Christopher built her career around the notion that businesses could benefit from a deeper understanding of people and culture. Her ability to create simple explanations of complex human behavior and to translate those insights into effective design and development strategies attracted a wide range of Fortune 500 clients including Microsoft, HP, Apple, Intel, GM, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Levi's, Gap and more.
As co-founder and CEO of Cheskin, a firm that pioneered design research in Silicon Valley, Christopher and her partners had ringside seats to unrivaled feats of creation, innovation and reinvention. She led teams exploring notions like how trends move through the teen population, how music relates to mood, the emerging culture of “cool” in China and the development of trust online—to name just a few. She and her partners sold Cheskin in 2007 and walked away with their sanity mostly intact.
At heart, Christopher is an entrepreneur. She continues to satisfy that drive by teaching entrepreneurship at California College of the Arts (CCA) and mentoring startups as the co-founder of Mix & Stir Studio, an incubator for design-driven tech companies. She has an M.B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management and has written numerous magazine articles on strategy and design. Most recently, she co-authored Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design (2013) with Maria Giudice.
An interview with Christopher Ireland
You’ve never had “designer” in your title yet you’ve been a creative leader your entire career. How has design informed your work?
I believe design is a fundamental leadership skill and a progressive mindset, so I’ve sought out friendships and partnerships with designers in whatever I do. My talents and traits complement, rather than compete, with those of most designers. So, it’s usually a happy marriage.
You’re a passionate advocate for understanding people in qualitative ways. What gets missed without this approach?
Would you choose your life partner based on a quantitative survey? I’m betting the answer is no. Qualitative helps us zero in on the right fit for us, our product or our cause. To skip it or try to substitute with just quantitative is foolish.
How do you communicate new approaches and opportunities to those managers and leaders that are more quantitatively, or traditionally, inclined?
Honestly, I don’t spend much time communicating to managers or leaders who have a traditional point of view. That job belongs to someone else. I teach 20–30 year olds who are still forming their opinions and discovering their passions. Most of my energy is spent defending, debating and rethinking my points of view in relationship to these young minds.
Where can design have the most impact on leadership and organizational culture?
I believe the most impact comes from designers who choose to lead. It’s not an easy route. It requires immense patience, flexibility, compassion and ego restraint. You don’t get to be a creative guru or an angry artist. You must risk failure repeatedly and you have to learn to compete. But the rewards extend broadly: to your company, your community and eventually to you.
Personally, I don’t think we'll make it to the next century as a society unless designers step up to this challenge. We have a lot of problems to solve and not much time.