The phenomenon of designer-led startups, which also includes companies such as Pinterest and Path, is a telling variation on something legendary Braun designer Dieter Rams once told me. “My work was only possible because I was reporting directly to the chairman of the board,” he admitted. “Design has to be insulated at a high level. Otherwise, you can forget it.” His masterpieces for Braun, created from the 1950s to the 1970s, made him a saint of modern design, but only because he enjoyed unparalleled access to the C-suite. It’s no accident that Rams’s most influential fan, Jonathan Ive, had a mind-meld with Steve Jobs. Without that, Ive could never have accomplished what he has at Apple.
When designers lack influence, superb products become almost impossible. Good designs seldom stay good for very long if they must navigate a gauntlet of corporate approval. That’s because the design process is as much reductive as anything else—figuring what can be simplified and taken out. Corporate approvals are usually about adding things on to appease internal overseers. When something has been approved by everyone, it may be loved by none. Just look at what happened to Microsoft in the 2000s and how only now is it trying to redefine itself by building a more design-driven culture. That culture spawned Windows 8, whose design intent has remained remarkably pure from beginning to end. Solving these design dilemmas has become job one for leading companies. It’s worth noting that some of Nike’s most remarkable innovations have come during the tenure of CEO Mark Parker, who started his career as a designer.