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Empathy. The single most important attribute of Design Leaders

What makes a Design Leader?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to understand the key characteristics of the people leading our industry, to help us learn from their experience and mould the future of design?

In this first article of the DBA series, Jeremy Lindley, Global Design Director at Diageo, explores how critical empathy is to the making of a successful Design Leader.

I love photography, and family outings are often planned around achieving perfect lighting conditions for the key shot. I often wonder, while wrestling with tiny dials and incomprehensible menu options, whether camera designers have really understood the usability of their devices. No wonder that most people buying a multi-function digital camera leave it on auto mode.

An incomprehensible series of letters
An incomprehensible series of letters
Simple icons that are understood by all
Simple icons that are understood by all

The designer of my most recent purchase seems to have some empathy with those using the dials. Simple icons guide towards sports, portrait or landscape mode. Aperture and shutter priority remain for those who want to keep more control, and the dial is large enough to be turned while wearing gloves. Finally some understanding of what it’s like trying to capture the perfect shot at 5am on top of a mountain!

Design Leaders need a broad range of creative, technical, influencing and organisational skills, but none are as critical as empathy. Real empathy, which requires us to suspend our own preferences and judgements and live in someone else’s mindset; whether that be users, stakeholders, decision makers, clients or our own team. 

Without deep understanding of the needs of the end user a project will fail. Equally if a Design Leader fails to focus on what drives the business, how stakeholders will make their decisions, then no matter the beauty of the idea it will be rejected. And empathy sets our teams up for success, allowing creativity, craftsmanship and beauty to flourish. Empathy for consumers, business leaders and those we work with is our most important skill.

Achieving empathy means admitting we do not know or fully understand, and that the needs of others are more important than our own assumptions. After all, we are rarely our target consumer and the problem or opportunity that starts a project is not always the heart of the matter. To genuinely understand means more than reading a research debrief, describing demographics or assuming we know what motivates a colleague.

amos-bar-zeev-ija4vtj3phy-unsplash-copyDesign Leaders pause before starting to generate ideas and seek to learn. They know that unexpected insights always emerge. They prototype fast, test early, and keep a small ego. They recognise when the problem was not defined well in the first place, or when the idea simply does not meet consumer requirements.

The best Design Leaders don’t fixate on their own ideas, and they are quick to admit when they got it wrong. They see failure as an essential part of the design process, of learning and growing. 


Deeply understanding consumers unmet needs and gaining insight into the real problem is the foundation of the design process, critical to invest in before we start to generate ideas. The design process is not linear, and we must also have the humility to go back and test our hypothesis, understand end users more and redefine the problem when new insights emerge. 

As important as our empathy for consumers, is our empathy for business leaders.

We won’t automatically understand the motivation of decision-makers, how they will decide, the cornerstones of their values; the responsibility of a Design Leader is to find out. 

What drives your decision maker right now? Is top-line growth the key objective, recruiting consumers and gaining share, with profitability expected to come later? Or is growth hard to come by in a static, super-competitive industry, so margin expansion is key? Are advertising budgets under pressure such that retail presence needs to punch harder? Will the business shift to direct to consumer and view packaging as entirely different moments of truth? Are raw material cost increases wiping out profit? Will unique offers to specific retailers give pricing power? 

Creativity loves constraint. Empathy for the decision-making parameters of those ultimately accountable, will point our designers to the critical goals. And, although expecting decisions to be based purely on design is naïve, if we have been truly successful as Design Leaders, we will have influenced the decision makers to appreciate how beauty, creativity, craftsmanship and ideas benefit business.

Empathy is as vital to the success of a project as a big idea and beautiful crafting. It is not a skill taught on most design degrees, but…

  • stepping away from your own preferences and priorities
  • digging into real consumer needs and behaviour
  • observing without judgement
  • getting under the skin of market and business dynamics
  • actively listening and seeking to understand;

… are all essential in developing greater empathy and work powerfully in delivering deeper consumer insights and uncovering the motivations and decision-making parameters of business leaders. 

Guinness: Empathy for bar staff

Guinness Harp Fount, designed to meet the needs of bar owners, consumers and the business.
Guinness Harp Fount, designed to meet the needs of bar owners, consumers and the business.

The key decision makers for beer dispense founts are the owners of the bar. At the start of a recent Guinness project we spent time with them and understood their frustration at the ever-increasing height and bulk of competitor units.

To achieve standout the dispense units have been getting taller. Bar staff feel frustrated at the barrier between them and consumers and bar owners are installing generic low-level units with a small branded badge.

We learnt that old Guinness units were well loved. Bar owners have real fondness for the brand, the quality and margin that it brings to the outlet and for its long history of well-crafted design. 

In addition to satisfying our trade partners the internal decision makers wanted to reflect the high quality of the liquid and reduce the cost of installation – cheaper units mean more can be supplied within a fixed capital expenditure budget. Some design projects have a financial goal based on percentage margin, here the per-unit cost was the principle measure. 

The end result celebrates the iconic Guinness harp, utilises the full depth of the bar giving great standout without the need for excessive height.  Clever use of materials and finishes leaves us with a set of quality scores higher than competitors and a lower unit cost than our last design. Bar owners enjoy the unit, the use of the iconic harp, the high-quality finishes and critically how it does not place a barrier between servers and their customer. The decision-making process became simple, fuelled by empathy with the motivations of stakeholders.

Design leaders are rarely the target consumer and won’t automatically understand the motivation of decision-makers. Empathy for consumers and business leaders is our most important skill. Empathy will set our teams up for success, allowing creativity, craftsmanship and beauty to flourish. Stepping away from our own preferences and priorities and pursuing empathy is the most important attribute of Design Leaders.

About: Jeremy Lindley, Global Design Director, Diageo

Jeremy is responsible for design across Diageo’s current brands and new products worldwide. His role is to transform Diageo’s design capability and output. Recent projects have included the redesign of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Baileys Original Irish Cream and the creation of John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee – a limited edition of 60 bottles retailing at over £100,000.

Prior to joining Diageo Jeremy was Head of Design for Tesco Stores Ltd. He was responsible for design across the portfolio of 19,000 private label products and for leading the Store Formats and Design teams. His early career was spent working as a Design Consultant and University Lecturer.

Jeremy is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts and is active in a number of Design Industry bodies.

Image credits:

Thomas Lambert | Unsplash

Amos Bar-Zeev | Unsplash



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