When James Sommerville joined The Coca-Cola Company to lead their global design team, it felt daunting. “I wondered why me? I suppose today we call it impostor syndrome,” he recalls. In other ways, he felt like he’d reached a new height of his career on the day he first walked into the marble-clad World Headquarters, Atlanta. What he wasn’t prepared for was the complexity and scale of such an organization, a culture set in stone over 125 years and a portfolio of 4,000 brand identities and systems that had huge local considerations and well as global ambitions. As an entrepreneur of 25 years, he also faced an organizational model that could be described as traditional and mature.
A tried and tested approach to growth over a century and potentially the most ubiquitous brand in the world. This led to the realization that Sommerville’s biggest creative challenge would not just be the many brand identities, but also changing this mindset and model of an organization to reflect a changing consumer.
On a broader level, very few design leaders are invited to C-suite roles. “Most organizations are over-designed yet they don’t understand the power of design. Adding more and more logos across the workplace, or consumer touch points does not equal a design-led company. In other organizations, design invited end-to-end experiences, from company wide new organizational models and intimate consumer touch points. I felt changing the definition of design would be the most exciting brief,” he notes. “Unless you are in an organization with ‘designer founders,’ where design is clearly fundamental to innovation, culture and growth, you will find you are always trying to establish the value that design can bring.”
Recent trends in C-Suite offices and newer titles in Growth, Experience, Innovation and Transformation have been the priority. These areas have expanded tangibly of late and are seen as playing a fundamental role in the business strategy of any corporation. With this growth design mindset, Sommerville advises companies to focus on a few key aspects if they want to create a design-led company for themselves.
Using Design To Develop Conversations
It’s been said that the integration of design leadership across an organization and into the C-suite is crucial to both a company’s long-term competitiveness and its near-term bottom line. But Sommerville also believes that the real value of design in a global organization emerges on a more human level. Developing a unique internal culture, creating connections, and working in cross functional ways can all help spark a feeling of pride within a company that can bring a sense of ownership across a global organization. That can then translate to rethinking end-to-end consumer experiences that emotionally drive new conversations and long-lasting relationships.
Accountability will always be the gray area for design leadership roles in large organizations. Design falls between the cracks, but Sommerville found that in his time at Coca-Cola, design quickly became ‘the glue’ that held every many teams together.
Overcoming Corporation-Based Challenges
The skills needed to lead design in a global brand range from strategy and experience to visual language, consumer interactions, and legacy activations, to name just a few. The corporation itself is by far the biggest challenge a design leader will ever have in these types of environments and one that Sommerville personally found fascinating. “Whether 10 years or 100 years old, mostly likely the (brand) garden is overgrown” he comments. In examining most global brands today, there are only a handful of design leaders who have the ability and passion to work across the entire business and not just campaigns. This is primarily because the complexity of the interactions needed, and the many different applications of design are wildly unpredictable. An area he hopes will broaden over the next decade for a new generation of design leaders.
A future where a design leader in a future organization will most likely spend very little time physically designing. These future leaders need to be able to conscientiously model different approaches to discover an effective underlying brand and product architecture, regardless of the exact application. When this is done with the right combination of care and unique thinking, consumers fall in love with the results and impact will be made across the entire organization.
Thinking Big vs. Thinking Small
When Sommerville started a design agency at 19, he wanted everyone in the agency to think big. When he joined Coca-Cola at 45, he wanted everyone to think small. They gave him permission to bring his entrepreneurial approaches into Coke.
“The hustle mindset is important, regardless of how big or small your company is,” Sommerville says. You need to be constantly exploring new directions, testing, reinventing icons, apologizing vs. asking for permission and examining everything that reflects the brand experience. “My biggest success will never appear on a soda can,” he notes. There is so much more to focus on that results in sustained growth.
“My central idea after my first week there was to see if design could make a system wide impact? I realized that the design leadership role is not just to design iconic packaging and campaigns, though this is obviously crucial,” Sommerville explains. “The role of a design leader is to be the voice of the consumer.” In his eyes, this entails “grabbing the mic”, changing the way things are done, priming the organization for the future, adding strategic value and being in constant state of reflection and ideation. “You need to be willing to re-think, re-learn, and re-connect in new ways. Look to remove silos and solve old problems in new ways. Think like a start-up and you’ll make a difference.”