Drive Success with Strategy

by Rochelle Seltzer

It’s often said that designers are problem solvers. In fact, that is often the aspect of our work that we are the most passionate about. What’s the key to solving problems consistently and most effectively? Design Strategy.

Do more than rely on your intuition and creative talent — start with a strategy process to solve your clients’ tough problems. When you understand what Design Strategy is and the component steps in the strategy process, you’ll be able to use it to develop solutions that will dramatically move the needle for your clients.

Design Strategy Defined
Design Strategy is a process that powers brilliant design. It starts with gathering intelligence and is followed by synthesizing the information to determine the optimal creative deliverables and key creative attributes. It establishes a foundation that guides both your creative development and your client’s review of the creative. The process results in work that both looks great and solves the business problems at hand.

The nuts and bolts
Theory is great, but let’s look at the steps in the process.

Part 1: The work begins with the design team doing investigation — digging deep to gather the relevant and important intelligence about key issues, including:

  • the client’s business, the value they offer, their culture
  • clarity about who they are and how they want to be seen and understood by their market
  • why they are launching the brand/why a rebrand/what the current brand stands for
  • their business problem, and why they are addressing it now
  • their objectives/what results they want to achieve
  • their positioning, and assessing if it’s solid or needs work
  • their current marketing materials — what they have, what it says, how it looks
  • their market(s) and the dynamics in their market(s)
  • their competitors
  • their audiences and stakeholders
  • why they are loved by their clients, why prospects chose them
  • how the communication tool(s) will get used, fit into a sales cycle

Part 2: Now it gets really interesting. The design team reviews and synthesizes all that’s been learned and determines:

    • the deliverables that will best meet the client’s objectives/solve their problems

(these may be the same as you initially expected, or not)

  • a messaging platform that will resonate with audiences
  • a visual direction (colors to use or avoid, imagery, etc.) that will differentiate and fit the brand personality
  • metrics, so the results can be measured at the end of the engagement


All of the findings and recommendations get presented to your client in a document. They get discussed and reviewed, and if needed, adjustments are made. Then everyone (the client and you/the design team) signs off, and everyone uses the strategy document as roadmap for the project.

Every designer and firm will develop a specific process that works for them and their clients. The amount of research you do will vary for different engagements. The format and length of the strategy documents you create will sometimes vary. What’s crucial is to do the amount of strategy work that is needed for each engagement.

Strategy is the first part of your creative work. When you start the second phase — the visual design — you’ll be working within a context that will focus your solutions and lead to brilliant outcomes.

Rochelle Seltzer owned Seltzer for 26 years and now speaks, writes, consults and teaches about Design Strategy.

Why are your clients loved by their customers? Why have their customers chosen them to work with? Finding the answer to this question, along with many others, will help you position and differentiate your clients in a crowded market.

Illustration courtesy of Craig Winzer

Quick Tips
The research stage of your strategy process can include many approaches, a great place to begin is with A Designer’s Research Manual by Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady.

While Ellen Lupton’s new book, Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming, focuses primarily on approaches to generating creative ideas, it includes good sections on research and problem definition.

Dig Deeper!

David Holston’s book, The Strategic Designer and Peter Phillips’ Creating the Perfect Design Brief–How to Manage Design for Strategic Advantage, both have a lot to offer anyone interested in Design Strategy.

Check out “Positioning Challenge: Combining Strategy & Execution” by David Baker