UX Design
8 minute read

What Is Strategic Design Thinking and How Can It Empower Designers?

Kent Mundle
Kent is a globally recognized environmental designer who uses design and writing to create innovative and transformative experiences.

Lieutenant to his men: “Okay lads—who likes music?”
“I do, sir.” “Me, sir!” “Me too, sir!” “Right. Sir!” Four of the men respond.
Lieutenant: “Step up then, soldiers; I need you to move a grand piano to the officers’ mess hall.”

How often do designers find themselves in the same position as these soldiers?

Like the anecdote above, many clients and businesses often underutilize designers and assign them trivial, minor problem-solving tasks, or even worse, have them only provide window-dressing on an existing product. This is very shortsighted and akin to purchasing an Arabian racehorse to till the land. Most designers’ professional training and expertise allow for a wider set of fundamental problem-solving skills that can have a significant impact on business outcomes.

Also, many designers think their primary goal is to create a “delightful” or “intuitive” user experience—whatever that may mean—and a sleek, trendy design. But these things should not be the main focus. Designers need to learn to approach projects from a business perspective, think strategically, consider the primary objectives, and design towards users as well as business goals.

Designers working on a design strategy framework

Realizing the changing role of designers in recent years, the Helsinki Design Lab, a design research initiative funded by the Finnish government, posed these questions through its advocacy for strategic design thinking:

  • What should be the role of designers in today’s complex business world?
  • What is strategic design, and how can it empower designers beyond their traditional practice?
  • How can strategic design thinking produce innovative projects that affect big-picture issues?

The research group’s goal was to identify and codify the design strategies and vocabulary developed within innovative case studies. As many important issues today are entrenched in systems and networks of several intersecting elements, each of the studies dealt with complex conditions.

Strategic design requires a certain vocabulary in order to communicate the values of the design practice. Many of these values have to do with becoming involved in the background and organization of projects, rather than the outcome or forming of the product. Any successful project, whether it’s a website, mobile app, or a luxury car is really a product of all of the underlying systems behind its making.

The success of a product is often a representation of the underlying organization.

Strategic design

The strategic design vocabulary describes the specific skills of designers that enable the practice to affect projects in a way that no other field can. The vocabulary can be condensed into four categories which will be defined later:

  1. Stewardship
  2. Glue
  3. Vehicles for Change
  4. Clarity

This synopsis of strategic design thinking is presented as a vocabulary rather than a set of tools and techniques such as a 10-step guide on how to be a good designer. Instead, it poses a question: How can designers take advantage of their expertise and broad skillset and employ it in a way that transcends the traditional design practice and influences big-picture issues?

Although the strategic design initiative focused largely on social issues and public projects, the Helsinki Design Lab also conducted case studies of businesses that showed major benefits from other design strategies. Some of the case studies designers produced solutions for were: the transformation of the UK government digital services, a 90-day plan for the reconstruction of a flood-devastated Constitucion City in Chile and all of its social infrastructures, and the forming of a new Danish business registry.

What Is the Difference Between Strategic and Traditional Design?

Designers often find themselves grafting the veneer onto a project with a flawed foundation, or known to have little effect on a “big picture” systemic challenge. Strategic design thinking questions the traditional design approach that focuses on the crafting of products and solutions to problems without investigating the deeper surrounding issues in context.

The aforementioned situation is an unfortunate result of how designers are often trained in the tools and techniques of problems oriented toward how to solve “fixing the facade” rather than how to go about understanding and questioning the fundamental issue. Typically, the prevailing attitude is that designers are not paid to question the brief and go into a thorough investigation or deep research, but to merely design the “face” of the product.

Much of the time, there are scant opportunities for designers to question a design brief—yet framing the problem correctly at the beginning of a project can be critical to its outcome.

Strategic design is about applying the principles of traditional design to big picture systemic challenges such as healthcare, education, and the environment.

Strategic design process

For example: An architect, hired to redesign an overcrowded school, reordered the bell schedule and staggered the dismissal of classes rather than proposing a new building. He saved the school millions of dollars by looking at the problem differently. However, in the process of looking more deeply, asking smart questions, and coming up with a clever solution, he lost the opportunity to charge for a lucrative contract. Some would say that’s shooting yourself in the foot. But isn’t it the duty of the designer to offer a truly honest solution, especially if it means avoiding the significant cost of an entirely new building?

The success of Apple under the guidance of Steve Jobs and Johnathan Ive is another great example of “big-picture thinking” and quality being in the details. The formidable duo understood how minor details, such as the sound a button makes when pressed, communicates an overarching concept representing the qualities of the brand.

Design strategy framework

Strategic Design Skill: Stewardship

Conceiving a brilliant design idea for a project is the easy part. The majority of the work comes from understanding how to actually go about producing the envisioned outcome. A specific vocabulary is essential in order for the strategic designer to communicate the value of their work.

Strategic designers need to see the difference between the design of the product and its delivery to users—they must own the process of carrying the project through to real-world users as an opportunity to extend their value. Designers do not simply craft the product; they are stewards who safeguard and ultimately guarantee the final performance of the project.

The “designer as steward” accepts the reality and its associated conditions and leads clients with a sure hand throughout the project. Isolated from real-world users, the traditional designer may expect their product to work beautifully, but ultimately be unprepared for unexpected obstacles, or new constraints encountered on the path to delivery. The strategic designer’s ability to confidently pivot in times of flux or uncertainty will not only help to avoid the potential collapse of a project but also open new design opportunities for innovative problem-solving.

Strategic Design Role: The Glue

Almost any project will have a series of competing values, potential outcomes, and skilled contributors that must all be coordinated in order to form a cohesive vision for a project. Often the client or other contributors on the team don’t have the time or interest to investigate and understand its deeper layers. The strategic designer acts as the “glue” binding the separate elements in order to deliver a collective vision.

Most clients see projects from the perspective of money and time. How much is it going to cost, and how long will it take? Today, however, the outcome of decisions have too much bearing on the social or ecological impact, where the underlying factors cannot be ignored. Skilled designers are accustomed to the necessary balancing act required to negotiate budgets, platform constraints, visual aesthetics, and performance.

Strategic design process

One of the Helsinki Design Lab case studies that resulted in saving money and time without entirely overhauling the present infrastructure, was the improvement of the Danish business registry’s user experience. Although the obvious result for a casual observer was increased efficiency, there were several smaller outcomes that the designers came up with in order to produce even greater change over and above the original client brief.

During the initial investigation of the problem, the commissioned designers (Mind Lab, a team of design thinking consultants) produced several hour-long recordings of user interviews. The negative experiences of these users were edited into audio snippets of a few minutes each, just enough to convey an emotional understanding of the issues.

These negative customer testimonials were played in meetings and workshops to great effect, bringing everyone onto the same page and helping to develop empathy for customers. At the end of the day, the impact of this may be hardly noticed by a client, who would simply be aware that a government service is running smoothly. Nevertheless, this additional outcome was an essential tool in the strategic design process and was the result of the designer’s ability to curate the quality of the content at an infinitesimal level while understanding the potential of the big picture implementation within the context of a complicated project.

Design strategy and innovation at businesses and government

Strategic Design Experts – Vehicles for Change

For the strategic designer, the vision for a project often goes beyond the finished product. In Dan Hill’s book for Strelka Press, “Trojan Horses and Dark Matter,” he identifies the strategic design outcomes for the Low2No architecture project worked on by the Finnish innovation consultancy Sitra.

The Low2No building was a project with the aim of producing strategic design outcomes which, in order to extend their impact, could be replicated in the future. (The project required significant changes to policies and infrastructure.) Some of the desired outcomes had the intention of providing future possibilities for the Finnish timber industry—the development of new tenancy models, the construction of communal environments, saving money, and the implementation of “smart city” services.

These outcomes hinged on the ability to make the building out of timber, which conflicted with existing fire codes that would be difficult to change. However, recent developments in new timber technology made these codes obsolete—the codes were changed and the building was carried forward.

Though it may have seemed a trivial construction material issue, in fact, it was the impetus that set in motion a much larger environmental project. As a result, the strategic design thinking that formed the deeper approach to construction created a much wider network of systemic change in the Finnish construction industry.

Strategic design in government can be an impetus for change with lasting impact

Strategic Design Thinking Clarity

The strategic design vocabulary is not necessarily a step-by-step guide on how to be a better designer. Its aim is to develop a strategic design process that goes beyond the production of various design deliverables. It aspires to elevate the value of the design profession to something fundamental to the process of innovation and cultural regeneration, not just something employed here and there.

Crucial decision-making in business and government can be affected early by strategic design thinking that defines the problem at hand, provides clarity, and illuminates potential solutions.

By bringing strategic design into the conversation at the beginning of a project when key decisions are made, wider and more comprehensive inputs can be used to help frame the problem accurately. If designers were able to improve communication with stakeholders and employ their skills more effectively through strategic design thinking, they would become a more valuable asset to any project and have a more substantial impact on “big picture” systemic challenges overall.

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

What is a design strategy?

A design strategy employed by designers not only considers how things look aesthetically but looks at the business perspective, considers the end-user objectives and the technical environment for delivery, and guides the design towards both user and business goals. Strategic design considers all angles.

What does a strategic designer do?

Strategic designers in business and government employ strategic design thinking that provides insights into the problem at hand, provides clarity, and illuminates potential solutions. Strategic designers go above and beyond to solve problems that will have a bigger impact on “big picture” systemic challenges.

What is design strategy in UX?

A design strategy in user experience is a mindset that goes beyond traditional design approaches that only consider the aesthetics of products. Strategic design in UX is an approach that distills the problem to refine it, emerges with a sense of clarity about it, and sheds light on potential solutions for it.