Booked Up: Dave Holston Shares Strategic Insights

The Strategic Designer: Tools and techniques for managing the design process

Designers are some of the most adaptive professionals around, having successfully navigated any number of changes in processes, technology and mediums over the years. Consider how quickly and seamlessly we’ve moved from paper mechanicals and rubylith (I used to cut ruby for Marvel and DC comics back in the day so I remember this well), to the desktop, to the Web. One other aspect of the design profession that’s been changing is the role of the designer. For years designer’s clamored for a “seat at the table,” a metaphor for the acknowledgement they wanted from their business peers who, until recently, saw design as a “soft” skill that had marginal impact on the bottom-line. Today, there is an understanding that design and design thinking are not only important to business, but are, in fact, key drivers of innovation and sales. Design has arrived.

But even with all the conversation around design’s impact, there are still designers who feel marginalized. I wrote the book The Strategic Designer” with them in mind and with the goal of providing tools and perspectives that would enable them to step up and assert design’s influence, not in an egocentric way, as was done in the past, but in a collaborative and empathic way by bringing together clients, audiences and other design professionals to solve complex design problems through a well-facilitated design process. The “Strategic Designer” is about empowering designers to take leadership roles and initiate conversations that help businesses and organizations meet their strategic goals. Designers have a unique blend of analytical and rational tools and perspectives at their disposal – many of which traditional business people don’t have. Our ability to bring these tools and perspectives to the table not only makes designers more competitive in an increasingly crowded market, but also helps change the perception of designers from “makers of things” to strategic partners.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to “The Strategic Designer”.

Introduction: The New Designer

A few years back I had the good fortune of having lunch with a notable head of a design research firm. Our conversation ran the gamut from ethnography to corporate leadership to design’s importance in business. When I asked whether his company employed designers, he responded matter-of-factly that they did not, and that “design is a commodity.”

You may or may not agree with that statement, but consider that today just about anyone with an Internet connection and $300 can get a logo, brochure, or web design, all from the comfort of their couch, without ever having to meet with a designer. Companies like crowdSPRING, LogoTournament, Logoworks,, and iStock can provide design customers with a range of options, quickly and cheaply through a crowd-sourcing strategy. In this model, designers compete against each other, and the client pays only for the idea he selects. These services are targeted at small to midsize companies that see value in developing visual identities, but either do not have the means or desire to engage with design agencies. Most significantly, these design clients do not see a difference in the value provided from crowd-sourced options and professional designers. When customers see products as similar and make their selection based on price, this is called commoditization.

For the design community this is unnerving on several levels. Not only is it seen as devaluing the design profession by allowing nonprofessionals to compete, but some of these services are seen as unethical and in violation of professional standards, particularly the concept of working on spec. However, for clients with limited budgets and limited thresholds for risk, these services provide a real value. To them, the value of a professionally designed logo, website, or photo compared to one designed by an anonymous designer is negligible. Ultimately the market cares little for professional standards, and no amount of fist shaking and professional credos will stop the democratization of design that has been made possible by the availability of computers, accessible graphic design software and a desire on the part of people to participate in the creation of not only design, but the products, services, and experiences that touch their lives.

The question is: How do designers compete in this new environment? 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. In 2000, U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said that technical know-how would be superseded by “the ability to create, analyze, and transform information and to interact effectively with others.” This idea is echoed in Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, in which Pink projects that the future economy will be driven by six key “senses”: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. For designers with a collaborative spirit and the ability to collect and synthesize information, this is good news.

As competition increases and client needs expand, it is becoming clear that designers in this new era must not only be experts in form, as they traditionally have been, but they must be equally skilled in solving more complex problems by calling on a broader range of skills in the social sciences, technology, and the organization of teams. The ability to collaborate, manage the increasing complexity of design problems, to design “in context” to their target audiences, and to be accountable for design decisions through measurement transforms designers from “makers of things” to “design strategists.” Along with the ability to create form, these skills complete the designer of the conceptual economy.

With over 25 years experience, Dave Holston has worked in the fields of design management, advertising, marketing and public affairs for some of the world’s largest organizations—helping them take a strategic design approach that integrates planning, research, implementation and evaluation. As the Director of Strategic Design Management at The University of Texas at Austin, Dave is responsible for the development and management of the university’s brand as well as leading a nationally recognized design team in the creation of print and web collateral, research, advertising and brand management.

Prior to working with the university, Dave served as lead designer for General Electric Services, Martin Marietta Services and Lockheed Martin Services companies. He has also held the position of Senior Art Director at the Philadelphia advertising firm Signature Communications, and later Creative Director for the European PC game developer Blue Byte Software. Throughout his career, Dave has focused on positioning design as key component of business success. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two daughters. …..