is such a catch-all word, and I think there is a swing now towards designers needing to know everything - this is very common when the economy isn’t great and businesses are trying to do more with less. However there are important specialisations within design that should never require a designer to spend one second thinking about business decisions - and there are specialisations now that do require it, such as, a product designer (to some degree), design strategists, some specialist research designers.

The landscape for Design Thinking is characterized by its fluidity, offering various interpretations. To navigate this, organizations must comprehend that effective implementation hinges on the right people, the right information, and a conducive environment. This collaboration becomes particularly challenging when Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are siloed within individual business units, necessitating leaders to adapt different frameworks and tools for success.

User Experience (UX), often misunderstood as purely determined by end-user interviews, actually encompasses information architecture (the 100-ft view of your product), and wireframes, which are extremely important when aligning design components with stakeholders to ensure a holistic product experience. The other problem is that UX is meant to tie together the entire product experience – meaning end-to-end. Fragmentation in organizational structures often results in poor product experiences, as teams are designed to focus on small components without a comprehensive view of the entire scope. The integration of Design Thinking and collaboration into the software development life cycle is critical.

The challenges faced by design leaders are amplified by the ever-increasing demands placed upon the design domain. From expertise in product development to business impact assessment, design leaders are tasked with preserving the delicate equilibrium between execution and leadership. The evolution of design leadership hinges on collaboration, and the ensuing years are poised to bring about substantial changes, necessitating adaptability and an unwavering commitment to continuous learning.

The trajectory of design leadership is not a linear path dictated by frameworks; rather, it's an intricate dance between collaboration, understanding, and adaptability. Design is not merely an aesthetic endeavor; it is a strategic tool for problem-solving with far-reaching implications for global business. Embracing this mindset is paramount as we navigate the future, where design leadership will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping the broader business landscape.



Gordon Alexander Candelin
Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company

Gordon is an award-winning designer with a 25-year career spanning interaction, brand, and customer experience. Previously he has founded two startups and taught interaction design at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Currently, Gordon leads digital and service design for McKinsey & Company in Southeast Asia.




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