Nikos Karaoulanis
Chief Design Officer – Kainos

With design thinking now widely regarded as a key pillar of digital transformation, we sat down with Kainos’ Chief Design Officer, Nikos Karaoulanis to discuss his new role as he tells us about why design is so important in the services Kainos offer.

With over 17 years industry experience, Nikos has led the User Experience team at John Lewis, ran experience strategy for Aurora Fashion, set up the UX team for House of Fraser, and led the Experience Design team at Marks & Spencer. More recently, Nikos has applied his skills leading the design of services for government departments.

Nikos first joined Kainos in 2015 to build design capability. In his new role as Chief Design Officer, Nikos will be Kainos’ design champion, as well as a combination of strategist, individual contributor, and influencer to the whole organisation.

What does it mean to be a Chief Design Officer?

The role of the Chief Design Officer can have different meanings depending on the context. A CDO in a consumer electronics business will be quite different to one in a healthcare organisation. The first may require more of a traditional design background and focus on product design, while the latter may be more focused on service design and how people experience services. 

In my view this reflects the wide impact design can have; design is no longer exclusively related to aesthetics. Design is an approach that helps us understand needs so we can deliver relevant experiences.

Kainos is a company with a long and proud engineering heritage. Embracing design makes a statement that excellent digital delivery can be combined with a clear focus on users and good design principles. 

What characteristics do you think a Chief Design Officer should embody?

While there are different ‘flavours’ of Design Officer roles, there are some common underlying characteristics. Seeking out and being comfortable in uncertainty is a key skill. Considering disparate or even opposing ideas and being able to recommend solutions that combine them helps avoid quick and easy solutions. Balancing qualitative with quantitative thinking helps provide insight that can create more innovative ways forward, and of course being sensitive to user needs.

Why do you think more and more companies hire the role of Chief Design Officer these days?

The practice of good design has proven to help companies achieve sustained commercial success. 

Organisations always aim to create and maintain sustainable advantages against the competition and design is one of the key ways for them to achieve their goals. 

Recent reports have shown that those companies that have embraced design in meaningful ways have higher revenue growth and higher returns to shareholders. Design is about market relevance and meaningful results; design makes commercial sense.

What are your main priorities in your new role as Chief Design Officer in Kainos?

In the immediate term I will be working with others across the business to build and deliver design driven offerings; distinct packages of work to be delivered using design thinking. Whether it is a data problem we are solving or an AI solution we are considering, a design framework can help deliver meaningful and impactful solutions. The overall aim of the role however is help embed a design mindset internally and with clients.

In your life, what choices have been fundamental to your career?

It has to be taking on projects and roles that challenge me. Looking back, I have always been attracted to opportunities that allow me to apply my skills to new areas and hopefully make a positive impact. 

If you were starting your design career today, what would you focus on?

Computational design and design ethics, definitely. My early career was at a time when design was still proving its value. The industry has matured since those early days and design is now dealing with significant challenges on a global scale. Designs can be used by billions of people and can be experienced instantaneously. This impacts the way you design and test; you now need to make use of data; machine and designers working together…what can go wrong?

What do you like doing in your leisure time?

A year ago I made the foolish(?) decision to study for an MBA so all my free time is now dedicated to studying as my wife and daughters never fail to remind me!

I chose to do the MBA because I wanted to find ways to better integrate design and business…and to be able to read a financial report! 

The language of design can be very different to that of business. Design uses stories, intuition, qualitative insights, while business tends to rely on numbers, statistics, and hard facts. These two approaches can easily clash; I wanted to find ways to integrate them. Just a year and a half of study left to do!