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‘Clients come to designers for leadership’ | Interview with Brian Stephens

16 January 2024
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Brian Stephens Design Partners CEO interview

In advance of the Design Leaders Conference 2024, the eminent Irish designer, Brian Stephens, discusses the multifaceted qualities design leadership requires


“Design is an act of leadership. It is about having the courage, the vision and the idea that we’re going to make something new, and different, that didn’t exist before, or that’s better than something that existed before.”

This is the view of Brian Stephens, one of the most experienced and respected voices in the Irish design industry. As co-founder and former CEO of Design Partners (now part of PA Consulting) – which gained international recognition through its work for Logitech, Dell, LG, Huawei and Panasonic – few are as well placed to discuss the forms and qualities leadership needs to take on, at all levels, in the design industry.

‘The Act of Leadership’ is the theme of the Design Leaders Conference 2024 and Brian sees the conference itself as providing leadership development by facilitating a space where “the things that really matter for the design profession” are “put on the agenda”.

“This conference is for people to connect with each other and gain confidence from each other, and show that issues like sustainability are ones we can face together,” he says. “The good thing about a conference like this is that you realise other people have exactly the same problems and you help each other to share them. The Design Leaders Conference is an excellent forum for sharing some of the challenges and opportunities and we can introduce new voices and new ideas from at home and abroad that may stimulate the conversation.”

‘Everyone can make a difference’

While the design industry is multifaceted, with the field covering such diverse areas as industrial, graphic, UX,UI/digital product design, service design, interior architecture and design and more, certain qualities of leadership apply across these disciplines. Two such qualities are a “vision for the future” and an understanding that “design is a collaborative activity”.

“Leadership is fundamentally part of the design process,” says Brian. “The nature of the profession requires a sense of planning ahead, and a sense of mission to do something that’s better than was already there.

“Also, no design firm, no matter how good they are, can work on their own. They have to work with external collaborators. That involves building relationships within a client firm, or with other key collaborators that are linked to a client. Across any project, we need to be always looking out for other people who support us.

However, leadership also demands individual responsibility, what Brian calls “the application of leadership”, a moment of truth where “you realise there’s nobody necessarily above you that’s going to do something” resulting in the need to take action.

“That’s a key ‘Aha!’ moment for people when they realise, ‘It’s up to me’,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why Design Skillnet has this conference every year, to help people at every level understand that they can make a difference.”

Those currently in design leadership and especially the emerging generation of design leaders, face issues previous leaders did not have to contend with, notably diversity, inclusivity, and the climate crisis. Challenges they may be, but Brian sees them as issues to be embraced, with potential to bring greater benefits to design and to the wider society.

“Inclusivity and diversity are important because we need new solutions to new problems,” he says. “So looking through the old paradigms, even looking at how the industry is structured, is not going to be a solution to the future.

“We need to look beyond the normal stakeholders. That’s one of the reasons why diversity and inclusiveness are important. We need new voices, new ideas, new approaches, and we need the ear of people who otherwise weren’t heard, particularly in the case of climate change. The climate change issue is linked with the people who climate change affects most, and they are not necessarily people who write the design brief. So there’s a new audience there that has to be understood and respected and brought into the picture.”

Finding the solutions

Brian’s career began in the area of industrial design with Ogle Design, England, and Metcalf and Associates, Ireland, and later in Japan with GK Design Group and he is firm of the belief that “industrial design has huge potential to change the world for the better”.

In that regard, industrial design – and the design industry as a whole – has a fundamental role to play in assisting the State meet the 2030 Climate Target Plan objectives. Any such obligation also brings significant challenges – not least in encouraging clients to embrace sustainable solutions.

“It’s going to require an entire organisation to make any kind of significant change when it comes to sustainability,” says Brian. “So one of the roles of a smart design leader is to see opportunities to identify potential collaborators and to sometimes reframe projects because sometimes the starting point of a project is not actually where the solution lies, or certainly not where the right sustainable solution lies.

“I have seen some of my colleagues do that brilliantly over the years, where maybe the brief, or the whole structure of a project, is transformed in a moment by a key insight. Having that mindset is appreciated by clients, and one of the things designers may miss is that clients come to designers for leadership, for something fresh and for a long-term plan. So there’s an expectation of leadership on the client side.

“I think one of the biggest things is building a sense of mission with the client so that there’s a shared sense of where we’re going. One of the most important roles of the designer, in particular the leader of design projects, is to be able to crystallise that or capture that even before the solution is evident.

“So create a sense of story, or create a big idea, that excites everybody and motivates everybody, and then hold on to that through the project, because where there are many complex stakeholders, it’s important to have a sense of clarity and a sense of purpose. When that has been maintained through projects, I’ve seen that result in extraordinary solutions.”

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