What is the true value of strategic thinking for a designer?

Just like design thinking became a buzzword a few years ago, strategic thinking is now following its steps in the design world. Companies and agencies are looking for designers that can bring a more strategic approach to design.

This is a great initiative that provides an unique opportunity for us (designers) to create solutions that make people’s lives easier, better and bring joy. But what is now required is for us to better understand what problem we are solving, who is it for and why is that company/client the right one to tackle it. And in practice, I’ve noticed the conditions are not always conducive to creating that kind of work that truly connects with people.

These are some of the challenges I have noticed:

  1. Designers
    Many lack a deep understanding of what branding and strategy are, as well as how these can affect design.
  2. Companies
    Many don’t create a truly collaborative environment, where designers are part of conversations outside the design realm.
  3. Agencies
    Many don’t create the opportunities for designers, strategists and business people to collaborate throughout all stages of a project.

Designers

I’ve experienced this. Branding and strategy haven’t historically been taught in design school. Therefore when I graduated college I was equipped with formal design skills, but I didn’t know how important it is to understand what a brand stands for, its strategy to deliver on that promise, and how design should be a true manifestation of these two points.

It was only after I decided to get a masters in Branding at the School of Visual Arts that I was exposed to the world of brands. The program provided us with great strategic frameworks, but encouraged us to look beyond these and become more aware of the world we live in, how people behave and the shifts happening in culture and society.

Since graduating I have been trying to integrate these learnings into my design practice. And now before starting any project I always try to:

  • Understand what a company stands for. Why do they do what they do and how do they communicate it?
  • Understand who their consumer is, their needs and wants.
  • Be aware of what’s happening in the world and how it can influence the company or area they are in.
  • Understand how competitors position themselves.
  • Learn from great brands in adjacent areas.

Companies

Whether it’s a new company or a new product/service within an existing one, traditionally design has come at the end of the process. The idea would come first, then one would build a business model, a strategy to bring it to market and (maybe) a brand around it. And finally design would come in and bring it to life.

Then design thinking came along, proposing to include design in the conversations throughout the whole process. Nowadays it is also necessary for these designers to bring strategic thinking to help connect all the dots and create brands (and subsequently products or services) that truly connect with people. Companies like Apple, Google, Airbnb, Casper, among others have taken this approach and seen the results.

But there are still a lot of companies (specially in the tech world) that have a more narrow view of the role designers play. They’re there to design the product, but the main conversations within leadership focus around business goals and technology. Again, brand and design come after.

It is my hope that more companies commit to think about brand and design as an intrinsic part of their business, as opposed to the cherry on top.

Luckily, more and more companies are beginning to take this approach. The venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates recently published a study about the role design has been playing within start-ups. The study shows how companies are beginning to understand the impact design can have on their businesses. This approach paired with a strong sense of what the brand stands for can help create a business that will deeply resonate with people.

Agencies

Similar to many companies, design agencies are sometimes failing to create spaces for collaboration among different departments. From what I have experienced at a few big agencies, there seems to be a very structured flow for projects. Strategy and business work together to come up with a strategic idea that is financially feasible. Then design comes in to bring it to life. This would be another great opportunity for strategically-minded designers to come in earlier in the process to help bridge the strategy into a cohesive and relevant design system.

How could we move forward?

As I mentioned above, there is a great opportunity for companies and agencies to create more collaborative and multidisciplinary environments, but it is up to us (designers) to take the initiative and start asking to be more involved earlier in the process. And once we get that opportunity, we need to try to gain a deeper understanding of what we are trying to solve, who is it for and why is the company/client the right one to tackle. This type of strategic thinking will hopefully enable more productive conversations with people from other backgrounds and help us create solutions that are truly relevant for the people we are trying to reach.