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What are the Strategic Design Skills?

In a previous post, I have discussed why strategy is the most forgotten part of design. In this article, let’s talk about strategy. It could be a profession or a title/role in an organization a.k.a. Design Strategist, but any designers need strategic skills. Therefore, although I like to use the term Design Strategy, I’d rather call the general individuals Strategic Designers.

1. What Design Strategy is Not

Design Strategy is not Design Management

Design Management is about managing a design project or a design team or both. Their strength is in the organization design and their responsibility is in the operations of design. Meanwhile, Design Strategy is the strategic part of designing (other than research and craft).

The strategic design skills could be applied to design management. A design manager needs to know what research is needed and how to apply the results, as well as what craft to envision and how to prototype it. Naturally, a strategic designer is capable of performing as a design manager, but many strategic designers are individual contributors e.g. a principal designer.

Design Strategy is not Business Design

Design Strategy is the strategic part of designing, requiring strong contextual skills. An important context in the business world is of course the business itself. Meanwhile, Business Design is about designing a business, including its brand, product and marketing strategy, and organization model and growth. Business designers are business professionals who utilize design thinking in their work.

A strategic designer can use the business model canvas to understand and improve the business through design. For a business designer, the business model canvas is an example of using design thinking to collaborate with non-business professionals.

2. Strategic Design Skills: My Experience

Context Mastery

Every designer needs to master the context of any design problem they’re presented with. Context consists of not just users, but also stakeholders and the environment. A strategic designer doesn’t distinguish between those elements in the context and considers all of them as important.

There are various ways to master the context depending on which element a designer is trying to understand. User research is the most known method of understanding context, although understanding user alone is not enough. Oftentimes, junior designers spend too much time in determining which specific user research method is the best. By being non-dogmatic, a junior designer can quickly let go of method mastery and put their mind into user mastery instead.

Practicing in different environments is also beneficial to grow a designer’s context mastery. Business, non-profit, or government institutions? There are different domains of business entities, e.g. finance, education, travel, and types of products e.g. FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) and digital. There are also different domains of non-profit entites, such as environment, culture, and public health.

The key to context mastery is having a good dose of beginner’s mind. Without that, no amount of research skills can help you be a better context master. It will instead make you be more judgmental and know-it-all.

Communication and Facilitation

The first thing a junior designer needs to master is to communicate the reasons behind their design decisions. However, when a designer grows and moves into a different environment, sometimes communication is as elementary as answering “Why are you here?” question. This helps you develop a skill for “evangelizing yourself” in a new environment.

These days design thinking is sought after by a variety of institutions, where they invite designers to join their projects without knowing what values a designer could add. Repetitively explaining yourself to multidisciplinary stakeholders can help you improve your communication skills, because it helps you speak in their language and help them understand where the gap is to be filled by a designer.

Such a value-focused communication helps a designer explain design decisions without having to obsess with the output. Value translates into outcome, so a more mature designer would inform the stakeholders by communicating their decisions in terms of outcome.

The ultimate form of communication is facilitation. It’s no longer just about the designer and the stakeholders, but also about how the stakeholders communicate with each other. This is the hardest form of communication and an art by itself (there are facilitator training workshops). Many times we discover that stakeholders cannot explain what they want and the vision behind it. Therefore, improving facilitation skills will also improve context mastery.

Reflection In and On Action

Designers are known as reflective practitioners. When a designer reflects in-action, they can divert a little bit from their path but still aiming at the destination (oblique). This is where creativity plays a role and abductive thinking is exercised. In business, it’s a continual effort to understand the impact of design on business and the value of design to customers, a.k.a. metrics (both quantitative and qualitative!).

By taking the leap to reflect in action, a designer can experiment with different ways of working. This will give insights on which steps in the process or method can be skipped. The more projects we do, the more methods we try, the more ways of working we experiment, then the more skillful we are in reflecting in action. It becomes second nature to a mature designer.

Reflecting on action is the “reflection” we usually refer to in daily conversations. It’s the contemplation after the action. Many people practice reflection daily to reflect on what they’ve done and prepare for the following day. Many designers practice reflection on every project they finish. And it’s a common practice for design educators to require design students to reflect at the end of every school assignment.

Reflecting on action is a skill that can also be applied to navigating life. For example, journaling habit is discussed in psychology and spirituality communities.

For Interaction Designers

After sharing the three skills above on Twitter, I received a nice reply from Dave Malouf, a founding team member of IxDA. He mentioned a skill “Bringing clarity and behavior fit to systems, services, and products”, which he considered important for Graphic Designer, Information Architect, and Interaction Designer. I believe that for an interaction designer, the growth of that very skill is supported by the growth of the three skills above.

3. Design as A Catalyst of Change

Peter Drucker, the father of management thinking, developed a model called Paradigm of Change. It consists of three elements: Is, Will, Should. A design manager needs to find the balance between the three. What about a design strategist?

Zurb, a design firm, shared their learning on applying the paradigm of change to interaction design projects. They argued that if a business struggles with interaction design, it will also struggle with design strategy. They shared the following picture, which is also adapted from Drucker’s paradigm of change.

It inspires that while Interaction Design is the intersection of Is and Will (operational and tactical), Design Strategy is the intersection of Will and Should (tactical and strategic). To grow from an interaction designer toward a design strategist, one needs to learn the Should (strategic).

This concludes that design strategy is a combination of tactical and strategic skills. In other words, a strategic designer is a tactical+strategic partner to a business or a tactical+strategic member of an innovation project / changing organization.

4. Other Resources on Strategic Design

A very interesting book I just read on strategic design is “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses” by Dan Hill, a designer and urbanist. His experiences in designing for cities inspired him with the two things that a strategic designer must address: the dark matter and the trojan horses.

The dark matter as in Quantum Physics is the intangible stuff surrounding matter. In designing for complex problems, it includes culture and politics, the intangible context that must be understood in order to understand the problem from multiple perspectives. The trojan horses are artifacts carrying hidden strategic elements, e.g. we distribute bottles to citizens because we want them to reduce single-use plastic bottles, but providing drinking water sources throughout the city makes them buy their own bottles, because they’d rather get water for free than buying bottled water.

“design’s core value is in rapidly synthesising disparate bodies of knowledge in order to articulate, prototype and develop alternative trajectories.” -Dan Hill

Another book that could be of interest, especially if you’re into doing strategic design in business, is in the picture below, listing eight practices. The book contains inspiring case studies. Very recommended if you want to grow toward design leadership in business.

And just before publishing this article, I encountered the works of Sam Rye. He wrote a comprehensive article (17 minutes to read) on Strategic Design practices across industries and domains (not only for business), inspired by Buchanan’s four orders of design. I like the term he uses: “complexity practice”. Indeed, a strategic designer thrives in complexity.

Now, what’s the ultimate strategic design skill? It’s saying “No” and “Why”! (source)

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