José Manuel Fernandes dos Santos

Why aren’t there more designers in executive positions in the top 50 Fortune 500 corporations?


António Cruz RodriguesUNIDCOM/ IADE, Lisbon Portugal


Looking at the number of articles and books that have recently appeared on the topic, one could say design in business has taken off. Despite the general interest of business in design, the overall number of designers in executive positions in the top 50 Fortune 500 corporations remains low. If large corporations have identified the need for design, and executives have embraced design training, why aren’t there more designers in executive positions in the top 50 corporations?

Is it possible that organizations assume that design training is sufficient for design leadership, and therefore distributed executive design training is enough? If that is the case, why is this different from other areas (e.g., marketing) where most if not all executives are expected to possess general training on the subject, notwithstanding the existence of a specialized executive in this area? Perhaps there are other reasons, some that reside with the top tier management, and some with the designers.

This research presents a rationale for the topic and research choices, advances definitions, shares results of Stage 1 secondary research undergone and, explores a number of factors as ground work for primary research in the following stage of this doctoral thesis.

Keywords: Design Management, Design Executives, Corporate Design, Design Leadership

Stage 1: secondary research executed

Researched the top 50 Fortune 500 corporations and identified:

  • Main characteristics, including industry and sector, size, size of Board of Directors, size of Executive suite,
  • Executives characterization, including rule/ title, bachelor training, designers in executive positions, their career path
Stage 2: primary research plan

In Person Interviews: The researcher is now gathering a list of senior design professionals that have either occupied executive/ boardroom positions, or have reached a certain level and never did, or have written about design leadership and management at the highest level with the intention of having a structured conversation with them, share data collected in Stage 1 of this research, try and understand if there are common themes around a number of questions articulated in the near future.

Remote surveys: The researcher is creating a survey site and plans to reach out to the 852 executives previously identified, as well as a large number of designers working in corporations, asking their opinion on the state of design in their corporations, design management and leadership, corporate related issues, their own career path aspirations, myth and reality behind their activity. The survey will be adjusted for the different audiences, nevertheless allowing an understanding of what issues generate disparate feedback and results, establish if there is alignment between viewpoints, if not, which are the opposing ones and how can they be addressed.

Factors to explore
  1. If design is present in a large corporation, why would it make sense for it to be represented by a designer at an executive level?
  2. If a large corporation is recognizably very successful business-wise, how would a designer in an executive position make a difference?
  3. What are the pros and cons of centralized versus distributed design leadership in large corporations, would any of these models require a designer in an executive position?
  1. Which executive activities would not be effective for a designer to undertake in an executive position in large corporations?
  2. Which executive activities, that are critical for design, would require/ mandate a designer’s presence at the executive level of a large corporation?
  3. Is design more effective in some sectors than others?
  1. D) Would you, as a designer, aspire to have an executive role in a large corporation?
    ND) Would you, as an executive, welcome a designer whose ambition and aspiration was to become an executive in a large corporation?
  2. D) Is an executive role an impediment to leading and managing design in a large corporation?
    ND) Is being a designer an impediment to becoming an executive in a large corporation, why?
  3. Is scale an important element for design disruption and excellence to occur?

1. Did you, at any time in your career, feel that designers were not allowed to assume an executive role in your corporation?

2. Do you have assumptions and biases about what design is, and what a designer is trained/ capable of doing?

3. Do you believe designers would be treated differently from other professionals in executive positions in large corporations?

  1. Are design schools teaching the right material to enable designers to effectively compete for a design executive position in a large corporation?
  2. Is design thinking training enough for non-designers to lead design in large corporations
  3. What is the type of training designers need to have to effectively compete for a design executive role in a large corporation?

This research aspires to explore these hypotheses by providing data and insights to better understand the phenomena and create a model of evolution by mapping personal/ professional skills and competences that might allow a designer aspiring to follow this career path to get there. It might also provide CEO’s and other executives willing to hire/ promote Designers to their executive team with an insight into what they can look for and expect.

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