John Maeda is President of the Rhode Island School of Design and is a Member of the Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.John Maeda is President of the Rhode Island School of Design and is a Member of the Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.

Discussions this year from the Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership culminated in a white paper, which describes a set of competencies for leaders in the 21st century. A central thesis of our work is the need for leaders to be agile in what are increasingly volatile and complex times.

The neatly ordered organizational hierarchy we were all accustomed to has become disrupted by the flattening effect of social media. Today, anyone can “friend” the CEO, be it a line worker or even a mid-level manager from a rival competitor. With new modes of communication have also come new expectations for responsiveness.

I don’t think any of us can name a leader who feels that he or she has control of their inbox, not to mention all of the tweets and posts that are directed at them. What these new tools don’t come with is a manual on how leaders should nurture their networks, sustain vast numbers of relationships, gain support for their agendas or manage their own time. This disruptive transition from a hierarchy to a heterarchy makes leading more and more difficult to manage.

I have increasingly become a believer that design can be used to aid leaders in navigating today’s complex landscape. Design gives us the ability to see data visually and spatially, and governed by systematic principles cuts through information overload that provides a path to see “the whole”. After all, the word “design” comes from the German word gestaltung, meaning “shape” or “form” – in essence, how we see the big picture and can make sense of aspects of our world. Design affords a toolkit of core principles that straddles the line between beauty and functionality and that goes well beyond “making something pretty”.

Consider the selection of the colour red for stop signs – it quickly gets your attention and tells you what to do even before you can read the letters on the sign. Or the decision to have only one button to go to the home screen on your iPhone so that when you get lost you know exactly how to get back home. In the exact same way, thoughtful design decisions can be used to help leaders better comprehend the complexity of all the competing priorities, agendas and relationships that surround them.

I once read how Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, uses a pie chart to visualize how he spends his days. These simple visualizations are one thing, but when technology and big data are combined with design, true insight can happen – leaders can start to see where they’ve been spending their time versus where they should be spending their time.

My own background is in experimenting with the intersections between classical design and the computer, culminating in work that is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, as well as designs for corporate clients. But, it was only after I earned my MBA and later became president of a preeminent college of art and design – and began to lead myself – when I started to imagine how design and technology could combine in service of the leader. I expanded on this idea in my recent TED Talk.

It is now my belief that in the future, the emergence of new support tools that effectively combine design, technology and leadership will help leaders navigate the volatility and complexity that surround us.

 Image: A woman loads a Chinese microblog website on her Apple iPhone in Beijing REUTERS/Jason Lee