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Design Can Strengthen Automakers in Mobility Era

It is the chief design officer&rsquo;s duty to balance the automotive industry&rsquo;s relative conservatism with an artist&rsquo;s vision-driven commitment combined with an athlete&rsquo;s agile responsiveness.

The words “design” and “automotive” immediately invoke thoughts of sleek contours, clay models and futuristic concepts, but design thinking goes beyond lines and colors. It is a discipline focused on producing human-centered solutions to fundamental needs and complex problems, such as those of personal mobility.

Following our research and discussions with design leaders within and outside the automotive industry, it has become clear to us that design thinking has the potential to be the definitive differentiator for companies seeking to carve out their space in the mobility era. In fact, we are so certain of design’s growing importance we predict that by 2020, 60% of leading OEMs will have a chief design officer on their management boards, almost double the proportion of today’s 33%.

Design thinking already is catching on in other industries; it may be said to be the secret ingredient behind Apple’s fabled rise. The CEOs of IBM and PepsiCo have spoken publicly about the centrality of design thinking to their success. Both organizations operate in industries with no shortage of cutting-edge tools, potential products and unique customers.


Design thinking can introduce much-needed discipline and guide the development of solutions for consumers that truly meet their current needs, or unearth new ones. One of the signals of mature design thinking at these companies is the inclusion of their design leaders on their respective executive management boards – Mauro Porcini at PepsiCo and Phil Gilbert at IBM. 

The automotive industry is changing more slowly; however, we are starting to see examples of design leader appointments to management boards, for example, Tokuo Fukuichi of Toyota and Gorden Wagener of Daimler. Toyota was first with the appointment of Fukuichi as head of its luxury Lexus brand and, in so doing, elevating their group-wide design leader to the company’s senior leadership team.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding: Lexus sales have grown consistently in the past five years, rising nearly 30% in the past two years alone. We are still waiting to see if Fukuichi’s design discipline will extend beyond vehicle styling to the comprehensive adoption of design thinking across the Toyota group.

Daimler followed with the recent appointment of Wagener to its executive board in 2016. His role exceeds that of a car designer’s in that his team is central to efforts to develop and integrate elements of future mobility into the company’s offerings. This is the differentiating value of a qualified chief design officer – appointing a design leader to the executive management team presumes they are visual savants, commercially astute and, most importantly, influential with regard to cultural transformation.

The ideal chief design officer understands the company’s strategic aims and is able to articulate them in distinctive offerings that appeal to consumers’ fundamental needs and rally the organization toward the new mobility vision, in effect transforming the company into one driven by design.

The chief design officer has a unique challenge. The automotive industry is dominated by a culture of precision, efficiency and, subsequently, perfectionism. It then becomes the chief design officer’s charge to balance this relative conservatism with an artist’s vision-driven commitment combined with an athlete’s agile responsiveness. We can expect to see collaborative ventures between automotive groups and design houses and/or a variety of consumer-facing industries to deliver integrated and differentiated solutions to customers.

The design-thinking transformation will not happen overnight, but we expect it to lead the way into the emerging market for mobility. Chief design officers will have an important role in this transformation and will make essential contributions to the success of the company in the new mobility era.

Walter Friederichs and Paul Stohr co-lead the global Automotive/Mobility practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, a global executive search firm. Russell Reynolds recently published a report: “How to Create Competitive Advantage in Mobility: The differentiating impact of design and its talent implications.”

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