Go Deep to Drive Strategy

by Rochelle Seltzer

Let’s face it, designers are often put off by the idea of doing research. It sounds dry, uncreative, and sometimes downright scary. Actually, doing research upon which to develop Design Strategy is both interesting and enjoyable. The findings will speed your creative process and ensure great impact for your clients.

Research is a crucial first step in the Design Strategy process, and everyone can learn to do. Here’s how to become a good sleuth.

Assess how much you need to know
Every engagement will entail some fact-finding. Depending on the scope and complexity of the assignment, the size of the client and the budget, determine how much and what kind of research to do. Designers can usually conduct the research, but sometimes partnering with a specialist will be ideal.

What should you research and how do you do it?
1. Conduct interviews with your client — Start by identifying their objectives. They came to you with a business problem, so get to the heart of it — and find out why they’re addressing it now. Be sure to identify the outcomes they want to achieve, too.

Next gather intelligence about your client. Pose questions to the senior members of the organization to learn about:

  • their business, the value they offer, their culture
  • how they want to be seen by their market
  • why they are launching the brand/why a rebrand/what the current brand stands for

Speak to people in lower-level positions about the attributes of the company, too. When consistent nuggets emerge you’ll have especially reliable information.

2. Conduct interviews with people outside of the organization — Whenever possible, ask to talk to customers and referrers, both long-standing as well as some who just came on board. Find out why clients are loyal and what attracted new buyers. Try to speak to customers who’ve left, or prospects that decided not to buy, to glean great insights.

You may also decide to conduct surveys, send questionnaires, or run focus groups to help you understand customers.

3. Get to the heart of who they are — Especially for new identity and brand work, a card-sorting exercise is a terrific way to identify the 4 or 5 key attributes that your work should convey to all audiences. Create a deck of a few hundred adjectives, and one by one have the client team sort them into piles of YES, NO, MAYBE and “WANT-TO-BE”. Sort the MAYBE’s into other piles, discard the NO’s, and winnow down what’s left to 4 or 5 words. It’s challenging work for your client, but you’ll all have it boiled down to the essence and ready to use!

4. Investigate critical issues— It’s time to evaluate and review your client’s:

  • positioning — is it solid? does it need work?
  • current marketing materials —what do they say? how do they look?
  • market(s)/dynamics in their market(s) — what’s going on? are there any new opportunities or threats?
  • competitors — evaluate their materials, as well as strengths and weaknesses
  • audiences and stakeholders — consider demographics, create personae
  • and, find out how the communication tool(s) you’re creating will get used, how they’ll fit into a sales cycle

You may find that techniques like ethnographic research and visual anthropology will help for your assignment. Use the tools that will best help you gather the needed intelligence.

What happens next?
You’ll be ready to synthesize the findings and develop optimal strategies for design to solve your client’s business problem. You’ll love the way that the strategies — and the creative development that follows — will flow when you have this knowledge and context in place.

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




Every project will entail some form of research. Use the scope and complexity of the assignment, the size of the client and the budget, to determine how much research you need and what methods to utilize.


Quick Tips
1. Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler has a great chapter on conducting research, with information that’s applicable to all kinds of design projects.

2. A Designer’s Research Manual by Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady explains all the tools you might employ to do great research.


Dig Deeper!
Want to make a deck of adjectives for card-sorting exercises? Here’s a set of words to help you get started.

If you want to learn about doing research later in the creative process, The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier has a great section on testing concepts — and the book is a terrific read.


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