Understanding Design Strategy

In the broadest sense, “strategy” is a plan for how to achieve a goal. In business, strategy bridges the gap between policy (guidelines governing action) and tactics (a set of techniques). Strategy is what a company develops to differentiate itself from competitors’ actual or predicted moves. It’s complex and it drives every decision a business makes.

Our clients’ business strategies also form the framework for our design strategies. While these are interrelated, they are not the same thing. Design strategy, as a field of theory and practice, refers to the integrated, holistic planning process examining the interplay between design and business strategy. However, for most graphic designers, design strategy simply refers to the conceptual underpinning for their creative work.

Terry Lee Stone's Chart of Influences to Design Strategy

WHAT IS DESIGN STRATEGY?

There really is no one definition of design strategy, but the goal is to merge business and creative objectives in a meaningful way that moves design beyond just an aesthetic exercise. “When we integrate design processes and design thinking into the larger business goals of our companies or clients, we elevate the concept of design to a strategic tool that businesses can leverage,” says Rob Bynder, creative director and owner of RBD | Robert Bynder Design Inc. in Newberry Park, CA. While inextricably linked, business and design strategies meet different needs. “Business strategy includes financial, product and market objectives, which are best expressed through brand touchpoints, says Greg Mann, partner and creative director at The Fibonacci Design Group LLC in Los Angeles. “Design strategy is the roadmap for the visual and media components that help to build and drive these objectives.”

Design strategy could be described as inventing the language to express your client’s business strategy most clearly. Jamie Koval, president of VSA Partners in Chicago, puts it this way: “Design strategy articulates the parameters and potential of a specific challenge that drive a series of solutions or result. It’s simple, compelling and actionable.” And as with any language, evolution and variation are inevitable and should be accommodated. “Design strategy is a dimensional, multifaceted plan that allows traveling down different paths,” says Volker Dürre, creative director of Dürre Design Inc. in Los Angeles. “We want to include flexibility and the option of organic growth into the agenda right from the start.”

DESIGN TOUCHPOINTS

Terry Lee Stone's Touchpoints for Design Strategy

WHAT GOES INTO A DESIGN STRATEGY?

Any design strategy should address the following:

  • Existing problems and ongoing challenges
  • Current benefi ts and successes to be leveraged
  • Unmet client/customer needs
  • Changing client/customer behaviors and attitudes
  • Emerging ideas and trends
  • Opportunities to differentiate

The way these issues are addressed is the essence of the strategy. When this process is translated from business language and actions into design language and actions it becomes the basis for a design strategy. (See Influences and Touchpoint charts)

“What is the one thing I find myself saying over and over again to my internal clients about design strategy? ‘Our design strategy is not about what you like or what I like. It’s about what’s right for us as a company and, ultimately, for our company’s customers. Our company is invested in this approach, and staying on strategy is the best way to create value for our clients.” — LAURA TU, PWC

Some designers confuse design strategy with a creative brief, but understanding the distinction is critical. “Design strategy is how we recommend approaching the project; a creative brief helps frame what is being requested by the client and is an integral part of communication between client and designer,” says Justin Ahrens, principal/creative director of Rule29 in Geneva, IL. “The design strategy can often expand or contract that brief, based on the research or findings while the strategy is being developed.”


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