What is Strategic Design?

By PascalSatori |

June 29, 2022

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” -Steve Jobs, Apple

With the unprecedented embrace of digital in light of COVID-19, every industry is more diluted and cutthroat than ever before. Making sure your business stands out is essential to secure maximum profit, longevity, and relevancy. 

In a world where technology is advancing at a rate in which many businesses are struggling to keep up, the old ‘tried and true’ methods of business are not cutting it anymore. The major brands of the past have slowly met a fate of acquisition or bankruptcy because they refused to change with the times. Blockbuster was replaced by Netflix, Toys ‘R’ Us by Amazon, and without the implementation of innovative and design-led thinking, businesses will continue to fall into this trap. 

Ever wondered how retail titans such as Nike have managed to stay relevant over all these years? Or how Disney makes waiting in line for hours magical rather than painful? There’s no doubt that they have some of the most talented engineers, designers, marketers and all-round business types working for them, but there’s more to it than just that.

What these companies have in common is that they place a great emphasis on design, and see it as a strategic tool to help them achieve their business goals. In other words, they use strategic design to dictate their strategy from start to finish.

Design strategy is built around the concept of continual improvement and change, which means that as you continue to grow and meet new obstacles, your team is ready to think outside of the box and find new solutions for otherwise business-ending problems. 

What is Design Strategy?

Design Strategy is the application of design thinking to business strategy and is a methodology that builds an operations framework that champions growth and change within your organisation. A radical new approach to business, it not only sets your business apart from competition but builds a workplace that can roll with the punches and remain relevant in any situation. 

The first and most essential tenet is that design must be made a primary component of not only your company strategy but also your product and service strategies. This means that rather than using typical business methods, your products and services are created, designed, built, and promoted using one or more design methodologies and practices.

To put it simply, Design Strategy is a way of thinking that encourages businesses to lead with design, placing human-centred thinking and psychology at the forefront of not only your corporate strategy, but product and service strategies. Rather than design being a reactionary addition to your business, or limited to purely aesthetic applications, Design Strategy encourages products, services, and operations to be approached with a creative mindset that prioritises innovative problem solving, as well as simple – and beautiful – solutions. 

Implementing design strategy should mean you execute this not only on paper, but in practice. Senior leadership positions should be expected to advise and lead design innovation and work with teams to use design methodologies to identify problems, and work to resolve it from both a strategic and emotional stance. Everyone in your business, especially non-designers, should have deep knowledge and understanding that design is a fundamental and process-driven part of operations. 

Stages of Strategic Design and Design Thinking

Traditional business is like a sprint- you come up with the idea, form product prototypes, finalise, take to market, and implement ongoing activities to remain profitable and relevant. Design Strategy sees operations more like an infinity sign- constant ideation and innovation is key in this holistic approach to be truly thinking and implementing design strategy. 

There are 6 steps that you need to be implementing in your operations in every department in order to successfully implement Strategic Design and Design Thinking. 

1) Define- Why is it important? Research, observe, understand, and create a point of view.

The first stage of strategic design is all about understanding the problem you are trying to solve with your business. You need to take the time to research, observe, and understand the issue from all angles. Only then can you start to develop a point of view that will guide your design process.

This is critical because it ensures that you are designing with purpose and intent, rather than for the sake of designing.

2) Ideate- Why is it important? Brainstorm ideas (good & bad), don’t stop at the obvious. Look for an opportunity.

After you have a good understanding of the problem, it’s time to start generating ideas. This is where you need to let your creativity run wild and think of all the possibilities, no matter how crazy they may seem.

It’s important to come up with as many ideas as possible at this stage because it allows you to explore different solutions for a singular problem.

3) Prototype- How do we create it? Test and trial technology, systems etc. to allow for validation.

After you have a few ideas, it’s time to start testing them out. This is where prototypes come in. A prototype is a way to test out your idea without fully committing to it.

This allows you to get feedback and make changes before fully implementing the solution. Prototyping also allows you to see if the idea is viable or if you need to go back to the drawing board!

4) Test- Does it work? Implement the idea, show & don’t tell, start to refine the idea or solution.

After you’ve created a prototype, it’s time to see if it actually works! You can test the idea out in a variety of ways- implementing it in a small way, showing it to others and getting their feedback, or refining the idea until it’s ready for full implementation.

5) Empathise- What is the idea? Define the challenge and explore the human context.

Empathising with your users is essential to design thinking. You need to really understand the problem in order to create an effective solution. This means exploring the challenge from different angles and considering all of the stakeholders involved. Only then can you start to come up with creative solutions that will actually work!

6) Rinse and Repeat

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is the perfect design strategy! The key is to keep evaluating and re-evaluating the effectiveness of your strategy to grow with your customers to stay relevant and one step ahead of the competition. 

Why You Need To Strategically Design Your Business 

There’s no two ways about it, implementing Design Strategy is essential for long term success in the current business environment. The old ways are outdated, and created long before the birth of technology as we see and know it today. Design Strategy sees a world where businesses are flexible and adaptable, where communication between departments is optimised, and where irrelevancy is a thing of the past. 

So if Strategic Design is the secret recipe to success, why isn’t everybody using it? 

The answer is that many organizations don’t know how to go about it, and design is still very much treated as a siloed activity, rather than an integrated tool. Strategic Design, in many ways, goes against everything we know and learn in business school. Rather than viewing the different parts of operations as separate but related departments, it forces us to see the company as a holistic system. 

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