What is design strategy and why do you need one?

Design Strategy is a process and approach for creating or re-inventing businesses and directing innovation/new growth strategies. I think few people have heard of design strategy though they might already be doing something similar, perhaps under the name innovation strategy or product strategy.

The key difference lies in the word design. Design strategy follows a design thinking process grounded in a human-centered approach (for more on design thinking: Why Design Thinking Works).

Within most organizations we can see deployment of several different kinds of strategies and plans. Does anyone really need another one? I would argue yes, design strategy is an essential and often missing tool in the strategy toolkit. Essential because the approach is one designed to challenge the status quo, innovate from the future, and challenge leadership team on their assumptions in order to imagine different possible futures that are actionable and differentiated. This work is especially helpful during times of disruption, when your industry has changed due to new competition, new technologies and/or new expectations from your customers.

A closer look at design strategy and its value 

Unlike other strategic approaches Design Strategy emphasizes:

  • Human-centered from the start and throughout; offering a strong vision that explicitly commits organizations to making trade-offs that favor not just feasibility and viability but also desirability – putting customer needs in the decision-making mix
  • Defines opportunities or plausible futures based what is ideal, not based on current constraints
  • Deploys Systems-level thinking, connecting, and reaching across standard company silos
  • Challenges status quo
  • Identifies the most important questions that a company's products and services should address
  • Highly collaborative
  • Provides a north star or ideal vision that sets that stage and defines the metrics for ongoing decision making
  • Prioritizing the order (via road maps) in which a portfolio of products, services and communications should be launched

How it’s done

Design strategists leverage systems thinking, research methods, business management basics, and client engagement to have a grounded point of view on what the next steps and future state should be. Design Strategists “prototype” the future through storyboards, plausible/speculative futures, value propositions – and inspire not only with insights but provocative prompts. They communicate the story and design in impactful ways so that it resonates and “sticks” with the client. They tell you not just “what” is happening (actions, beliefs, opinions, trends) but uncover why and synthesize observations and data into “so what” insights (patterns, themes, recommendations, design principles) and “now what” next steps (opportunity areas, road maps, action plans).

Graphic of four phases of design thinking

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