Brand Strategy For Designers

In his book, The Strategic Designer, David Holston explains how design is becoming a commodity as the tools of creation become so inexpensive and small clients engage the services of crowd-sourcing sites like crowdSPRING and LogoTournament. He poses the serious question: “How do designers compete in this new environment.”

He writes: “The answer lies in the ability for designers to offer a unique value to their clients—specifically a value that rivals cannot easily copy. An area that provides opportunities for this distinction is design thinking. Whereas the craft of design is threatening to be commoditized, design thinking has gained in stature.”

Holston then goes on to explain the four principals of the new designer:

Principal 1: The New Designer Embraces Complexity

How do designers move from the realm of “makers of things” to that of strategists? The first step is to embrace the complexity of design problems. Design is not solely about creating good-looking artifacts, but requires multiple considerations when solving problems such as audience context and the client’s business environment. The ability of designers to dive deeply into complex problems takes them from decorators to problem solvers.

Principal 2: The New Designer Is Collaborative

How do designers bring expertise and insight to bear on design problems? Elizabeth Sanders, founder of design research firm MakeTools, says that, “The market-driven world has given way to the people-driven era.” Sanders points out that a great deal of people without design backgrounds are actively participating in design, and that the distinction between the various aspects of design disciplines are blurring.

These factors have put a great deal of emphasis on the collaborative nature of design, particularly on the front-end phases of the design process. Designers are now co-creators with people from other disciplines. Search engine optimization (SEO) specialists, shopper marketing consultants, design researchers, systems analysts, copywriters, and even other designers. In addition to these work teams, clients and audiences must also be engaged.

As designers participate more collaboratively, they need to be able to explain their work processes and how they create value. By providing a framework for working together, designers elevate themselves in the hierarchy of teams and organizations, and become valued strategic partners. In the face of increased competition, collaboration is one advantage designers have when working with clients.

Designer and author Ellen Shapiro points out that “even the least informed clients with the lowest budgets need to meet with and work personally with their designers.” As Shapiro said, only through real human interaction and collaboration can design position itself to go beyond the realms of commodity.

Principal 3: The New Designer Designs in Context

How do we ensure our design solutions are meaningful? The short answer: By providing a solution that embraces both the business needs of the client and the needs of the audience. Business and audiences are the foundation for design problem solving. Research provides valuable tools for gaining insight into the organizational needs of these two groups. Business tools, like competitive and situational analysis, help designers understand the business environment, allowing them to develop design solutions that are strategic.

With audiences, designers can call upon visualization exercises, word games, prototyping and participatory design, actively engaging users in the development of ideas. Traditional tools like focus group, interviews, and ethnography can also provide valuable insights. To paraphrase communications guru Don Schultz, communication is about people, and when we lose sight of the individual, we lose sight of the objectives of communication.

Principal 4: The New Designer Is Accountable

How do designers prove their value? The price of a seat at the decision-making table is accountability. For designers, this means being able to communicate the value of design in terms of a return that is meaningful to their clients. Whether tracking changing attitudes, behaviors, sales numbers, the return on investment of design activities, or customer satisfaction, designers elevate their work by establishing metrics for their projects.

Although design does not exist in a vacuum and can be a challenge to measure, design metrics help clarify the value of design and provide a way to track the effectiveness of design activities. These four principles flow through the framework of design process. What follows is a typical design process.

1. Project initiation: This phase is focused on aligning stakeholders toward a common goal and requires collaborative planning to address complex design problems.

Skills: Business, interpersonal, organizational, and communication planning skills.

2. Design research: This phase defines the context for making design decisions. Centered on the needs of business stakeholders and audiences, this phase relies heavily on collaboration as a means for gathering insights and understanding meaning.

Skills: Social sciences, interpersonal, qualitative, quantitative, and analytical research skills.

3. Concept development: This phase synthesizes the research into an idea and requires divergent and collaborative thinking from multiple perspectives.

Skills: Creative, ideation, and facilitation skills.

4. Design development: This phase is focused on convergence of ideas and developing an aesthetic that is relevant to the audience and the business goal.

Skills: Design, production, and manufacturing skills.

5. Evaluation: This phase makes design accountable through the measurement of outcomes, whether they are financial, attitudinal, or behavioral.

Skills: Business, accounting and marketing skills.

By looking at design systemically, as a group of interacting skills brought together to create a whole, designers can think about their work in new ways and bring their inherent creativity to bear more broadly. Through process, designers can better orchestrate the needs of business and audiences, manage the complexity of design problems, and provide a framework for collaboration.



HOW Design UniversityLearn more about how become a “new designer” in David Holston’s upcoming HOW Design University Course “Brand Strategy Development,” which begins July 30.

 In this course you’ll learn:

  • Why brand identity matters, and how to organize the brand team
  • How to define the brand vision and mission
  • How to get to know your audience
  • How to communicate the brand