Yes, Companies Can Groom their Next Generation of Star Designers

Product designers who collaborate with design gurus are more likely to emerge as stars in their own right, shedding light on knowledge transfer in creative fields

An image of Craftsman talking with a colleague and looking at a design on a digital tablet.

Product designers who collaborate with stars are more likely to emerge as stars themselves than designers who collaborate with non-stars, according to a study by a UCR researcher. iStock

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — From the tips of your Apple earbuds to the soles of your Nike shoes, successful product designers turn everyday items into prized possessions. And that’s not their only legacy, according to a new study led by a researcher at the University of California, Riverside. In addition to making ordinary items sleek and indispensable, star product designers are also a pipeline for new design talent.

In his latest study on extreme performance in the workplace, Haibo Liu, an assistant professor of management in UCR’s School of Business, and researchers from INSEAD business school have shown that product designers who collaborate with stars are more likely to emerge as stars themselves than designers who collaborate with non-stars. The findings may help companies groom their next generation of top talent, cultivate an environment of extreme performers, and gain a competitive edge.

Titled “Where Do Stars Come From? The Role of Stars versus Non-Star Collaborators in Creative Settings,” a paper describing the research was one of the chapters in Liu’s dissertation at INSEAD. The work was recently recognized among the top five dissertations in the Technology Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship Section (TIMES) of the 2016 INFORMS Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.

A head shot of Haibo Liu

Haibo Liu

Liu’s research examines the phenomenon of extreme performance—performance that is well above the average—which is common in settings such as innovation and entrepreneurship. In contrast to previous research that predominantly focuses on improving mean performance, Liu’s research aims to uncover mechanisms that contribute to creating star performers, breakthrough inventions, and extreme successes.

Using two decades of design patent data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the researchers identified star designers by creating a ‘popularity index’ based on the number of citations received by each designer’s patents during a three-year window. Only those designers whose popularity index was within the top 5 percent were considered to be stars. Collaborations between stars and non-stars were tracked using the same patent data, allowing the researchers to evaluate how the collaborations affected the emergence of new stars. The methodology controlled for the possibility that designers could become stars independently—not just through their collaborations with stars.

The results showed designers were more likely to emerge as stars if they collaborated with stars rather than non-stars, and the likelihood of that happening increased the more frequently and closely a designer collaborated with a star. On the contrary, if the same collaboration patterns were with non-stars, the effects reversed and, as a result, a designer was much less likely to emerge as a star later.

Liu said the results shed light on the topic of knowledge transfer in creative fields, where skills are tacit, acquired through experience, and not easily articulated or shared. More importantly, the contrasting effects for star and non-star collaborators highlight the importance of examining extreme performance, that is, treating star and non-stars separately when studying the influence of collaborators.

“While there has been a lot of research on how exceptional people can improve their collaborators’ performance, this research shows that star collaborators can directly improve the likelihood that other individuals will attain exceptional creative results in their own right,” Liu said.

“Design is not just about making a product pretty, it is critical to building relationships with customers by creating products that people desire. As functionalities of products converge, design capability becomes one of the most important competitive advantages for firms.  Companies could benefit from grooming their next generation of design stars to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace.”

In addition to Liu, Jurgen Mihm and Manuel Sosa, both associate professors at INSEAD, are coauthors of the paper.

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