Some time ago I was invited to participate in a well known design forum roundtable. We discussed some issues about our profession as designers, a healthy classic. How design works for society or what can people — as users or clients – expect from a designer were some of the main topics.

This post aims to answer some of these questions: Can we ask a designer to build a better selling product? To understand or rethink a company’s business model? Can designers help companies when undertaking strategic decisions? Can a designer create a brand full of value for customers? Could they take part in innovation processes putting forward solutions to complex problems?

From my point of view, the answer for all these questions is “yes” and it is exactly what strategic design is for. Furthermore, Erretres’ tagline is “The Strategic Design Company” and thereforeI feel even more compelled to write about it.

I will try to explain what Strategic Design is and why Erretres’ position on the matter is so distinct about it.


The definition of Strategic Design

Traditionally, design is understood as the final part (the aesthetics) of a process which enables the creation of services and products. This approach divides disciplines into four areas: product design, visual communication, information or interface design and spatial design.

Nowadays, we understand design not as a result but as a process. In fact, one of the most accepted definitions describes design as the ability to identify challenges and create opportunities when setting up new services and products.

If we were looking for the definition of strategy, we will find that it doesn’t differ much from the current one for design, as both work towards similar objetives to accomplish institutional goals which satisfy the final user, not the institution.

And so, strategic design encompass both the traditional view of design (design as a final result) and the contemporary view (design as a result + design as a process).


Strategic Design matters

To argue the importance of strategic design I will discuss four main points: innovation, its relation to design, design integration within companies and the value of strategic design in solving complex problems.


On our extremely global and competitive market, clients seek satisfaction and brands seen to be distinct from the competition. If innovation leads to differentiation, then design is innovation’s catalyst. So if a company aims to innovate it has to bet on design in a bold way and integrate it into its corporate strategy. We must also understand design as a creative activity bringing ideas to the market in order to transform them into appealing and easy to use products or services. Thus, understanding design as part of an innovating process is critical when launching distinct outcomes. To argue yhe importance of strategic design I will discuss four main points: innovation, its relation to design, design integration within companies and the value of strategic design in solving complex problems.

Design Integration within companies

The Danish Design Center published a very relevant study which distinguishes four stages of incorporating design within organizations:

1- There is no design
2- Design understood as Style
3- Design understood as Process
4- Design understood as Strategy (Strategic Design)

It does indeed reveal not only of the importance design holds within a mature organization, but also how and where the profession is evolving and on which are the necessities of these companies going to be.

The Complexity of the Current Problem

Today’s society reveals that the most important challenges are often related to a series of persistent and interconnected problems, which are called wicked problems — for example overpopulation, globalization or the burnout of natural resources.

Marty Neumeier in “The Designful Company” transposes this idea to corporate sphere where companies are facing “wicked problems” which are deeply related to our profession, such as the alignment between business strategy and user experience, the always-innovating attitude to be up to date in an always changing environment, building meaningful brands.

It is becoming increasingly common that any existing solutions narrow our vision to satisfactorily respond to a problem and so creativity and design (as a process) are keys to successfully solve problems society has never faced before.

It is obvious that these are challenges a designer can not solve alone, they require a strategic perspective. Analysis, tools and processes are as important as the final output.

Design Market

On the one hand, our clients are constantly facing even more complex challenges and are thus demanding that designers to deal with them, but on the other hand the design market is deeply fragmented and competition is huge. If our clients are considering design as a matter of style, then we will face difficulty in get paid for the job done. It is not a material issue but we are boosting much more than formal beauty from products and aesthetics are neither solving our client’s problems nor reaching their customers satisfactory.

Three Truths About Strategic Design

The new way of understanding design is rooted in three aspects:

1- Design is advantageous in every organization, no matter which sector or their size.
2- Design is more advantageous when integrated into the organization’s culture.
3- Design is user centered.

Let’s go trough these:

1- A survey conducted in the United Kingdom by The Design Council revealed that 16% of the companies were pinning design as a key factor of the suscces of their services and product. This percentage rises up to 47% when considering fast growing companies, and so design is clearly advantageous for every organization.

2- Generating new products represents a competitive advantage for a company capable of integrating the design into its culture, a company in which strategy and design converge: what we call strategic design. When an institution understands design both as a process and as a result, the advantages are limitless.

3- Innovation, when designing new products, involves understanding the user’s needs and worries. By doing this we can respond with smart products, satisfying experiences and meaningful brands.


The definition of Strategic Design

What is the difference between a traditional designer and an strategic designer? Can we ask for a product that wins overthe user because of its value and not just because it is appealing or of a distinct identity?The European Commission on Implementing an Action Plan for Design-Driven Innovation (Brussels, 2013) states that designers are professionals capable of dominating the techniques, methodologies and tools while innovating in order to generate lasting value for new services and products.

Thus, a designer with an strategic profile should be capable of working in multidisciplinary teams to develop projects based on market analysis and user needs, being part of an undertaking and innovating ecosystem sharing tools and methodologies and dominating new technologies. All of this, of course, not forgetting traditional designer’s capabilities and knowledge. While the designer was before asked to create formal beauty, nowadays they are asked to generate tangible results aligned with a company’s strategy.

Society is now demanding a new generation of products, which represents an opportunity for companies and designers, but also a challenge of their formation on traditional disciplines (design, editorial, identity, etc) is not enough and must be complemented.

New Tools, New Challenges, New Interlocutors.

While traditional designers must dominate traditional disciplines such as typography, composition or color , the new strategic designer is also expected to manage new techniques and methodologies which can be applied during the entire process of creating the new service or product. Thew Customer Journey, Storytelling, Group Sketching, Role Play… among others, are some very useful techniques. For those starting with this subject this link is worth its weight in gold. I would also recommend to read many of the books on service and strategic design that are available today, for example This is Service Design Thinking or Xenia Viladas’ Design at your Service

Nowadays, it is feasible that our next job will be as a Strategic Designer or Senior Design Researcher, our client to be the responsible for Customer Experience Department over Dircom or Brand Director and the job being done to design a new service from scratch.

Pablo Rubio Ordás is Chief Design Officer & Owner of Erretres.
From Erretres, he has developed many projects for clients across Europe, Asia and América, including: Canal+, ElPaís, Movistar, Sido Japan, Hitachi, Camper, Mapfre, Banco Sabadell, Virgin Money, Museo del Prado, KPMG, VISA or Museo del Prado.

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