My first six months as a Chief Design Officer

My first six months as a Chief Design Officer

Where to begin?

When I was approached back in November 2017 to look over and direct the whole creative and design process, I was clueless about what to do. The reason is not far-fetched; I had little or no managerial experience. I knew what the responsibilities were and this made me worry about what to do if my actions or inactions cause the business to shut down. It’s a huge weight on anyone’s shoulders, but then again when I think about how far I’ve come, and the experiences I’ve gathered over the years, I had to brace up and take up the challenge. I accepted the role and started a week later.

So who is a Chief Design Officer and what does he do?

To be honest, I had no idea what a Chief Design Officer was. I had heard of the term from large companies such as Apple and Pepsi, who created the role within their organization for a creative lead to sit on the board of directors. So that night, I was on google reading up on what the exact responsibilities of the role are.

John V Willshire, founder at Innovation Studio Smithery explains the role as follows:

“A CDO can spearhead the radically disruptive design-thinking that’s required for our world today. Design was mistakenly thought to be about making things pretty, rather than making them work. Now, good businesses are looking again to re-orientate themselves around their customers. A great Chief Design Officer will have that gift of being able to look at whatever it is your business is doing as if…encountering that for the first time and understand what will happen next in the market, rather than what the business wishes will happen.”

This was a succinct explanation that gave me a little insight into the role and what to expect. I have a 10% share in the company, so that puts me on the board. In my understanding, my role is a combination of a Marketing Director and Creative Director. Now that I know about the role and its responsibilities, I was confident to start building the company and landing those big clients.

What have I learned?

I’ve been a graphic designer, UI and web developer for 8 years now, so it is safe to say I’ve got some good experience under my belt. After so many years I feel that I was overkilled to be doing social media images and brochures, letterheads, business cards, etc. I realized I could hand over the small but tedious tasks to the junior designers; they do the work, while I sign off on it and suggest final changes.

I find it really exciting being able to take full control of the entire process. I was able to convey my ideas and innovations into brand/marketing strategies and pitch them to prospective clients, so they knew the vision I had for their company. While I was building relationships with partnering businesses, I was also liaising with printers, and nailing down the logistics of getting print collateral to the client’s hand or deploying the digital work to the web.

This leadership role has really allowed me to excel and build a completely efficient system and process that gets a project from ideation to reality.

My advice to others taking on a CDO role

I must confess that it hasn’t been easy, especially when dealing with middlemen such as sales agents for a project. These people know nothing about design and can request for changes in the marketing or brand strategy that will completely put off your schedule as they don’t understand the logistics of design collateral.

Establishing a good and cordial relationship with direct clients is very important. This way, you will be able to back your ideas and decision and brush off any third party trying to pull strings on a project. At the end of the day you’re hired because of your output and the value you bring, and as a leader, it is important to make it clear to all parties why you have a decision and give evidence on how it will help the client.

This role isn’t for everyone; you need to have the skills to make timely creative decisions, and at the same time build a good relationship with clients. Don’t forget these people are paying you to make them money, so if their projects don’t succeed you’re going to be the first person they blame!


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