My roadmap to strategic design — Part 2

18 months ago I wrote my three year roadmap to becoming a more strategic designer — so what’s happened halfway through? Well, I’m not John Maeda but I feel like I have moved in the right direction. In the past year I took a job at Amazon working on Amazon Music and recently was part of a team that launched a completely redesigned product on 9 platforms. I learned a lot about what it means to be a better designer, and found some opportunities to push strategy.

What I learned

Being a strategic designer is working within the constraints of what’s there

Designers are fetishize coming up with entirely new innovations; re: Thiel’s Zero to One mentality. There is no denying that design and innovation are synonymous, but design has an equal part to play in the more mundane. Its just as much about “coming up with a solution where there seems to be none”, than it is “come up with a solution to a question we didn’t know was there.” Previously I wrote “instead of just doing the mockup everyone asked for, look for the larger levers that can be pulled,” and I think that is even more important than I realized, especially in iterative design. Its easy to assume “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and even easier to assume that the business and tech requirements necessitate little iteration. I think this is potentially the best opportunity for designers to be strategic. Thinking outside the box is great — but sometimes you are stuck in a box and have to figure out a great solution anyways. I think the best way to do this is develop relationships — understand the business needs, understand the tech constraints. Only then can a designer really figure out how to develop the best experience that can be built in this timeframe with these resources.

Said simpler, strategic design is designing change. It’s easy to design a perfectly impossible solution and complain that it got slashed by the PM and tech teams. A true mark of a strategic designer is designing a solution that just works; works within the constraints of the project and still pushes the design.

Design strategy is synonymous with design leadership

Following Jared Erondu’s advice, I have carefully watched those who are the most successful in pushing design in our organization. It’s not about the black cloak designer who brilliantly sketches out the new product on a board and then rushes back to their lair among a roar of applause. Its about the designers who are developing the trust and confidence of their teams. The crux of design is often the willingness to build it. It could be an amazing experience for customers all over the world, but if its trashes the engineers timeline and forces re-architecture every other month — it’s not going to get built, ever. Design is a tool, not an end point. It’s not about doing a show and tell where everyone gets to see wireframes that will become mocks. Its about using wireframes to facilitate a conversation about what the product should include and how it will be built. Like the best leaders, the best designers are those that communicate most efficiently and really include constraints and partners in the process. It’s about inspiring those around you to believe in the power of design.

There is no strategy without craft

I previously though design craftsmanship was “minutely detailed visuals” which is half correct. Daniel Burka told me that the designer’s superpower is taking an idea and making it real — turning it into something that can be seen, held, heard, etc. To really drive strategic design, its about getting ideas out in the open, validating, and iterating. No matter how good the idea, if you can’t make it real, its unlikely anyone will. Design craftsmanship is knowing what details cannot be sacrificed. A few basic oversights can sink the best designs, and spending the extra time to polish the crux aspects can make all the difference of success and failure.

Strategic design = adding value through design

Strategic design can manifest in a lot of ways; insightful business decisions, organizational structure, team process, etc. Initially I thought strategic design was just design decisions that affected business goals, I realized that was short sighted. Strategic design can be anything that adds value through design. I was lucky enough to be part of a small group that introduced a new sprint process to our organization. The biggest value design added was not new product designs, but process design.

What I will learn next

Tactical

I am focusing on the last portion — developing my craft. I have realized how the right tool can make or break a sprint. I got deep into Pixate only to find that it was going to be killed off and had to pick up Framer over the course of a weekend. Being familiar with a wide array of tools and processes will allow me to pick up and put down tools as they progress and pivot. On any given week I used 4+ different tools — all of which my ability to make high quality designs/prototypes/etc. quickly and curated to the purpose at hand. The only way this is efficient is being really comfortable in my process and confident in my craft. I think this is true of both tools and process. Modern designers are expected to be proficient in multiple softwares, but I want to focus on being proficient in multiple processes. This could be team structure, sprint types, or even unique product designs.

Strategic

My biggest goal for the next 18 months is to talk to more people. Every one has a slightly different take on what it means to have an effective design process (whether strategic or craft focused). Strategic design goes hand-in-hand with organizational process. Having a strong understanding of how design operates and fits in people’s and companies’ process is crucial to adding value through design.