Strategic Design: what is it and should it apply to my organisation?

Should Strategic Design apply to my organisation?

As a designer who also works in the business strategy space, I am often asked: “what is strategic design and should it be applied to my business?”

My answer is always going to be yes.

Strategic Design is:

“the use of design principles and practices to guide strategy development and implementation toward innovative outcomes that benefit people and organisations alike.”

In other words, Strategic Design at its core is the application of design thinking to business strategy. It is a way of looking holistically at a business problem and thinking outside the box for the solution.

Let’s take a step back and get a little technical for a minute. Aside from Design Thinking, there are five core thinking methodologies: Strategic, Systems, Logical, Research and Critical. Each method has its own principals of practice and application to drive innovation or solve business, communication, operations, product or culture problems. Strategic and Systems Thinking tend to be left brain based; looking at problem-solving from a very logical and systematic approach; whereas design thinking is very right brain-based and is a creative approach to problem-solving. Most recent strategic modelling has shown that the combination of a scientific (strategic or systems thinking) combined with a more artistic approach helps to better identify areas where business can innovate, assess new directions and guide decision making across the board.

Strategic design is not a new concept. Since the 90’s Design Thinking and Systems Thinking have been paired to enable problems to be viewed from new perspectives, giving rise to new and novel solutions. It’s just that now we are hearing more about its application as success stories are trickling down from big brands.

Why is strategic thinking important in today’s business environment and how can it be applied in my business?

Today’s business environment is very competitive; everyone is seeking to add value by delivering a new solution to a problem, to deliver differently, as well as new ways to create competitive advantage and increase equity.

While many organisations understand that strategy provides a course of action or direction; some miss the fact that it is design that links creativity to innovation, unlocking value creation and delivering it to the consumer. Often lost is that design is more than just the ‘tangible’ or functional, graphical and visual side of things; it is also about the ‘intangible’, the processes, the thinks and even the feels, which is where the real value lies.

To many designers, the design process is customer centric with the result seen as transformational to the end user. This means that design is always thinking about the future, which is what business strategy should be thinking about too.

In application, Design Thinking has five steps; problem-solving, need finding, ideation, prototyping and testing. In comparison, Strategic Design has four elements; setting objectives, configuring, orchestrating and embedding. For both, the process starts with the problem, then moves onto the who, what, why, where, how and then when; Strategic Design takes design that step further by incorporating measurement and tracking the essence to understanding the before and after of strategy implementation.

Applying Strategic Design to a business can be challenging, most companies have Corporate, Business Unit and Operational Levels. Getting everyone onto the same page can be an adventure, can prohibit the process, and if not done effectively the results can be very unbecoming; particularly if an organisation doesn’t have too much experience with design or understanding of how design contributes to revenue. Studies have shown that strategic design can increase revenue by more than 25 per cent over twelve months. This is conservative but is the minimum standard of what I’ve experienced in working with clients.

As a consultant, when organisations are looking to grow, embark on the launch of a new product/service or even undertake a rebrand or freshen up it’s very wise to take a strategic design approach. I highly recommend engaging in a third party to facilitate workshops to define parts of the strategy. Having someone looking in from the outside gives fresh eyes, and due to the lack of emotional attachment, those eyes can pick up on any incongruencies. These discrepancies can often filter down (or up) from corporate to operational levels in communication, affecting the customer experience, and we all know that poor customer experience or product delivery results in reduced sales and can sabotage communication efforts.

When looking to link Strategic Design to communications, here are a couple of things to consider:

  1. Target Audience, customer or consumer. Think about what problem are you solving for them and how. Even consider your employees or delivery team and the parts that they play within servicing the customer; they may have a unique perspective that can add value to the communications efforts. If you can, use qualitative and quantitative data in your understanding of your customer.
  2. What is the story? Cultivate it and connect. Internally, employees should be able to describe the story and want to contribute to it. Externally, how a story is told can support experience and drive engagement and purpose. Is the story emotive or functional? Is it being told on the correct channels? Is the audience relating? Is further ideation required?

Some questions may include:

  • What is the vision and how does it inspire confidence?
  • What problems are we looking to solve on a business/consumer level?
  • How do we need to act and think differently and why?
  1. Create your plan. What are the Key Business Results or Objectives of the plan? Who is involved in execution? This may require thinking ‘outside the box’ with regards to relationships within business units. These relationships are often complex and contain many moving parts (from products, services, employees, consumers, customers, loyalists). Multi-disciplinary teams are often needed to work towards the solution. While every department may not be involved in the actual design, be sure to ask questions about the business and how they see themselves as part of the solution.
  2. Identify the assets needed to deliver on your plan. Be sure to delegate tasks and hold accountability. If there is no ownership, tasks will not be prioritised.

    Be sure that those whom tasks are entrusted to are qualified to deliver on them. For example, don’t have accounts working on graphic design. Just because one may have access to Adobe Creative Suite doesn’t mean that one is a designer. If there are particular styles in terms of visuals, tone and approach to market be sure that the creatives have access to these guidelines. This will help support the message and help to keep things on brand.

  3. If there is no strategy to implement, then the plan will become undone. By this stage the tactics will have been identified to deliver on Key Business Results. The help of marketing and communication specialists is core here.
  4. With all grand plans, there should be the ability to measure. Identify who of the planning and delivery team is required to attend meetings about how the strategy is going. Be cautious of time and meeting fatigue. Not everyone needs to be in on every session, identify the who, why and when early on so that everyone is clear on their roles and understand what is being measured and why. The idea of measurement is to be about to compare the now to tomorrow.

The final tip is to encourage and be consistent with strategic design. Follow through is imperative to strategic design in organisation problem-solving. When integrated properly and effectively, it will form part of the organisational DNA and will support implementing the right ideas, at the right time for organisational growth. As a famous man once said…

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” (Sun Tzu).