What is design strategy?

Why we need to opt for a more professional process

I may continue to add to this document as the year progresses. So keep tabs on this. If there’s anything you want expanded upon, let me know. 🤓

This term means a many different things to designers nowadays. What design strategy sounds like to one might be completely different to the other.

The thing to understand about strategy in design is that we are all a part of it, in both large an small forms, with different roles along the process.

But what is strategy to designers?

I’ve often wondered why this was important.

My job as a designer has been to make a graphic that satisfies the request for the project.

You want a new logo? Done.
You want your website designed? Here ya go. Here’s a design.

I think about a friend that I used to design for.

Our relationship in the past was that I ask him what he wanted made and then made that design.

There wasn’t any strategy or questionnaire. There wasn’t any focus on value or improvement.

There wasn’t even any talk of what happens after the design… I just made him a logo and branded his website, two different times.

Done.

But that was two different designs of the same thing in one year. He eventually came back to me one last time.

Why wasn’t the branding sticking? Why did we have to revisit it?

I agreed to take on the client again, but this time. We opted for a more professional process. (cmps.co/client-onboard-1).

The thing is, I’ve known now for the last 10 months that creating a design agency based on being valuable to the business would require positioning myself and my brand as a problem solver.

We hear about it all the time from other designers.

“We need to be practicing Design Strategy.”

But what is it?

You hear these all the time.

There’s some mystical art called design strategy.

Strategy

I wasn’t sure where it was practiced the most. Maybe in big business and large scale design teams?

I’m not very familiar with large scale design teams. But because I eventually plan on positioning myself around C-level execs doing high budget design, I’ll have to learn it sooner than later as I get my team together.

I’m currently positioning my design process to uncover value and opportunities in order to deliver strategic design solutions.

A lot of what I have planned to write about covers this throughout next year. Our newsletter will have tons of resources on this too.

The whole idea of strategy may seem like it comes from designers who are paid a lot of money from big companies. It seems like they’ve somehow “made it” as a designer, a design firm, or team. They’re the ones getting the really cool projects to work on.

It’s because they’ve found a way to bridge the gap from design to business.

You need to find that way of bridging the gap between the business of design and the design of business.

Targets and Metrics

Businesses have goals they are shooting for all the time. Even if it’s just to make it through the month without going under.

There are some businesses that have a better system of setting and achieving goals, and some who need a lot of help defining and measuring success.

Designers may have access to one but not the other, so in order for us to do our jobs, we need to know what we are trying to do (beyond creating a new logo or website design) and how we are going to measure the success of this project.

Positioning

Positioning in the marketplace is key to a project’s success. In order for a business to position themselves correctly we need to figure out where they exist now in the market and where they want to go as a result of your project.

You start with what the company does, both features and benefits.

Figure out the values they use to make decisions.

Learn about their positioning statement built on why someone should choose them.

And then your job is to fulfill that through visual design in order to move them closer to where they want to be.

Sales and Marketing Funnels.

The buyers journey.

Funnels are a fun topic on why someone should choose to go further into the brand. At some point what you are designing becomes a piece of this funnel.

It’s a journey through how someone goes from a non-customer into a brand ambassador. You will have people spread throughout all sections in your target market or user personas.

Understanding what frame of mind someone is at when they get to what you are designing for will help you figure out how to position that piece to convert them further down the funnel.

Insight

Insight comes from poring over company data that is either supplied or collected during your research phase of design.

This valuable data frames much of how we approach and attack the problem in order to remember who and what we are designing for.

Hint: it’s probably not the CEO that you are designing for. It’s the end user that has to use, see, or interact with.

Why does strategy matter?

When you understand what a business or brand is trying to accomplish, you can propose a solution that answers the business problem with creativity. — Douglas Davis, Creative Strategy and the Business of Design

Design strategy is our first defense of being relevant in the industry of both design and business.

Business is transactional.

In order for someone to give up money for a product or service, they need to value the results more than the money they give up for it.

With this puzzle, the focus is bringing people to the business and delivering value through products and services.

We as designers are a piece of that puzzle that, when put together, deliver the whole picture on what value is behind the product or service.

Without trying to learn what a business is trying to accomplish, we might mis-represent the very thing we are trying to help sell. Regardless of how interesting the design is.

Companies will pay top dollar to get results. And if you don’t deliver on those results, or if you never figured out what the results should be, your client will feel like you failed them.

The client will then either leave you now, or never come back later.

The secret to design strategy?

Design strategy is actually Business Strategy in disguise.

A while back, I had sent out this tweet. It was kind of a revelation because I’ve been reading and studying strategy for designers, only to learn that design strategy has very little upfront to do with design.

The more I thought about it, the more this quote from Helen Tran (designer) gave in August rang through my head.

Designers need to add value to business in a manner that helps them move the needle closer to success.

There are actual goals a business has when they open for business. They need to make money, and their form of business provides value of some sorts to their customers through products and services.

The reason design strategy is so foreign to designers is that the ability to design is usually held in a different part of the brain than the skills for running / managing a business.

The ability to design is usually a separate skill than the skills necessary to run and manage a business.

Fundamentally, creativity and logic sit on opposite sides of the brain.

A designer who spends time giving insights on how you can solve a business problem with a creative solution will ultimately help you position yourself as more than a pixel pusher.

You essentially earn your seat at the decision table through providing relevant, creative solutions to difficult problems.

It’s the execution that sets you apart

What do we need to learn as designers?

We’re really good at learning new design skills.
How does this translate?

Learn to speak the language at the table.

If you expect to be included in the high level conversations going on in the business, especially being able to dictate how something is designed without the client or management playing “creative director,” you need to become fairly good at speaking the language of business.

You need to show them that you understand what the metrics and mechanics working behind the design are and how your work will impact that. I have really good resources below on this, but you must learn the lingo before you can tango with the big bosses.

You need to learn to ask “why.”

By questioning what it is you’re designing for, you’re opening the discussion to figure out the “who” and “what” we’re designing this in the first place.

It’s the bridge between being tactical (short term) and focusing on strategy (long term).

Find out the other goals at the table.

Design is just one step along the journey of creating a product or service. When Helen talked about having a “Seat at the table” above, we need to find out who else in at that table and learn what their goals are.

If you’ve ever done a group project before, each person is tasked with a goal using their best skills.

Each person needs to have communication to make sure they are completing the same project in the way that compliments the other departments, and that each is pulling their weight.

The same is true with your role as designer(s) in the project. Each department has certain goals to hit. Usually those departments include but aren’t limited to:

As a designer, it should be your duty to help facilitate the success of the project, and the only way is to learn what they are trying to solve.

I’m currently working on learning this through action. Me and my current clients are using their project as a base for my brand strategy process.

Those in the Compass of Design community will get regular updates and developments on this process as they happen

For now, I can give you some sources to use.

Where to learn more about strategy.

Keep your eyes peeled for good resources out there.

Congrats, you’re now aware of design and it’s role in business. Even if you knew about it already, these are still insanely helpful resources to learn more about design strategy.

We’ll be covering topics on design strategy for the next year as I work on learning it myself and practicing it with clients. Until then…

I’m going to list resources that I have found to be helpful.


The Compass of Design Book List

A list of every book I’ve found to be helpful as a designer, especially on design strategy.


Creative Strategy and the business of design.

Specifically this book. This is the best bridge between the language of business and it’s translation to design.
(afl) This book is important for designers trying to bridge that gap.


101 things I learned in Business School

This is probably one of the fastest ways to understand the language that is used in high level business terms. There’s illustrations, explanations and quick snippets of how these terms apply to business. Though it’s not design centric, having this knowledge helps you understand what or why a business is talking about a certain term.


Brand Identity Checklist

A thorough list of every thing you should go over in branding a business with resources and other sources there.

Because branding is what I do, this was helpful, but there is a lot of crossover with other industries


Conversion Checklist

A look into things marketers are looking for when creating landing pages.

Other resources.

Those who I do consulting with will also get the best of everything I know and

learn this year about positioning your business as a design strategist.

Until then, enjoy the new year and we’ll pick up with the newsletter again on the 4th of January. 🤓


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Darian Rosebrook

Brand Identity Designer for @itssomagnetic, running a design community at @compassofdesign. I write to help others grow their skills as designers.

Compass of Design

Some of the best design articles written by members of the Compass of Design Community to help you strengthen your skills in design, business/freelance, and marketing yourself.

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