Shift - Strategic Design

Strategic Design

Bridging the gap between the “business of design” and the “design of business”


The word “design” comes with multiple connotations. Most of the time people are searching for the word that precedes the word design to understand its context. If you say you are a designer, the next question is almost always what kind of designer or what do you design?

The easiest answer to understand is probably fashion design or interior design, and maybe you could explain experience design or UI/UX design. If you say “Strategic design,” however, you get a puzzled look and a ton of follow up questions! I still struggle to explain to people what I really do and sometimes to run away from having to explain I just end up going with “I am a business consultant:” In fact, my parents were so confused about what exactly I did, and going by my title of strategic designer they asked me: “Do you design strategies?” . Well, my title has now changed to “Innovation architect” while my profile is almost the same and I now sometimes get: “What sort of buildings do you design?” I am nowhere close to architecture.
I don’t blame people for asking these questions; design has always been perceived as the act of making something aesthetically pleasing (digital or physical) and may not be directly correlated with a business unless it is about the end product. How on earth do you dispute the discussion of an extremely diverse range of disciplines from industrial and product to fashion and everything in between? The real problem here is due to the indiscriminate use of the word “design” as both a noun and as a verb, describing both the outcome and the process in that one word.
It is natural to think of “design” as a noun. This puts the focus on the physical properties: the shape of furniture or the elements of a website. It is the traditional approach of treating design as a static physical quality -- beautiful, functional and sustainable aspects of a product. But if we think of “design” as a verb then it instantly speaks of purpose. To design is to plan, to create, to build, to clarify and to envision and enrich. Now suddenly design becomes dynamic - it is an action that facilitates solving problems, identifying opportunities and creating innovative solutions. This difference between the two forms of design, the outcome, and the process, is the same as “design as a means to an end versus design being the end”.
[1]“We all talk about design in different ways. Sometimes it’s the challenge of creating that perfect radius or one-piece unibody for a new mobile device. Sometimes it’s a new layout for a newspaper. Sometimes it’s a new shoe. Sometimes it’s an old object that entirely describes an old culture. For me, it’s just a way of interrogating relationships and acting upon them with an agenda.” - Matt Wade, former creative director of Google Creative Labs

“Design” as the Art of Problem Solving 

My first class at design school, (I believe this is the same all over the world) we were asked two questions: What is the difference between art and design? Followed by What is Design?
The difference between art and design is the purpose. While “art” is created for oneself, design is created to solve someone’s unmet needs and pain points. Design (the verb) is “problem-solving”. You do not have to be a great artist to be a great designer; you just have to be able to separate yourself from the outcome and trust the process.
Now, “problem-solving” is a very generic term and is definitely not exclusive to designers. Every profession solves problems every day. However, designers use what is known as the “design-thinking” methodology for problem-solving.
[2]“Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.”
[3]Following are the steps of design thinking methodology

This process is only the basic ingredient that can be adapted and flexed as required. It is variations of this process that can ultimately lead to innovation and disruptive ideas. This is also something that can be used by non-designers, however, designers bring with them certain superpowers that facilitate innovation.
“Design thinking begins with skills designers have learned over many decades in their quest to match human needs with available technical resources within the practical constraints of business.” - Tim Brown
There is a misconception about designers that needs to be put to rest. Many believe that because designers come from a creative background, they will always have new and interesting ideas. Well, unfortunately, we don't have a magic lamp of ideas, but what we do have is the power to create an environment that breeds innovation.
“Design leads to innovation and innovation demands design.” - Indra Nooyi

The Power of Strategic Design

Because strategic designers have proven to be extremely valuable to the success of any business, it is long past time they have a seat at the table. Not only do strategic designers understand the “art of problem-solving” by wearing multiple hats, but they can also turn a team of experts into a team of “innovators” who can push the boundaries to think out of the box. There are certain characteristics that give them these superpowers.
  1. Being the “Implicit” voice of the user
Empathy is the centerpiece of the human centered design process. It is not only about observing and engaging with real user behavior but putting ourselves in the actual situation to mimic and understand the real problem. This involves subjective concepts such as emotions, needs, motivations, and drivers of behaviors.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
- Henry Ford

It is true that most of the times people don't know what they want and that is the reason we are the “implicit” voice of the user, it is our job to read between the lines, to ask the why and find the real unmet needs. Looking at the above quote, if we emphasize on the word faster, we can see that people needed something that gets them from A to B faster and that was the real unmet need that opened up multiple solutions. “How might we offer a faster mode of transport?”.
  1. Finding Innovators before Innovation
A successful team is one that has people with different skill sets, expertise, and perspectives. However, thinking out of the box for such a team can be challenging because most of us naturally develop patterns of thinking that are based on repetitive activities and the knowledge, we surround ourselves with. Strategic Designers can help break these patterns and challenge the assumptions to find the “innovator” within each of us. Anybody can be an innovator, it is only about finding the “bright spot”.

The design process may seem very straightforward by itself, but it is actually very turbulent when we are in it. You never know where or when the path will end, and the path shapes along with the journey which may cause discomfort. Designers can maintain the balance by breaking down the pieces and finding a direction when the team is floating in the sea of ambiguity.
  1. Test, Test, Test.. until you succeed
    Design thinking is a non-linear process and in fact a vicious cycle. It never truly ends at finding the real unmet need-- or a solution to solve that need. There are always multiple solutions to a problem, and the best way to find out which ones work is to test it with the users. This calls for quick and easy prototyping that we put in front of the user and get feedback.
We cannot sit in a room and make a decision on behalf of the user. We have to get out there show them something relatable and then engage, observe and analyze their feedback to iterate and get back there until we see the solution resonating. It may seem like a risk-averse method, but before we launch a successful product it is important to understand if all aspects of that product are desirable for the users and then continue to iterate even after it is out in the market.
  1. The Future is Now
    Design thinking emphasizes understanding user behavior through both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. The trends shaping user behavior are also essential to building a sustainable business for the long haul.
“The world is getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster” - Tom Atlee
Strategic designers look at the key emerging trends (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political) to see how they will impact the market in the future. This then results in plausible futures scenarios.

“The adaptation of something new is the most urgent need of the present.” – H.G Wells
Consumer needs and demands are changing at an incredibly fast pace, and whoever can successfully fulfill their demands first will be the winner-- the rest will play defence.
[1]One of the hard questions is asking ourselves,
'Is this not working, or is it just uncomfortable?'
Sometimes the uncomfortable is necessary
to break through to new thinking.

Design is not just limited to aesthetics, but it is a powerful force in addressing business and social challenges. All designers may not be strategic designers, but all strategic designers are definitely creative problem solvers and innovators. It is time we start treating design as a matter of prosperity, progress and even survival instead of “matter of taste.” The only way to do that is to talk about how the process fuels the outcome an

gurbir perhar

Amodini Chhabra , Innovation Architect

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