A Q&A with Design Strategy Expert Daniela Macías
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Daniela Macías, Global Experience Design Manager at Colgate-Palmolive and an expert in design strategy, consumer packaged goods, and leading cross-functional teams. She is a champion of empathy, innovation, and human-centered design research. We talked to her about the value of design strategy, how to think like a design strategist, and influencing without authority.
Q: Most of us, as designers, have some kind of plan as we work, but we aren’t all trained in design strategy. What is the difference between having a plan and having a design strategy?
A: From my perspective, when you have a plan it’s just a series of steps and activities. You’re going to do them, and they will get you from point A to point B, right? It’s very simple. Anybody can have a plan. I think the difference between a plan and strategy is that strategy is more like, How can we influence something that we don’t control? How can we make choices when there is a gap between what’s actually happening and what we want to be happening? It’s very different. Strategy also gets you from point A to point B, but it’s more about making certain choices—what to do and what not to do— in a way that brings you closer to your desired outcome.
Q: Previously you talked about design strategy bringing structure, clear direction, and purpose to the design process. What are your first steps when developing a design strategy and who is ideally on that initial development team?
A: There are all sizes of projects. There’s a range of scopes. Colgate is a matrix organization, with many functions spread out across the globe, which complicates things. For our strategy team, the first step is that you need us to jump in because there’s something we can solve through design. Because that’s what we do. We solve problems every day, business problems for the organization. So, it usually starts with someone coming to us to ask for help, saying, Hey, we need to create this new thing or experience, we need help solving this problem.
As a first step, we create a specific document to understand the whole scope of the project. We ask, How big is this? Okay, you need a design solution, but what is the impact? Who are the stakeholders? Who are the decision makers? We extract as much information as we can from the team coming to us. And then we start what I call ‘gathering the puzzle pieces’. You find one piece here, one piece there. We usually know where to find these pieces. Colgate is a very relationship-driven company. You go and get a little bit from someone who might have worked on a similar product, or who has information on the team that used to touch that brand. Once we have all these pieces, we put them together to create the scope and the criteria for success, which will guide us like a north star from beginning to end.
To define scope we have different tools. We might ask questions, or we might create a framework. It depends on the size and scope of the objective we are looking to accomplish. We call this phase zero. Phase zero is, Okay, let’s just define. This is what we have on our hands. What’s the ask? How much money do we think we need? What could be a tentative working plan and its phases? We do stakeholder interviews. Anyone who has a stake in the project and who will be impacted, we want to hear from them. And the higher the stakes, the deeper you have to go.
Once we define the project, then we can go to the next phase. For us, that’s the discovery phase. That means we gather everything that has been created in the past—insights information from the relevant markets, brand information from our marketers, formula information from R&D —everything we’re going to need for our development. We don’t go through all the phases all the time, or we might go through shortened phases. It depends on the project. So, we discover and then we synthesize.
Synthesize means: let’s condense everything that we’ve heard. You’ve agreed to what we think the scope should be or you’ve agreed to our plan—because by then we’ve created a plan, a timeline. We synthesize and say, Okay, this is the essence, right? This is what we’re really trying to solve. Up until then we’ve only had hypotheses; we thought it was something, but it wasn’t. This is the most complex step and I’m oversimplifying it, but that’s more or less how we do it. Only then, which is something that no one prepares you for, only then we create. And the creation is so short, it’s crazy. We spend so much time thinking and talking about the problem, gathering the pieces, and redirecting as new learnings come up.
I think that’s part of our responsibility as design leaders, to guide the non-designer teams throughout the process, because it’s very uncomfortable. People don’t like uncertainty. Many people we work with, engineers or scientists or even marketers, react to a spreadsheet. They want to know what the solution is from the start, but it doesn’t work like that. One of my most useful skills is translating all the different parts of the design into something other departments can understand, because they all have different objectives. We’re all working towards the same purpose and the same thing, but in the end they have different metrics and objectives, and they need to comply with other requirements that I might not be aware of. But we need their buy-in, and a key part of getting it is walking them through the process as smoothly as possible. We say, It’s uncomfortable. It’s awful. We know. We’ll get there, it’s fine. We know what we’re doing. After we create, then comes iteration, which is about testing and learning and nurturing this new design solution so it becomes the best it can be. We assess the outcome based on the strategy that we have for testing or validating whatever we’re trying to do. We might go through this loop several times, and not all projects get there. If we’ve made it that far, then we are in the delivery phase, and we get to hand it off to the team who is going to implement it, or to the team who is going to continue developing it.
Q: It’s hard to talk about design strategy abstractly as it can incorporate so many different aspects of the business and design processes. How do you determine the scope of a strategy? How do you determine hierarchies of importance within a complex strategy?
A: When we get a new project request, we more or less have a good idea of the size of the ask. We know that if it’s a brand that has been out in the market for many years, maybe it’s time to change to build on brand equity. That’s one motivator. But in our world, there might be other factors to trigger a redesign, right? Things start to get more and more complex in the case of a global brand, or a brand that exists in many countries, where we know that whatever we touch is going to impact a lot of things. That’s when we say, Whoa, let’s sit down. Let’s think about this. Then there are projects that are really straightforward; We need a size extension. We need to improve ergonomics. It might be very targeted, and my team has to be ready to go either way.
I wouldn’t want to take on high risk in one of these high stakes projects, though of course we have to take calculated risks. But this is something that you figure out together with your team at the beginning, and everyone needs to be on board. I think the real monsters are these projects that have many pieces, many regions involved, many functions. It’s like trying to move an entire ship. And you’re the single designer trying to steer everyone in a certain direction.
The first thing for me at least is, Okay. What’s the size of the ask? What does the final user need? Who are the main actors and decision makers who are going to help me? Because that’s super important. Maybe you need a project sponsor, someone who is committed and wants to push it with you. Some projects get very complicated, and you need to negotiate and influence heavily. That part is not about design, and it’s not personal. It’s not because people like it or don’t like it. All of that is subjective and has to be removed. It’s more like, What’s the impact on the business? What is good for the business? What is good for our final users? What’s the highest risk we’re able to take? Obviously, I don’t have the answers to all these questions at first.
There are many layers to these projects. I own the first part, which is, Okay, there’s a decision to create something. I have to make my working plan and I have to make sure that I have everyone that I need in there. But usually things are happening in parallel. I need to be informed on the state of the business to know my budget and my resources before I can make a plan. I was thinking about how I do this and really, it comes down to experience, because every project is different, and it makes every design strategy unique. We ground ourselves in the steps of the creative process: define, discover, synthesize, create, test and learn, rinse and repeat. That structure is a guide. But then I need to know the context—what the key decisions are in the process, and who needs to make those decisions—to keep us moving forward. From experience I more or less know the steps that I need to take, but there’s always something new. We have to react accordingly without stopping progress because most of these initiatives are time sensitive.
When I think back, the scope or the motivation to start a project changes constantly. Ten years ago, we might have been thinking about relaunching a new bottle because we needed something more competitive. Today, maybe we’re looking for the most sustainable choice. We’re looking for something that people will fall in love with that can also achieve our sustainability strategy objectives. As you put more layers on what a design needs to do or bring to the business, the process gets more complicated and the path gets narrower because there is a lot that we don’t control. For example, if we don’t end up with a cap that complies with a certain sustainability objective, then it’s a no-go. You don’t launch anything. Of course, I want it to launch. It’s mostly about defining scope and negotiating heavily, saying, Okay, I hear you Mr. Engineer. If we can’t do it like this, what would it take for this to be a yes? How can I help you?
It’s a lot of negotiating and constantly asking why. It’s about pushing the envelope, because everyone wants to do what’s easiest or most straightforward, but it’s not always in the best interest of the project.
Q: Design strategies often come from executive management and require strong leadership to implement. How do you advocate for a bold or risky strategy? How do you test the validity of a strategy?
A: When I said sponsor before, I meant someone in top management who is passionate about the initiative and can help you push forward; removing obstacles, speaking to other people on your behalf, and getting information. It’s not always official. It’s about finding allies, and not only at the top level. I think that part of why I’ve been successful doing this is because I started in a region, and I started working very close to these teams on the ground. In a way, I learned their language. So for me it’s easier to come and say, Okay if I stay close to you, we can do this, right? Let’s help each other. I think it works both ways. It’s a lot of negotiating up but also negotiating downwards and doing the best for the project and our final users, which is the main thing.
These cross-regional projects don’t happen that often. I don’t have a specific number in mind, just because we have so many brands and so many different structures that it feels like there’s always something happening. It depends on each brand and they are all different, but I would say it used to be an industry standard to remain in a certain shape language for maybe five to ten years. But it really varies nowadays. Because now there are so many new brands, the pace of the rate of renewal is picking up, and many choose to just use stock components. One of Colgate’s biggest strengths is the supply chain, but it’s so big and so widespread and volumes are so high, that it can be hard to implement change. We want to do it carefully and at our own pace but also as fast as we can, which is always a challenge.
Usually, we don’t do it all at once, which is something that’s important to mention. Some of my most complex projects have taken years to launch. And when I say years, I mean years. I’ve worked on projects that have been on and off for seven years. That’s part of the strategy: What goes first? What are the most pressing questions that we need to answer to get this right? What can we do better this time? And influencing how the research happens is key as well. Testing for what we do is very different from testing a label or a logo or graphics. I have found that training myself in research and methodologies to create the research plans I need, inform design decisions and make those decisions as best as I can is extremely important. It allows me to speak the language of our insights people, and our insights people are key to help us get to success. It also helps us empathize with our final users, which are at the core of it all.I’m specifically tapping on insights and empathy because, from my perspective, industrial designers might be the only ones seeing all the way from the beginning to the finish line, and that is an actual person using the thing and sharing their homes with it.
My sales people think about the retailer and the presence on the shelf, and that’s great, that’s their job, and they do it really well. The packaging engineers; they’re concerned with making our design run smoothly in our production lines . The marketers are in charge of the brand strategy and the brand health. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for weeks now: Isn’t it crazy that industrial designers are there from the start,at the inception, saying, What is this going to be? What should this be? And you have to see all the way to the end user, it’s all about empathy. In the end, this thing we will create is going to be living in someone’s home. Someone’s going to use it and then dispose of it, and then they might come back. What does that look like?
Thinking like that has helped me drive and influence a lot of decisions, to justify a lot of decisions for our design strategy. I can say, Hey guys, we thought about that, the people, the plan, we know this, and we know that. We don’t have a lot of power. Most of the time, we don’t own the budget when we’re working on something. It’s usually the region coming to us or the brand coming to us that owns the budget. When you don’t own the budget, it’s not that you are powerless but you definitely don’t have the same amount of power. That’s where a strong design strategy comes in – how do you influence outcomes that you have little to no control over?
I’m telling you, industrial designers: we have superpowers. They are not as evident at first because not a lot of people know who we are and why we exist. I’ve been here for 15 years and I started in one of the regions. My first position was in a factory in the middle of nowhere. The next one was in the corporate office in Mexico City, which was great. But it still wasn’t global, so the visibility was limited for me. When I first joined the global team, we had a change of management. We got this new manager, very much a can-do designer. He gets his hands dirty. He said, Hey, we need to pick up more skills. We need to arm ourselves. This really resonated with me. He made us realize that we are some of the only people in this company who can create something with our hands. That’s so important. It sounds like it’s nothing but it really is everything, because you can communicate any idea. You can convince someone, you can quickly show them possibilities. He pushed for a lot of change and I think we were hungry for it because we were incredibly responsive. We did our job and we did it well. But when we started upscaling and expanding our skill set—not only to the hard skills of traditional design but getting our feet wet with research, taking courses on impactful presentations, going to conferences, learning new tools and frameworks, sharing our knowledge with other functions, and learning design strategy—it made us feel so powerful. It empowered us to say, Hey, we know how to do this. We can test this. We can run with this. We came up with a solution for this. We are so curious, and we get good at things so quickly. No matter the skill, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with my work, I find that it informs things, it helps me become a better designer.
That was a huge shift, when that happened. For a brief time, we were peers with our research and development scientists. We were basically in the same team as our very healthy group of scientists all around the world. They are so talented. Something that was fun to discover is that scientists are just as curious as we are, and they can also create things with their hands and with their minds. What they didn’t have was the ability to make those things beautiful, or to talk about and sell ideas to others in the organization. So we found an odd match there, industrial designers and researchers or scientists. It was great because we upskilled them, we trained them, we created courses: Here’s how you make a quick prototype. We gave them some of our tools. They were very happy. They’re still doing it. Having these design processes helped us expand the awareness and impact of design through the organization. We started leading a lot of innovation projects, and I think that has cemented us as the team that can dream. And we can help other people dream. They don’t have to go to an agency to empower them. And, I don’t know. It’s just fun.
Q: How can we incorporate the values of design strategy, or experience some of the benefits of design strategy, as individuals who might not be in a position of authority?
A: Yes, I love this question. It resonates with me because even though it sounds like we have a lot of power, we really don’t. This puts us in a position where we have to constantly influence and negotiate, and nudge the team to do what we believe is the right thing to do. I think at the times when I felt the most powerless in my career, just learning has always helped me get unstuck. And learning doesn’t only mean going and taking a course, it comes in many shapes and it doesn’t even have to be about design necessarily. A course is great, but even a podcast: if you listen to a podcast, there’s an expert and he’s saying, I do this. And you’re like, What if I do that? And it sparks something, and it is because we have trained our creativity to make odd connections and find patterns where others might not see any. I think that’s really, really useful. I don’t lose sight of that, I keep a folder with tools and methodologies and cards and materials that I’ve found on the internet. It might be free or not, or a framework or a diagram, or a map that I like. These tools will help you speak their language. This will help you.
Within a company, you first have to understand what’s important for them, the people in authority, to achieve. Who are the stakeholders, what are they trying to achieve, and can you help them? Get there in a way that also benefits you. See what tools you have at your disposal to build a case. It might be a prototype, it might be a schedule with all the steps clear for your marketing department, to give them peace of mind that you have thought it through. I think that’s paramount: trust that you have their best interest in mind and they can rely on your work.
Going back to what strategy is and how it’s different from a plan, strategy is about asking, How do you fill this gap between what is happening today and what you wish was happening? What is your ideal scenario, and how could you get there, how do you build that bridge? It’s influencing what you can’t control, and that’s all we can do. I think it’s also important to say that things are not always going to go the way that you want them to go. You will have to settle most of the time or a lot of the time. You have to be ready for that. Yes, have a strategy. But at the end of the day: things happen, no one’s perfect, plans don’t go as planned. You have to be ready to pivot and react, but it’s not the end of the world. As long as you stay close to the people you design for, keep expanding your set of tools, and become a master of influence: you got this.
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