IDSA INNOVATION Fall Magazine 2023

Insight - 11/14/23

Design Strategy: Your Secret Weapon

8 min

By Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman

Why are so many designers talking about strategy? Design Strategy is a new buzzword. Everywhere I turn, it seems that people are talking about it and how it has helped them design incredible (and successful) products. But let’s back up for a minute. What exactly is design strategy, and why do we need it? These are the questions that designers Katie Lim, IDSA, senior industrial designer at frog, Emilie Williams, IDSA, co-founder and leader of creative direction at Hydrific by LIXIL, Daniela Macías, IDSA, global experience design manager at Colgate-Palmolive, Monica Welcker, founder of Weft Designs, and I discussed on a panel at last month’s International Design Conference in NYC.

Putting It in Context

As designers, our primary task is to create new products. To do this most effectively, we need to master many skills. Even before we can start to sketch, model, and prototype our designs, we need to understand the landscape in which the product lives. Design strategy always is—or should be—at the forefront of our creative process. Lim said, “It’s the who, where, when, how, and why to define the what. Simply put, design strategy is a thoughtful, responsible, and intentional first step that considers everything before, around, and after your design.” Design strategy serves as a road map to align user needs, business goals, the product, and its manufacturing feasibility with the company’s mission and vision. Welcker summed it up as “design strategy is the intersection between design thinking and business development.”

But design strategy can be more than just balancing business and user needs. Williams, who has a unique view being part of a startup within a large corporation, explained that “it’s important to define what we mean by ‘design strategy’ since it can mean something very different depending on the context, audience, or application—whether to a single product, an entire brand, a particular market, an innovation development, or even an internal company process.” She also said that developing and implementing a successful design strategy helps craft better products for people and the environment they exist within while also achieving those ever-critical business goals and providing consistent and engaging products and brands.

Macías, whose long career at Colgate-Palmolive has straddled working in two countries and multiple divisions, added that “creating a robust design strategy that aligns with the overall company’s strategy, enables designers to create a solid foundation for our design process. … It structures our creative thinking through frameworks, tools, methodologies, and design principles that help us, and the people we work with, make sense of the problem we are trying to solve together with a design solution.” She also said that with a design strategy, we can better plan, direct, negotiate, and coordinate our efforts. Ultimately, it helps us make informed decisions that lead to the sweet spot between desirability, feasibility, viability, and sustainability. Implementing a solid design strategy drives the design process to the finish line, resulting in a positive impact on the company’s goals through the transformative power of design.

Getting Started

What are the first steps? Where do you start? Lim said, “It’s important to identify and meet with all stakeholders around the product. Ask them how they define success. Everyone is looking at products through a different lens. This also teaches you how to speak their language and how to share your concepts so that when you present, you can first reiterate what they have said and highlight things that matter to them.” By bringing everyone into the conversation, you gain their trust. This is the secret to success and to becoming a thought leader from the start. She also said, “Design can often be the center of multiple teams within a company, so you need to know how to invest and manage those relationships.” Demonstrating that your design work addresses the goals of each stakeholder reduces resistance to new ideas. It helps keep minds open and discussions moving forward.

Starting to craft and implement a strategy can be a bit overwhelming. So what exactly does this all mean, and how do we implement a sound strategy to become thought leaders? “At the beginning of any project, it is our responsibility as creative leaders to understand, interpret and negotiate all of the inputs with our stakeholders so that we can synthesize, extract top priorities, realistically manage expectations, and find synergies,” explained Macías. Lim added, “Sometimes you have to lay out the pros and cons of prioritizing one side over the other, and you can use research and business goals to help make decisions.”

When launching a new design initiative, you should work to gain consensus on the project’s goals, including identifying the market opportunity, user needs, product engineering, manufacturing limitations, marketing, and, in a larger context, what will happen before the customer uses the product and what happens at the end of its life. All these things work together to create a full experience around the product you’re designing. Designers can use their inherent problem-solving skills to prioritize and emphasize how all these different elements come together. “It then becomes the designer’s responsibility to keep the user at the center of their design process and build the best possible product for both the user and the brand,” explained Welcker.

My experience is that a good strategy is a great place to start. I use it as a tool as I go through the design process. But you still need to use your strategy in the right way. One of the most important applications of strategy is to use it in your communications, both internally to the business team and externally to the user.

Other Useful Pointers

The panel discussed our tips and tricks for implementing our strategies. Macías said, “One of the most empowering tools that I have found to build belief behind our creative efforts is incorporating a robust design research plan into our design strategy as often as possible throughout the process.” She added that she has learned to speak many different business languages to build her case. Some of these languages include a solid timetable on a spreadsheet to guide the team, a beautiful deck for marketing, a rough prototype for packaging, and verbatim clips from user interviews for insights. Learning to speak these diverse business languages has been instrumental in advancing difficult projects throughout her career. Adding to this, Lim iterated that “we designers have a responsibility to stand for what is most accessible, inclusive, user-friendly, and sustainable.” Clear and relatable language—whether it’s pictures, words, or numbers—is critical to making your case through the lenses of all the stakeholders.

For those of you who are new to the idea of creating a design strategy, the panel had some thoughts on how you can start to develop and use this tool. First, we all agreed that there is nothing quite like learning by experience. Macías said, “Just practice, practice, practice!” Weckler advocated, “If you work for a brand with a go-to-market process, get involved! Ask if you can attend the various meetings, and be genuinely curious about what goes on in marketing and sales.” For some practical advice, Strategyzer and the Harvard Business School offer great free templates and frameworks. Macías said that even though these models may not be design-centric, she has found them helpful. IDEO also has some valuable free resources that can get you started. They can be downloaded directly from their website. IDEO also offers paid courses throughout the year on different topics. We all agreed that researching and learning about new tools and frameworks is something we like to do. We all are constantly reading, learning, and experimenting with new strategic plans.

Finally, we all agreed that design strategy leads to products that are better for people and the environment, meet the business goals, and produce engaging products and brands. A good design strategy allows all the voices at the table to be heard. Each of the stakeholders from design, product development, sales, marketing, and manufacturing are involved in the creation of a product. From identifying the needs to production and the product’s end of life and everything in between, every step has different immediate needs. A good strategy aligns all parties on a common goal. We believe that industrial designers will be instrumental in helping solve the world’s problems because that is our unique superpower: bringing creative solutions to life. And with a solid design strategy, we can get there.

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