When Jim Hackett stepped into the position of CEO at Ford, he became the first designer to lead a car company. But Hackett is part of a wave of promotions and corporate success stories that have resulted from design thinking — the creative strategies designers use to come up with innovative solutions.
With technological innovation comes constantly changing expectations, so it is getting harder than ever to provide consumers with new and improved experiences. The upshot: Executives with design backgrounds are rising to the top and, in some cases, delivering billions in new revenue.
Hackett is close with the founder of IDEO, David Kelley — so close they watch each other's desks throughout the day on camera. Kelley is known for popularizing the design-thinking philosophy, and Hackett plans to integrate it into Ford's operations.
"The old way was about disciplines," Hackett told Fortune in September. "The new way will be about projects and understanding what people want."
Nike's designer, Mark Parker, became CEO in 2006, and since then revenue has nearly doubled, growing from nearly $15 billion to $32.4 billion over the past decade.
"I think what makes designers most successful is not just being able to visualize the product from a customer's point of view but being able to leverage the expertise of the people that work within the company they are in and bringing that to the customer," said David Sherwin, author of Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers.
That approach is paying off in performance of company shares. The Design Management Institute found that companies employing a "design-centric" operations performed 211 percent better than the S&P 500 over a 10-year period through 2015.