Design strategists working for innovation consultancies help businesses and institutions form a very wide range of industries (financial services, telecommunications, consumer goods, health care, automotive, NPOs, etc.) to identify people’s unmet needs and design solutions that address them. The way I see it, strategic design is taking some of the methodologies and mindsets that a designer uses to build a chair or any kind of product, and apply them to larger systems usually composed by people’s needs, business models, social and economic context and technology. Accordingly to the challenge, those solutions can be everything, from a payment system for rural communities, an app for ordering food in the city, or an airline’s check-in and boarding process.
Depending on the scope and the challenge, projects last from 6 to 12 weeks, in which 2 or 3 people are full time immersed. Design strategists usually follow a process for developing new products or services, the process is broadly like this:
Discover: framing the problem, defining the goals, doing the research (desk research and ethnographic research).
Define: making sense of all the findings and possibilities identified in the Discover phase.
Develop: solutions are created, prototyped, refined and tested.
Deliver: the resulting products or services are finalised and launched.
For the purpose of this text I will structure the work of a design strategist according to the location where the different tasks take place:
- The project room
- The field (research)
- The client’s offices and other venues
A day at the project room
The office is composed by several project rooms. Every room is occupied by two or more design strategists, graphic designers and other professionals who plan together the project, analyse information, develop concepts or ideas and do the prototyping of the resulting products or services.
Design strategists tend to work first on the walls for three main reasons. First, it helps to see the big picture of a strategy, a group of ideas, or the map of a service. Second, it fosters teamwork, it is better to explain and work with the ideas on a wall than in a screen. And third, it facilitates manual work, like sketching or drawing maps and diagrams, which is essential for obtaining good results.
At the project room, design strategists can be immersed analysing information for several days, it is important to be patient and read lots of articles, papers and books related to the project.
Outfit: casual. Personally, when I have to stay in the project room the whole day, I prefer wearing the most comfortable clothes I can. It means jeans, t-shirts and sneakers.
Tools: walls, whiteboard, sharpies, computer, books, speakers.
A day at the field
Fieldwork refers to the collection of information outside the office, the research is generally focused on understanding people’s interactions with other people, places, products or services; so, depending on the project, the fieldwork can take place in people’s kitchens, parks, banks, shopping and health centres and many other locations. Some of the most useful fieldwork methods are observation, interviews and testing.
Observation: being a whole day in a beauty salon listening to and observing women in order to gather some insights about their perception and practices surrounding beauty and personal care.
Interviews: visiting different people in their houses, explore their kitchens and speak with them about their eating routine in order to develop a home-delivered healthy food service.
Testing: spending a day in a health centre, participating with doctors and patients in the consultation room to test if some graphic tools (previously designed) are useful to the doctor for explaining patients their condition.
Before going into the field, design strategists have to prepare a discussion, observation or activity protocol in order to gather the information that was previously defined. The team is usually composed by two or three people; sometimes, clients attend to the field sessions too.
Fieldwork days can be very exhausting, but they are always very interesting and full of surprises, especially when travelling to unknown or far locations; picture three guys with backpacks at 7:00 AM, trying to find a healthcare centre in the middle of a rural community outside of the city.
Outfit: neutral, you don’t want to influence or bias the behaviour of the people you are working with.
Tools: camera for documenting everything that happens during the visit. Sometimes we produce physical materials like cards or boards with diagrams that help us foster conversation and gain a deeper understanding of people and their context.
A day at client’s offices and other venues
Depending on the project, you can meet your clients approximately once every two weeks. In contrast with consultancy offices, big organisations have large rooms with large tables, big chairs and air conditioning.
The sessions we conduct with our clients usually have a “hands-on” approach, it means, we prepare diverse activities to work and extract from them the best ideas (remember design strategists aren’t experts in any field, but in the design process).
The most difficult part of the session may be the planning, we usually spend several days producing the materials, the activities and the outline of the session in order to accomplish a successful visit. Amongst others, the most frequent sessions we conduct are:
Insights workshops: to explain the findings of the research, and frame them into insights and design principles.
Co-creation workshops: to develop ideas and strategies. In this kind of workshop is important to create multidisciplinary teams, which are composed mainly by all the people on the clients side (around 10 participants), members of the consultancy (5 participants) and some outsiders who act as creative people with fresh ideas.
Concept definition sessions: to choose the final ideas that will be prototyped in the next stage.
Outfit: a little bit sharper; still wearing sneakers but casual smart.
Tools: official ID because they always ask you for it at the entrance, keynote, boards, notebook and the materials required for the activities.
In summary, no two days are the same but they are all filled with learning opportunities, excitement and interactions with very talented people. The job is very challenging but always rewarding.