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43 Steps to a Well-Prepared Design Strategist

May 30, 2011

You’re asked to serve as a design strategist in an innovation initiative at a large corporation.

They’ve asked you to come in on Monday for a get-to-know-you session and an ideation over lunch.

Are you ready?

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you prepare for this new opportunity to let your design strategy talents shine.

Here, as well, are some suggestions to help keep your saw sharp and your thinking sharper.

Not in any order – skim the list and look for one that catches your attention.

If you don’t see one of your favorites here, or if one of these hits home for you, let us know by leaving a comment.

1. Creativity and design are tough to defend. Seek out stories of how design strategists have defended creativity in their lives as well as in corporate board rooms. Hone these stories down into a half dozen or so easy to recall arguments and techniques for easy access when you need them.

2. At the end of each day, ask yourself two questions: How can business leaders and designers join forces to build creative strategies that will ensure a more profitable future? How can business leaders and designers join forces to build creative strategies that will ensure a more sustainable future? Aim to come up with one new idea each day.

3. Design strategists strive to see problems through other’s perspectives. To stay up-to-date concerning ways strategies are being used to help shape business, consider reading about addressing business problems from the perspective of Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design, in his book A Fine Line.

4. Aim for profitability and sustainability as being co-existent, mutually beneficial and non-exclusive. For inspiration, start here.

5. Read “the four frog principleswritten down 40 years ago (and still in use) by Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design.

6. Highly successful design strategists take a definition – and stance – on design thinking? What is yours?

7. Do you believe, like Bruce Nussbaum, that design thinking is dead? If yes, what – if anything – do you believe will take its place?

8. Design strategists know the outer limits of their roles. Do you have branding experts, graphic artists, presentation gurus, at your disposal? Have you kept their contact information up to date? Do you stay in touch even when you don’t have an assignment for them (in fact, it is always a good idea to keep in touch: as some serve as referrals for design strategy assignments.)

9. Come up with a metaphor for how you see design and business relating: as a marriage? as mentor and mentee? as strange bedfellows? In what ways does your experience support this view?

10. Reframe past projects – especially those that were not specifically or entirely design strategy-related assignments – in terms of design strategy. Be prepared to discuss them in these terms.

11. In The Design of Business, Roger Martin states that knowledge moves through three stages – a mystery, a heuristic and an algorithm. Mysteries are the discovery of new opportunities or research into solving intractable problems. Heuristics are rules of thumb that narrow the size and scope of mysteries and make them more manageable. Algorithms reduce the heuristics into repeatable processes. What are 10 rules of thumb that you regularly refer to or use in your practice? Keep a list for future reference.

12. Design strategists have one foot in design and the other business. Or, instead, both feet in design peering through into the inner workings of a business? Which best describes your circumstance? Do you approach business from a design perspective? Or design from a business perspective? How can you use this approach as a differentiator? How does the way you see yourself impact how you go about taking-on assignments?

13. Highly successful design strategists have a favorite design strategy book that they can recommend to others. What is yours?

14. Read widely outside your area of focus. Stories on how companies utilize design to innovate and change appear in the most unlikely places.

15. Design strategists are right brained whereas strategic designers are left brained. Right? Even if this is not the case, design consultants and entrepreneurs require business plans like any other business. Consider The Right Brain Business Plan by Jennifer Lee.

16. Many companies attempt to be innovative by spending on R&D, bringing in creative designers, hiring innovation consultants. What in your experience are the results for these and other interventions? How, in comparison, will their working with a design strategist lead to more satisfying results? Be prepared to respond to this question.

17. What’s your definition of a wicked problem? What makes a problem wicked? Complexity? How about time constraints? Watch this 5 minute video on one approach to solving wicked problems.

18. What services do you offer? Here’s an example of a one page description (Roger Martin calls it an “information sheet” handout) designed in terms of the service – and not, like a resume, the
person giving it. How would you create a similar sheet to leave with those you meet with or are in contact with?

19. Look below for examples of other services offered, how they are defined, how they are distinguished and how they are offered.

20. What role does business analysis and analytics play in your work? How important is it to the success of your outcomes? How much do you rely on analytical thinking? What role does it play in incrementally improving your client’s business status quo? What role does it play in improving their results?

21. Can you come up with at least two cases – whether those you were involved in or from the industry – where, through your or other’s intervention, a company’s productivity grew and their costs decreased, creating value for the company? Are you prepared to retell these stories? Here’s a list to get you started.

22. Why retain a design strategist? Two reasons: to help produce breakthrough innovations and create a competitive advantage for a business. Can you list five others?

23. Design strategists – and their clients – make use of a special type of thinking process: integrative thinking. Do you have a definition for integrative thinking? Start here and here and here.

24. Not all design strategists realize that they are in the business of meaning-making. How would convince a company to adopt an innovation process that’s centered on meaning? How would you go about helping a company devise new meanings and create the designs to embody them? What processes would you use? For suggestions, see Nathan Shedroff’s Making Meaning.

25. What are you devoted to accomplishing? This is your devotion. Do you have one? Here’s Roger Martin’s, Dean of the Rotman School of Management.

26. What tactic do you have in place to stop researching and start synthesizing the information you have gathered? How do you keep from researching (or preparing or doing pre-design work) forever – and how do you communicate this to the client?

27. If the most important design tool is indeed asking good questions (do you agree?) what are five questions you have at hand to ask any prospective client?

28. Five questions you have at hand to ask a client you have recently completed work for?

29. Design strategy case studies on P&G, RIM and Cirque du Soleil are predictable. Can you come up with three case studies that used design strategy initiatives that few would have previously considered.

30. What’s your take on design research? Qualitative or quantitative? How do you distinguish between market research and design research? For a place to start, look here and here.

31. In recent years designers have moved from styling consumer products to more strategic roles: designing experiences, services and business models. Describe how you have made this transition – and what insights from serving as a designer carry over to your strategy work.

32. How would you go about designing for customer loyalty? In a market economy characterized by global competition and commoditized products, how would you strategize so that companies gain deep and lasting loyalty from their customers?

33. Quick: What’s your definition for Creativity? For Innovation? For Design? How do you differentiate between each?

34. Distinguish design strategy from design management. What are meant by the two terms? How does each provide value for the client? For the fundamentals, look here and here.

35. Your client asks you to take them through the steps of innovation – to help them understand and demystify the process for them. Do you explain that there are many methods or that you suggest one method no matter the client or assignment? How would you describe a typical step-by-step innovation process to your client? For one suggestion, look here.

36. Does design drive innovation or does innovation drive design? Or both? Prepare a short response for yourself should the need to discuss the topic come up (and it will.)

37. Describe your design strategy in terms of being a collaborative process. How do you work with others? How are they included and when in the process?

38. Design strategy has been used in business not only to address product design and branding but also to address medical shift changes and rethink supply chain management. What are some of the more unusual ways that you have used design strategy? Keep an ongoing list of examples for how it can be applied, in what settings and to what ends.

39. How well do you know your client’s business? Are you familiar enough with it to be able to comfortably speak using their terminology – not that of the design world? What method(s) do you have in place to go about becoming familiar with their language so that you can tap it when needed?

40. IDEO’s Tim Brown views the power of design “not as a link in a chain but as the hub of a wheel”…not as a stage in a process but as a centrifugal force with involvement at all levels and in all areas of
operation. “Design is now too important to be left to designers.” Do you agree? How do you view the role of design in business? What imagery or symbol would you use to describe it?

41. What would you do differently in approaching a small business and a large corporation? What impact, if any, does the size of organization have on how you operate as a design strategist?

42. You might find that you are doing things right – but are you doing the right things? Make a list of the things – in life – that you have let slip due to workload or other commitments. Frequently these are the very things that energize, fulfill and complete us. Come up with a plan to start addressing them. To see how one man faced his “let slip” list, read Unfinished Business.

43. Business leaders see innovation as the key to a competitive edge and yet businesses report a success rate of only four percent for innovation initiatives. How would you suggest your client increas their odds of succeeding at innovation?

Bonus: What is your definition of a design strategist? Share it by leaving a comment.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. robert serec permalink
    May 31, 2011 10:50 am

    Randy, great overview; not for design strategists only, but for R&D and brand managers, design people and others who have to deal with design in general in order to help them understand each other and consequently develop common denominator in internal communication, this was straight to the point. Reminds me on years when I was responsible for design and brand management. I only wish I could read an article like this. It would definitely spare me some painful experiences. Thanks

    • May 31, 2011 11:23 am

      Thanks Robert for the feedback and for sharing your insights.

      I appreciate your stopping by and am glad that you found some useful ideas here!

  2. June 1, 2011 10:18 am

    Randy, this is a great post! As I launch my own consultancy born out of a passion for design and experience strategy, your thoughts and questions will help me solidify some key messages and talking points. Just the kick-in-the-pants I need!

    I’ll add this: The importance of Story and its role in design strategy cannot be over-emphasized. A compelling, relevant story drives success not only for us as design strategy professionals developing our businesses, but also for our clients as they come to understand and integrate our work into their organizations.

    • June 7, 2011 1:21 pm

      Thanks for the overview here, it is really helpful, thought I find myself having to continually justify the presence of design within the company I work for. I am currently working on a design strategy and am being asked some really intersting questions.
      One of which is, howis design different from marketing because it seems like I could do that?
      any answers to this question would be greatfully received


      • June 8, 2011 8:20 am

        Thanks Gary for your thoughtful comment. Glad that you found this post helpful.

        The design vs marketing question is a great one, and also a big one – one that deserves a more indepth treatment than space allows here. I plan on addressing it in an upcoming post. In the mean time, if anyone else would like to chime-in on the topic, please do so here. Thanks again, Randy

  3. Steve permalink
    January 23, 2012 7:24 am

    Super instruction Randy.
    This article is written by an expert in this field.
    It shows depth, insight and passion for the subject.
    It will aid non-academic designers, in their quest to formalize their experience and expertise.
    Long overdue.


  1. 43 Steps to a Well-Prepared Design Strategist (via the design strategist) « Censemaking
  2. 43 Steps to a Well-Prepared Design Strategist (via the design strategist) « Censemaking

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