the strategy behind design


This year I was invited to teach an online subject for a master’s degree, of which was simply titled design strategy. I was also offered the liberty to (re)create the subject, as I saw fit, and as such had the freedom to structure it how I liked. Easy enough, I thought.

Then I became a little confused.

Strategy is an action that, like design, can be classified according to perspective and scale. That is, on one scale (of complexity) you may be developing a strategy to beat your brother in a board game. On another, you may be developing a strategy to resolve cross-regional conflict amongst competing civilisations. This micro/macro conflict is reflected in design practice. Generic discussions on the definition of design and design thinking attempt to relate design to minor practices -such as a meal or an outing- and to major projects, such as the design of a service or a building. This is due to the tired mantra, everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones, which as we will learn below, parallels with the definition of strategy.

The expansion of design is very much due to its global applicability to any kind of discipline and context. And as many have argued and observed in the past, this makes distinguishing and determining design and design fields an insurmountable task. It is for this reason that I fervently argue for any classification of a design to include and anticipate a designerly approach. That is, the methods and mindsets of which are fundamental to design practice should be evident to be classified as a form of design and part of the process of designing.

Back to strategy. As always, I love a good definition to contextualise what I am getting at:

Merriam webster: a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time […] the skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal.

Googlea plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.

Now, compare the above with the definition of design…

Merriam Webster: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan :  devise, contrive  to conceive and plan out in the mind. to draw, lay out, or prepare a design

H. Simon: everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones

For me, strategy is choosing the most competitive and appropriate pathway from an array of (often ambiguous) choices. I deliberately include the word competitive as it is, I feel, the very heart of what it means to be strategic. However, the meaning of strategic design within the design discipline wasn’t initially so competitive as it was enabling.

Trying to define what it means to be strategic is a little tricky, and trying to define strategy with design becomes an inherently complicated topic (as we all know). For most of my career I had a fairly clear idea of what strategic design, or strategy by design, was. My master’s degree focused on sustainable design which at the time was classified as “highly strategic” by default. During my PhD, strategic design discussions emphasised design management, policy design, systemic design and facilitating a design culture in large organisations. Helsinki Design Lab’s Recipes for Systemic Change, published in 2011 became the go-to text followed by Dark Matter and Trojan Horses in 2012 (.. and pretty much anything by Jeanne Liedtka). More recently, books such as Strategic Design (2016) are continuing to perpetuate this (new!?) design discipline. But these texts also revealed that there existed a slight difference between strategic design and strategy by design.

Strategy by Design

An approach by which design and the design artefact becomes the centralised force that impacts various dimensions and scales of the context it is implemented within.

Strategic Design

A practice in which traditional methodologies of strategy are married with, or carried by, a design approach.

Here is the clinker- strategic design *may* result in a strategy by design, but it doesn’t always (or have to). A strategic design approach utilises the best of a design process with the best of strategic frameworks to create a (super?) problem solving approach for particularly complex problems. In slight contrast, strategy by design uses design as a conscious catalyst for change, considering the artefact on a broader scale than immediately intended. Strategy by design involves asking the question, what is the biggest impact I can/will have with my design? whereas strategic design may ask, how can I plan and achieve the most effective strategic outcome from using a design approach?.

To make matters worse, the two can often be blended, and this is what I decided to teach for the subject. For the sake of clarity, I saw strategic design and strategy by design as tackling a problem from two different directions: top down or bottom up. Strategy by design is an emergent, grassroots approach, focusing on building an artefact from research and prototyping with users. This approach is akin to a traditional design process.

In contrast, strategic design begins with more formal, strategy-led approaches. It takes a broad, birds eye view of the context and devises a framework and/or blueprint, rather than specific artefact, to effect change. I realised this difference upon observing the interplay of strategy and design in management consulting, as well as reading, researching, and asking about the various approaches people took in strategy and design.

I personally have applied both approaches in my own work and I choose the process depending on context (and attitude) set by the client. In reality, the two approaches aren’t always so clear cut, but clarifying the difference between the two has been nagging me for some time. I would be curious to hear from anyone working in this area, and to learn if you also find various approaches in strategy and design.

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