Flightcase by Jan Koenders

What a strategic designer* does

*I prefer Design strategist

On 17th of February 2014, I wrote the article below reflecting on my initial steps as strategic designer. Today, more than two years later I agree with many of the points I mentioned but also I can elaborate a bit more on it due to these years of practical experience. I will add my new comments in italic.

I have to admit that it is not an easy question to answer, but let’s try to make it clear! Specially when selling strategic design, service design or design thinking, managers are scheptic about our skills to create a sustainable competitive advantage for their companies. We need first to educate them and then beg them to trust on our methods to start collaborating.Selling our services to corporate clients is one of the biggest challenge in our industry.

If you read the position literally, it seems a mix between design and strategy, actually it is, but the scope of this joint venture could be interpreted in different ways. In my opinion, it is better to name our role Design strategist than Strategic Designer simply because the word “designer” is directly related to the traditional role of designers (graphic or product), so it can be misleding for the general public.

The meaning of strategy is defined as the plan to gain a certain benefit. Strategy is an activity that most people refer to the business world, traditionally the sector which has taken the decisions and has define the path to follow within the companies.

But does strategy belong exclusively to the business people?

Strategy does not belong to any field. It is a common point for all of them: normally it is the end result of the cognitive part of the process. The differences lie on the tools used to define that strategy. The tools are specific from every particular field.

As an example I could say that to define a strategy, business people look at data (graphs, statistics, and annual reports) to demonstrate the reliability of the facts and ensure to make the right decision. On the other hand, designers look at the user and the context (ethnographic, context mapping, customer journey…) looking for validity knowing that the uncertainty is always present in the process. Therefore, the goal is the same, but the tools are different. These two options are not exclusive, design strategists must be able to master both sides, analytical and intuitive skills.

Hopefully now you understand the context of strategy a bit more, I would like to explain the skills that this position embraces and how we create value to companies.

Strategic designers have mainly three different fields of action: Research, Problem solving/ Innovation and Decision making. Let’s go step by step. I would add here “facilitation”.

The first skill of a strategic designer is to be able to analyse the user and the context, qualitative and quantitatively. This means observing the users, their behaviors and how they act within the context to understand their latent needs using an empathic approach. The understanding of the users will ensure that the strategy will match the different stakeholders in the most appropriate way.

Designers are problem solvers. However, there are different levels of problem solving. Strategic designers target the highest cognitive level known as Fuzzy front end. This part of the process is where the guidelines are created: the plan to penetrate a market, how a company should be differentiated, how the launch of the product fits with the brand, etc. Every action that the company does has to be designed, and this is our task as strategic designers. I think our actitude towards problems is the first step to solve them, we are not scared, we feel confident in this situation.

Finally, we state that designers are the bridge between business and users, being this characteristic one of our strength. Great truth. But since some time ago, we have started to use some of the business skills such business modelling, product and brand management among others that give us the confidence to make decisions and control that the plan previously defined is been respected.

The role of facilitators/conductors is becoming really important in the current innovation industry, in cocreation workshops with clients, during team idea generation sessions, managing multidisciplinary teams, etc. “Design has typically been preoccupied with creating new instruments. However wonderful any one of those instruments might be, the true potential is only realized when they play well together — essentially as one.

This is what we can offer as strategic designers, I have tried to keep it simple although there would be much more things to mention, take this as a brief summary of what we can do.

You can find some interesting strategic and service design books in the links below. They may be relevant for you to learn more about this discipline. Enjoy!

If you found this article useful, please recommend it and let’s spread the word of the benefits of applying strategic design.

Thank you for reading!