What Is Strategic Design?
It’s hard to pin down a clear description of Strategic Design. It borrows from various splinters of design — interactive, systems, user, and urban to name a few. But why has it come about and why is it becoming increasingly popular? Strategic Design is partly a response to the challenges of modern life that has given rise to knotty problems so vast and complex a new way of thinking is needed.
Finnish innovation practice Sitra, whose role as a strategic design practice is to be a “builder of preconditions for reforms” describes this present state as ‘wicked problems’ to be solved.
Strategic Design works at understanding and shaping what Dan Hill calls ‘dark matter’. Dark matter gives form and coherence to a product, a service or a situation. It’s the cultural ephemera that imbues a car with ‘BMW-ness’ or a laptop with ‘Apple-ness’.
“The dark matter of strategic designers is organisational culture, policy environments, market mechanisms, legislation, finance models, governance structures, tradition, habits, local culture, national identity, the habitats, situations and events that decisions are produced within” — Dan Hill — Dark Matter and Trojan Horses
The epicentre of strategic design thinking comes from the now-shuttered Helsinki Design Labs. It is with a breath of fresh air that the Helsinki Design Labs celebrated the end of its practice by publishing all of its learning online. With its content licensed under Creative Commons, the Helsinki Design Labs has become a working Operating System for Strategic Design practice.
For broader reading material around the subject of strategic design here are some recommendations:
If there is a consistent voice on the subject of strategic design, it is Dan Hill’s. Today he regularly writes on Medium and has built up a rich body of work around the subject matter stretching back to 2002 with his City of Sound blog. For a concise boiling down of Dan’s thoughts, check out Dark Matter and Trojan Horses.
The say-it-how-you-see-it Strategic Design book is a collection of strategic design techniques and practices. Each practice is written by different authors, each with their tone and design vocabulary. It shouldn’t work, but this book wrestles these disparate voices into a cohesive whole.
At a high level, it codifies strategic design principles from a range of different sources both academic and commercial. The value of having so many co-authors is that it strikes the right balance between business considerations and design practices.
What to my mind makes it stick out from other similar texts on strategic design — is the softer codes of practice. For example, how do you keep a strategic design project on the right path? How do you align stakeholders to a shared vision of the project? How the characteristics of a project are determined by the leadership styles of those involved. These are sticky “people problems” that throw projects off-kilter and yet is rarely talked about.
There is a messy fuzzy-ness to The Service Innovation Handbook with its hand-drawn illustrations and examples. The linear approach to chapters and themes has a “choose-your-own-adventure” like crumb trail to follow. It works well. As you would expect it’s very human-centred and a lot of the practical tools and approaches revolve around that. This is not the text to help you get into the commercial complexities that are always present in strategic design projects. But it will provide a solid set of user-centred tools and frameworks.
The Delft Design Guide is a beautifully orchestrated reference book. The page layouts and illustrations have a coffee table book like quality to it. If you’re looking for more actionable methods and a deeper dive this isn’t the text for you. This is a ‘jumping off’ book. A book with the breadth of different design methods to be tested and played with as the author recommends. Where it wins is making you feel and think like a designer.
Vision in Design dives deep into designing and envisioning futures. The approach to constructing a future world is explored in exact detail and in a highly structured way. Fundamentally it asks where are the starting points for a designer when looking at a problem? Implanting your preconceptions and biases when tackling a big problem is a genuine barrier to thinking differently. The argument goes that if a brief asks a team to design a smartphone, there’s a high likelihood the thing will look not a million miles away as smartphone designed by Apple, or Samsung.
Vision in Design avoids this scenario by deconstructing meaning and context from which a product or service is designed. These ‘dark materials’ are reshaped and blended to create new ways of looking at a problem and potential solutions. At 350 pages there’s just enough variety of content that moves it beyond the theoretical. Large sections of the book are given over to a conversational Q&A format with the author Van Dijk. On its own, the interview section seems indulgent and overly deferential in format. However, the practical case studies save the day and provide a much-needed shot of reality to the methods.
Complexity seems to bring with it, an anxiety for quick fixes. When compiling a list of reading material around strategic design, what became clear is that it is still in infancy. Strategic Design is rough, protean, and loose enough not to have a prescribed canon of work. That to me, is what makes it such an exciting field to be in.
This brings me onto Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. A small book with big ideas around the appreciation of shadow and subtlety in design. Tanizaki sets out his appreciation of design that is never meant to be perfect. He speaks of the sheen of antiquity of an object polished and handled repeatedly. It is not clean, it is not perfect but it congruous with its surroundings.
To my mind, this is what strategic design tries to achieve.