The term strategy has long been used by the military (Sun Tzu’s The Art of War from 500 BC) and more recently (since the ‘40’s) in business circles. Some of you may think it has dark and underhanded connotations – meaning that the military or the business were up to no good. How wrong that view is. Strategy has been used in business in for the good of the business for some time now. For example organisations may adopt a low cost strategy to compete more aggressively in the market or adopt an acquisition strategy to rapidly grow in the market or attain skills and expertise in a complementary market sector.
Today, however we hear the word strategy being used in a slightly different context – in the design context. So you may ask, what has design got to do with strategy? Well the answer to that is everything. Strategic design refers to the discipline where designers use their mindset, values, tools, creativity, methods and experience to influence strategic decision making within organisations. Strategic decisions within an organisation have long term impact, require monetary commitment and typically include multiple stakeholders and non-monetary resources. Such decisions could relate to the formation of organisational vision, business opportunity and innovation definition, customer engagement and organisational culture.
So why is this happening? Well, first of all, design reflects the values of society and reinterprets these values through some sort of product or service which we will call an artefact. We also all know the world has changed a lot in the last 80 years. It has become a much more complex beast, through globalisation, improved communications, asset rich societies, and increasing global conflict and human displacement. Problems have become more complex and interrelated on multiple levels. No longer can we just resolve a problem in isolation, with a few facts at hand. The fact that organisations and individuals now communicate globally and instantly means that the word has become more accessible. Problems and issues are shared not only in the local community but globally.
By its very nature design is a profession that transcends multiple disciplines and some might argue (this author included) that design by definition is essentially a problem solving activity – a complex problem solving process whereby artefacts are structured to attain goals. Design has the ability to lead because it is transformative as it applies design thinking, systems and integrative thinking, and human centred values across the problem to be solved. The ability for designers to challenge the unknown and to test the waters of the future place the discipline in a unique and key position.
In this complex and interrelated world the way we resolve problems needs to be tackled in a different way. No longer can issues be resolved in isolation within a silo by a lone bureaucrat or CEO or company board. We need people who can challenge the norm, step back and ask why, view the problem from multiple perspectives and have the ability to reframe the problem and direct others during this process. This is where design can take the lead. This is where design can become strategic.
Traditionally design sat in the R&D or engineering group, perhaps it was part of marketing and in some leading organisations design had its own group. Whatever the case, design was relegated to the act of design and its influence within the organisation was limited to the development of artefacts and branding. Today the notion of strategic design moves design from the R&D group to the executive suite or even the boardroom. As artefacts become commodities organisations are actively looking for new ways to gain a competitive advantage in the business landscape. Increasingly organisations are embracing design at a strategic, cultural and organisational level to give them this competitive advantage. Design as strategy moves design from an act to a philosophy which is infused across an organisation.
Design brings new value to business when it is integrated across all senior levels. Design no longer becomes just a service provider but a strategic partner in innovation. It has the ability to address issues and complex problems at a senior level where it has the most influence. It is applied at the same level as more traditional disciplines such as marketing, sales and finance, and in fact to be truly strategic, design should be applied across, within and outside an organisation. Design applied at a strategic level can contribute to the identification and development of opportunities. Design can evaluate the extent to which the opportunity meets the needs (both known and unknown) and desires of the customer (Desirability), and balance this with the performance needs (Viability) and capability (Feasibility) of the organisation.
So what does strategic design mean for business? Well it means that organisations become much more capable and self-sustaining. Design helps change the mindset and culture of an organisation from one focused on the production of an artefact to that of a more considered human centred approach. This could be through the concept of co-creation and collaboration with customers and stakeholders to help achieve the development of fantastic customer experiences. It means that design can be applied as an integrator within an organisation to develop human centred effective and efficient processes, defining operational frameworks and just getting stuff done. Design applied strategically helps determine the right product for the right market at the right time. It ensures that the business model aligns with the organisational strategy. Design supported by design research, develops a unified customer experience across all touchpoints, creates behavioural change, builds capacity and ultimately improves product delivery to your customer.
To finish I leave you with one of my favourite quotes;
“Tactics is something you do when you know what to do, strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do”
Savielly Tartakower, chess grandmaster (In: Studio Recipes for Systemic Change: Boyer, B, Cook, J & Steinberg, M, (HDL)).