5 Secrets of Strategic Designers

The background of this article stems from my interest in how Strategic Industrial Design forms the backbone of thinking in the very best designers in our field. Therefore I have been quietly spending some time studying and observing strategic designers and their “modus operandi”. In the process, I have been fortunate to meet, attend lectures, interact and share ideas with such talented strategic designers and design leaders.
These 5 secrets of Strategic Designers have been derived from some of my conclusions, and I would like to now share this with you.

Image: The Pathway of Strategic Designers

In general, I believe Strategic Designers have a very unique approach to things, especially in regard to the design process. The strategic designers’ pathway around the design process oscillates from a “bird’s eye” view of things to a “telescopic” focused one and then back up to a “bird’s eye” view again. Rinse and repeat. This constant momentum allows them to keep on reframing the tasks or design problems at hand. The ability to “Zoom” in and out (and not get dizzy!) is an important over arching skill that strategic designer have.
So who wants to be a Strategic Designer? Let’s now dig a little deeper to find out how:
1) They are great Zoomers!
We have already touched briefly on this first secret. It is aptly put as the first point as it’s the most important. The ability to engage in big picture thinking and yet still be details orientated is what I like to call “Zooming”, and its people “Zoomers”.
Strategic Designers have this ability to look at situations or design problems from many different angles, think through different solutions, and finally reframe the answer at high and detailed levels.
This reframing ability requires a lot of skill. The key ingredient in reframing problems is the all important ability to wear many hats and speak the many different languages of business, marketing, design, engineering and manufacturing etc.
Remember all the times you bitched and moaned about how Industrial Designers are “jacks of all trades and masters of none”? Well now you know where to start!
2) They know the design process like the back of their hand.
Strategic Designers are experts of the design process. They know it so well that they can “swim” in it, mould it and control it. The ability to have ultimate control over the design process means that they can ensure that the strategic objectives are achieved or at least maintained.
Strategic Designers also know that in order to manage the chaos, design can sometimes be, a strong process is the key. Designs cannot be conceived in a vacuum, but I like to add, Design cannot be executed without a strong process. The best strategic designers all work with a strong and efficient design process, some processes are personal, but most are part of an organizational system.
Learn it, live it and love it. Look to the process, it will guide you.
3) They are able to do everything.
I’ve never met Strategic Designers or leaders who were not designers first or did not cut his/her teeth in the design trenches. Being designers first, they are able to do everything a designer can, and perhaps more, because of their connection to the wider view and their ability to reframe.
The problem is that because of their focus in design strategy and management they do tend to get rusty, in fact very rusty with the technical design stuff. Therefore it is very advisable for Strategic Designers to keep that “designer in you” alive. Personal projects, constant sketching, running design programs are all ways strategic designers use to keep in touch with things.
4) They also know that they don’t have to do everything.
Strategic Designers know the value of a good team and great team work. They also know when to let go and try not to do everything. Letting go is the hardest, but they know where their value lies and when they can add this value in the design process.
Therein lies a sad truth with Strategic Designers, they are always almost part of a team and rarely individuals. It looks to me almost impossible to walk the path of a Strategic Designer and also manage the design process at the same time.
5) There is “no job too big or too small”.
The interesting thing about Strategic Designers is that their ability is scalable. No problem too big or too small. Strategic Design can be about the smallest thing and also about the biggest. You don’t have to be running multi-million dollar programs to be strategic; you can also be strategic with small meaningful solutions.
Strategic design is about an approach or a process of design. Like any process once you get it right it can applicable on many levels and in many situations.
So what do you think? Do my observations make sense? I love to hear what you think and please do not hesitate to leave your comments; I look forward to reading them.

  • leena dandane

    October 1, 2010 at 11:13 pm Reply

    thank you, this was the great article and i wil have some implematation by read it in my field as a product designer. do send me such a great article . best of luck.

  • joeri

    October 1, 2010 at 4:05 pm Reply

    Great Article indeed, as well as the response to it!
    To me , a great strategic designer is not only a team memebr when it comes to design, but also the link between various business units. A strategic designer is able to use design as a potent business tool to achieve succes for a company, be it with products, grapics, environments, as well as brand and reputation.
    Indeed a zoomer, but foremost a connector, that can join various disciplines. They create company awareness by connecting and inspiring also other people within their company.

  • leena dandane

    September 7, 2009 at 10:43 pm Reply

    Thank you for this great article. I had just graduate in B.Des(Product Design)from N.D.M.V.P’S College of Architecture and School for Design Nashik.So can you please suggest any firm or industry for job.

  • Katerina

    July 23, 2009 at 7:11 pm Reply

    A great article!Thank you for it.it’s very usful.Working in Russia we allways had to deal with clients that don’t understand what is ‘design strategy’ for. We always have to explain the difference between marketing research and design research and strategy.

  • Lloyd Pennington

    June 9, 2009 at 4:48 am Reply

    Thanks Brian for that. I really enjoy reading Design Sojourn.
    I never thought of myself as “strategic” but I certainly identify with your observations. Most in particular the “zooming” I used to try illustrate this in workshops I have run by using MS Paint to remove red eye from a photograph. You must ‘zoom in’ to the pixels to do the work, but you have to zoom out’ to see the result, and failing to see the big picture you end up with a blotchy mess, whilst failing to focus on the detail you wind up losing control. I also have to agree with letting go; it is very hard but very necessary. I guess I

  • Joanne Hippolyte

    June 3, 2009 at 6:15 pm Reply

    Except the bit about process. I use different design processes like tools and i mix them business knowledge – this makes higher level translation much easier. nice!!

  • John Jacobsen

    March 31, 2009 at 5:23 am Reply

    I especially love the part about always being into something: “Therefore it is very advisable for Strategic Designers to keep that

  • Udit Chaudhuri

    March 29, 2009 at 9:57 pm Reply

    Very well put into five points.
    My associate immediately annointed me Strategic Designer on reading and immediately forwarded me this link!
    But the sad part is also true – the strategic designer ‘follows from the front’ instead of leading from the front as a development manager or design manager tends to.

  • DT

    March 15, 2009 at 9:29 am Reply

    Hi All,
    Sorry for the late reply, let me get into your replies!
    @gwen To me a design researcher is someone that, simply put, researches products. The design strategist, uses the information, synthesizes it, and reapplies the information into a situation in a meaningful manner. A design researcher’s work may be somewhat broad based and spread to cover a lot of ground.
    @larry I think sometimes it is a political thing, but in every team or organization there is a built up of different individuals. A superstar cannot do it all without the support of the rest of the team. Even people like Karim Rashid or Marc Newson have a boat load of supporters behind them to realise their genius sketches.
    @erik and @jodesi, thanks for leaving the comments, please do stop by again.

  • jodesi

    March 9, 2009 at 9:06 am Reply

    Thank you very much for defining my goal as a designer..
    so much in detail..
    It made me think of what I should concentrate on further in my career!

  • Erik - productdesignresources.com

    February 23, 2009 at 1:04 am Reply


  • larry Rosenthal

    February 14, 2009 at 9:10 am Reply

    “Therein lies a sad truth with Strategic Designers, they are always almost part of a team and rarely individuals. “.”
    The BEST design managers are those who are LEADING the team, and can see the overview strategy.
    The real sadness is that the myth today promotes the “team” as more valueble than the “individuals” that comprise it.

  • gwen

    February 13, 2009 at 12:43 pm Reply

    I appreciate the quick explanation of strategic designer. For someone who is “working the system backwards” (worked on design strategies during college and then working in the real world as an industrial designer.) the concept of zooming is like an “ah-ha” realization in my head. That it is very true.
    But i also feeling the better effective strategists are the ones who are great in storytelling, or at least create a vision to communicate to their clients. Being detailed in the vision is a must, because it shows thoroughness and thoroughness leads to trust. Trust is the main value with client relationships.
    overall it gave me a bit more clarity to what makes a design strategist and a design researcher different. Or does it? That is what is concerning for me how to draw a line between a design researcher’s job verses a design strategist’s.

  • DT

    February 3, 2009 at 11:05 pm Reply

    Hey Christopher,
    LOL! It’s not that, I just think we designers need to at least stamp our mark on design thinking a little more! Shocking as we coined the term, I believe.
    Thanks for your suggestion on the funnel analogy, in fact I am thinking along a similar lines and will focusing my next strategic design post on “Filtration Time” for designs.

  • DT

    February 3, 2009 at 10:58 pm Reply

    Hey Adam,
    Thanks for your comment and I’m honored that you stopped by and shared your thoughts. I fully relate on drawing skills going to crap! I’ve made it my new year resolution to try to bring back some creditability in that area!
    Your suggestion on a bottom-up leading via questioning is a very good one and something, I have also found as a great way to manage designers as it does not step on toes too much. Discussion is the way to go, especially if our drawing skills are not up to par!
    Please keep in touch?

  • DT

    February 3, 2009 at 10:46 pm Reply

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leaving your comments.
    In this recession, strategic designers have an especially important role to play. They help businesses figure out not only what to do but also the right thing to do.
    Personally, I feel the value-add is tremendous and a vital ingredient to any successful product development team.

  • Christopher Fahey

    February 3, 2009 at 1:01 am Reply

    Don’t let the design thinking people see this! They’ll flip when they learn that they need to cut their teeth doing actual design work, first! 🙂
    I would modify your diagram and show how the strategic designer can either re-expand the funnel when they think it’s gotten too narrow too fast (so the funnel would have wiggly, hourglass like edges rather than a straight linear taper), and how they can also open up new funnels even as an older funnel is still closing.
    Great article.

  • Adam Richardson

    February 1, 2009 at 1:24 pm Reply

    You’ve described my job 🙂 I don’t know if I’m great at it, but it’s the role that I have evolved into and I enjoy it. For myself I found that I had to consciously make a break about 5 years ago from day to day designing. I just don’t have time to do it anymore. So my drawing skills have gone to crap.
    Another skill I would suggest, at least one that I try to use, is what might be called a Socratic method of moving a project along. Rather than a “top-down” approach to managing I find it better to encourage a bottom-up approach by asking questions instead of pushing answers, but still leading with direction. But the problems we work on tend to be too complicated for one person to figure out by themselves, so a discussion-based way of solving them works better, based on research.
    Also I would say that being able to shift seamlessly between creative and analytic modes of thinking is crucial. Sometimes every minute, or hour, or day, just depends on the situation.

  • Andrew

    January 29, 2009 at 5:01 am Reply

    Thanks for your new article! It was very interesting and cognitive. And I understand that I absolutely agree with you.
    But what do you think about role of strategic designer in the current situation (economic crisis, decrease R&D budgets, lay-offs)? Did the strategic design take on special significance?

  • DT

    January 28, 2009 at 10:40 pm Reply

    Hi Drew,
    Thanks for your very kind comment. Such comments do really keep me going! Please do keep in touch.

  • Drew Smith

    January 28, 2009 at 10:07 pm Reply

    Thanks for the fantastic post. I’m just starting out in the wild world of strategic automotive design and to read your comments about what I want to achieve in my career was both affirming and inspirational.
    Cheers and keep up the great work!

Post a Comment