Booked Up: The New Designer Defined

Even with all the conversation in the business community around design’s impact, there are many designers who feel marginalized. David Holston wrote the book The Strategic Designer with them in mind, 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, bringing together clients, audiences and other design professionals to solve complex design problems through a well facilitated design process.

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

Four Principals of the New Designer

Clearly the design profession is starting to put more emphasis on a broader set of skills. However, the idea of a well-rounded design professional is hardly a new concept. In 1957, Henry Dreyfuss said, “A successful performer in this new field is a man of many hats. He does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste, and he has painstakingly cultivated his own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, and distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking

management, engineering, and the consumer and cooperates with all three.” The thought of orchestrating the diverse disciplines that make up business, research, social sciences, and design into the design process can seem daunting. However, we see that these areas can be captured in four basic principles.

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 the 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, proto-typing 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.

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. …..

2 thoughts on “Booked Up: The New Designer Defined

  1. Andrew

    I should apologize ahead of time for my tone of panic and hyperbole, I might have read a few too many articles lately declaring the latest shift in the chimeric role of the “New” Designer, and my career anxieties are showing just a bit.

    I have a few questions/concerns?:
    In order to be prepared as a New Designer (by this article’s very loose definition), how many different degrees will we need? I know that the “set decorator” toolbox is still the mainstay of the traditional design degree program, but very few educational programs that I have seen have a terribly thorough (if any) covering of Marketing, Research, or Business.

    I work with a few younger designers, who are much fresher from school (Art Institute), who are also going through the same experience of disappointment and anxiety. Our educations have left us without the marketing and business skills and experience that are now being discussed everywhere and sought out as relevant and even necessary. Job options are getting scarce for us without a BA, regardless of length of experience. It is frustrating to discover that my design school tuition went towards my current career as a 30ish year old graphic dinosaur, where I was taught to merely focus on aesthetic skills and “making things.” But at least I understand now why all the Graphic Design listings mention little to none of the career skills mentioned at my rapidly more distant portfolio review. I foolishly bought into a career track in Graphic Design, but I guess that the industry’s scramble for a seat at the big kid’s Business table got there faster than I, or the heads of local Graphic Design programs, could take notice. It appears my stock has diminished overnight. My parents will be amused, having recommended a Business degree over my creative pursuits. Maybe they can help me pay for the second round of school! Should I even bother with design education anymore, or just get on a 12-year track for a triple MBA/MBS/MFA and aim for becoming a Strategic Thought Leaders® with a part-time job at Starbucks?

    Enough with the (mis)educational context for my rant. Am I misunderstanding the role this article is describing, and “Strategic Designer” is just another step up an intact chain from Graphic Designer (aka “makers of things”)? Or do you see the role of Graphic Designer moving further away from aesthetic production and towards the gabardine-lined arms of Business Consultancy? I suppose I will have to purchase and read the book to find out the specifics of where the new role for the New Graphic Designer lies, and how it will be defined and differentiated from an underpaid and under-titled Marketing Management Consultant.