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What do I mean by strategic design

February 20, 2019

Photo by Anastasia Petrova on Unsplash

My intention here is not to offer a definition of strategic design. Instead, I would like to explore it from my own, specific angle. This is more a contemplation and reflexion on my own practice and an attempt to make sense of it. Therefore, you are free to call out bullshit on this piece, challenge it or contribute to it. I am open for discussion, more than anything else.

Strategic design is often defined as an emerging discipline that uses design principles and practice to address complex, interrelated problems. It is multidisciplinary (or even contra-disciplinary: cutting across well-established borders) because it borrows from and fuses different disciplines, practices and methods – management, traditional design, architecture, foresight, systems thinking, to name just a few. The applications of strategic design vary: it can be used to influence strategic decision making in organizations, define a business model, set a corporate vision, identify new business opportunities, and make interventions (through strategy, products, services or policies) that create positive outcomes for people, organizations and the environment. We know that yesterday’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems; thus, I prefer to use the term intervention instead of solution because it is a more humble stance acknowledging that complexity can hardly ever be solved.

Beyond business design

While strategic design is successfully applied in the business context, it is also used to address larger problems in education, healthcare, government, and can even be used to fight climate change. The focus is not only on the benefits for business, but also on the benefits for people and the environment. The goal of strategy should be materialization of sustainable solutions – not only in the present but also in the future. Instead of using purely profit-driven goals and business KPIs as measurements, we should be using more comprehensive measurements, such as the triple bottom line. Here, the profit of the company would be a happy side effect, as Steve Jobs used to say.

Research

A starting point for strategic design is understanding the context – market, trends, users, customers, partners, internal and external stakeholders, and their behavior, motivations, values, and needs. The information can come from the organization and from the field, of course, and would most likely require cross-disciplinary effort. Designers should be familiar with qualitative and quantitative research methods, preferably with ethnography and its application in design.

A photo from a research synthesis session

Solving big-picture problems

Strategic problem solving is different to everything we traditionally associate with anything that has design in the title. The primary concern shifts away from pixels, screens, products, and individual experiences, to organizational dynamics, market strategies, delivery of products and services, business models, sustainability, cultures, communities, and so on. There is always a larger cultural, societal and environmental context around what the organization delivers, and it is within this space that strategic design operates. Dan Hill describes this space as dark matter, and as an astrophysics aficionado, I particularly love that metaphor. Unlike the matter which is visible and tangible, dark matter is invisible, impalpable and its existence can be perceived only through the effect it has on matter. While other design disciplines address the matter, strategic design addresses the dark matter and balances constantly between dark matter and matter.

Future-oriented decision making

Helping organizations to navigate an ever-increasing uncertainty and make good decisions about their future is one of the most important goals for strategic design. In the 21st-century world, traditional methods and thinking are not enough to solve complex, interwoven problems. Our institutions, policies (and whole industries) were designed in and for a bygone era and are ill-equipped to address the problems of today. On the bright side, the future is yet unwritten, and so design can help organizations explore the plurality of futures and design for the one in which we can not only survive multiple crises but also thrive. This is why strategic design, in my opinion, has to have more than business-as-usual in mind. It has to positively influence the future and everything that is contained within it.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

This should come naturally to design because it is a discipline that inherently lives in the future. The design is, in a practical sense, a future-making discipline. Sadly, it sometimes lives in the present, focusing on prettifying what has already been decided, thus contributing to waste, and an avalanche of unintended consequences and externalities. This is where Speculative Critical Design and its provocative and critical nature can play a crucial role. I’ve seen immense benefits of using speculative design methods in the business domain to move conversations away from business KPIs, obsession with technological advancements, and pure usability to exploring alternative futures and alternative ways of being, with the goal to inform the decision making. And alternatives to current dystopian outlook is exactly what we need.

The holistic, systemic approach

As the complexity of the world increases, optimizing the system rather than its isolated parts becomes an imperative. Apart from current crises that are immensely complex and threaten the existence of humanity, businesses too are becoming complex and intertwined with the social, economic, and political fibers of society (Facebook is just one recent example). Strategic design considers many moving parts and their relationships, and tries to understand where and how to make interventions that influence positive outcomes. Therefore, the strategic designer has to have a solid understanding of how complex systems work, how to make sense of them and how to make a change. This is where I think systems thinking blends well with strategic design and provides a set of tools complementary to the designer’s toolbox. For instance, I’ve successfully used tools such as causal loop diagramming as an output of design synthesis and to identify problems in organizational dynamics.

Facilitation and orchestration

Strategic design is a team effort where success depends on the ability of the designer to work with multiple stakeholders. The role of the strategic designer is to involve, align and coordinate people with different agendas, priorities, and visions towards reaching the same goal. Even though the designers are not always trained to successfully facilitate different types of conversations, this skill is crucial to the role. Design facilitates and manages the process of co-creating value with the people with different backgrounds, interests, and knowledge and blends their unique points of view. Its role is to act as the “organizational glue” between different units, departments, and silos. Thus, as a horizontal function, design is in a position to connect disparate dots inside the organization – people, knowledge, processes, structures – and manage the delivery of strategic initiatives.

Knowledge transfer

Design alone is not sufficient to make profound changes. It is but one discipline that can contribute to the success of an organization. However, the organization as a whole can greatly benefit from design methods and thinking. Building design capabilities and transferring the knowledge and skills to other functions, amplifies the value and impact of design. While this requires a lot of time and effort (and patience), it is an important aspect of our work.

Generalism

I believe that a strategic designer needs to be a generalist, which should come naturally for many. The strength of a strategic designer is in understanding, mixing, and cross-pollinating compatible (and even incompatible?) disciplines. A strategic designer is an integrator, a fusionist. Rather than specializing in one discipline, they specialize in navigating ambiguity, uncertainty and the unknown. Personally, I prefer being in the liminal space between boundaries, combining and mixing principles and methods from research, systems thinking, speculative design, management, business design, and traditional design. After all, boundaries that we’ve set in our practices and organizations are man-made constructs and are imagined. If they are imagined, they can be reimagined and we’re free to cross them and get inspiration from across horizons.

Resources

Here are a few reads I’d like to share.

Special thanks to Milica for helping me to go through the dark matter of this essay.

If you’re open for a chat about strategic design, I’d be happy to chat over a coffee or skype. Get in touch.

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6 Comments | Add your comment

  • Jeff Kriege (March 22, 2019)

    This is really great, fleshes out some fuzzy thoughts I’ve had – have been trying to define what designers should do, at a high-level, in a similar way:

    1. Map what’s happening.
    Make each key factor tangible and visible, and do the same for the relationships between factors – ideally in a schematic/model that can be manipulated. “Factors” should go beyond KPIs to include things such as risk, unknowns, probabilities, opportunity cost, time, values, etc.

    2. Use the map to inform a plan for change.

    If I can make a request for a future post – would be great to see a case study which shows an example of this Strategic Design practice in detail – even a fictional case study would be helpful.

    Cheers

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  • Choti Sardarni (September 18, 2019)

    Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day. It’s always useful to read through articles from other authors and practice something from other sites.

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  • Stevie Bales (October 1, 2019)

    This is fantastic! I concur with Roy in what feels like the “job” of designers in a nutshell, but I’d add to that all big “D” designers then must “create” the change.

    I’m personally in that seeking mode of understanding where my design practise fits in and where I want to go from here.

    I’d love to chat directly sometime about what you do and how you got there.

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