A 3-year road plan to being a more strategic designer

@JohnMaeda speaking at SXSW 2015

A very weird thing is starting to happen in Silicon Valley- design is getting a seat at the proverbial table. No one has communicated this in more tangible terms than John Maeda in his SXSW Design in Tech 2015 report (which is fascinating for designers and non-designers alike). The main takeaway — design’s strategic value is real!

What does this mean for me as a designer? The more important question is what can I, in my own small way, do to further designers’ impact everywhere? Here’s what I came up with — a three year plan to ensure that when I do get that seat at the table, I have something vital to offer.

Year one: “Shut up and design”

I’ve asked countless designers ‘how can I, a junior designer, gain the skills to operate strategically?’. Strava’s Alex Mather told me ‘You can’t. You can get really really good at design though’. Alex also told me he thought designers’ most valuable asset in a company is the BizDev department- but he is also a VP. More junior designers should be focusing on other things. Alex’s advice to me was become a great designer. It sounds obvious, but the first step in being a strategic designer is to be a great executional designer.

Plum CEO Neil Grimmer echoed this sentiment wholeheartedly. He told me that people tend to rely on their core strengths in times of crisis. Neil was a great designer before he became a successful CEO; now, when the business decisions get tough, Neil relies on his background, focusing on design outcomes and staying in service of the people he designs for. That decisiveness is only possible because he invested the time to develop and hone his design process.

Year Two: “Start paying attention, but mostly shut up and design”

Jared Erondu is young and successful. Okay, Jared Erondu is very young and very successful. Jared attributes a lot of his success to listening to the right people. The ability to create really great work is only as useful as your ability to determine what to design. Jared recommended that while focusing on honing design skills, start to really pay attention to what people were asking for in meetings and why they were asking about it.

Google Venture’s Daniel Burka took this a step further when I had the chance to chat with him over coffee. Daniel encourages young designers to start building those ideas they hear thrown around the office. When someone says something really cool in a meeting, go practice your design skills and build that thing. This doesn’t have to be a big project. Taking a few hours to build something someone wanted and giving it to them creates value for both of you. Not only are you practicing building ideas (not feature screens) but you are also building bridges.

Year Three: “Design (like, a lot) and start speaking up”

The ability to act strategically is powerful only when your team trusts you to make those decisions. After two years of making great things and building professional bridges, you can start to design on a bigger scale. Stephen Olmstead talks about inVision designers’ strategic advantage of utilizing trends and patterns. Stephen said the designers who have seen and made a lot of designs are able to understand why those patterns are valuable and how to utilize them, rather than just what the trends are.

Regardless of our interest in strategy, designers cannot stop designing. Daniel Burka has accomplished as much as any designer out there, but ask him and he will tell you that he is far from done learning. He takes every opportunity to further his skills through design. Whether it’s interaction, branding, or interior design — every chance to learn is a chance to be a more effective strategic designer.


Summary

This road plan is not strictly an equation. Even though the Maeda’s, Burka’s, and Kowitz’s are showing design’s strategic power at VC firms, most companies still think of a “designer” as an executional role. Eric Fisher spoke to me about his fight against this paradigm at companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google. Eric gave me the advice that sometimes you just have to do it yourself. Until people see designers as a strategic entity you might have to do the legwork yourself and come to the team with your strategic vision. Instead of just doing the mockup everyone asked for, look for the larger levers that can be pulled.

Not every designer wants to be strategic, nor do they need to be. Peter Merholz talked to me about how Jony Ive is a craftsmen. Steve Jobs was the strategist. Sure Jony has a knack for strategy, but his true value is his craft. It’s clear that designers can make an enormous impact as pure craftsmen, but there is an alternative. The advice I have received has overwhelming told me that a strategic designer should be a designer first. To be the more effective voice in the industry we may have to re-evaluate our role. That re-evaluation starts now for me, as a junior designer.