Steve Johnson, Netflix's Vice President of Design, is not one to shy away from doing something that hasn't been done before. "I work smart, not scared," he says. Steve got his start as a designer at Electronic Arts in the 1990s; he was the only Black producer at the time. "That feeling of being the 'only' throughout my entire career has greatly shaped how I lead," Steve says.
Today he's leading design in new directions. Steve recently joined the board of Zendesk, making him one of the first design executives to join a public board. I've often talked about design needing a seat at the table, and Steve's leadership is inspiring other companies to consider designers for their boards.
I asked Steve why the time is ripe for more companies to bring more design executives into the boardroom. "When you think about the amount of publicly traded companies making decisions for consumers around the world — to think that nobody sitting in that room is thinking about user experience is absurd," he says.
"Design without business is just decoration,' he says. "Always rooting the things you're designing in how they will push the business forward is something as designers we need to be better at."
Great design is great business: a recent McKinsey study found that companies known for great product and service design outperformed industry growth by as much as two to one. The common wisdom is that the best businesses in the world "get" design, but as designers try to get seats at the proverbial boardroom table, I think we need to flip that narrative: the best designers in the world need to "get" business and understand where the user's experience is vital to the business return on investment.
Steve agrees. "Design without business is just decoration,' he says. "Always rooting the things you're designing in how they will push the business forward is something as designers we need to be better at."
One of the many things I admire about Steve is that he's long been a passionate and vocal advocate for more inclusive design. I asked him where we are in terms of progress. "I think we're at a C- grade," he says.. "You must have an organization that is as reflective of your target audience as humanly possible. If you don't care about that, you will — when somebody comes along that's building for everybody else." I'm optimistic that with people like Steve leading the way in inclusive design, we can continue pushing the industry forward.