What is Strategic Design?


Design Disciplines are typically classified by the challenge they are facing. Often quoted, Buchanan established four orders of design in 1992. He distinguished them by rising complexity from the first to the fourth order.

It is important to understand that a finished design object can never be assigned to a single category. The orders could be understood as perspectives on the same product. Therefore, every design object exists in every category. Accordingly, I find it easier to present Buchanan’s orders not based on complexity, but on different perspectives instead. Anyway, most designers begin their career specializing on one of these perspectives.


Communication designers think about what and how any given object communicates with its user.


Product designers know how to construct a product. Oftentimes they cooperate with engineers to build physical products.


Interaction designers build most of the digital interfaces of Apps & websites. In a broader definition they work directly on the touchpoint between humans and machines.


The speciality of Strategic Design is its systemic approach. Strategic designers apply design methods to systems and organizations. They set a special focus on emphasizing the context their challenge is set in and draw corresponding needs from the environment – usually based on the humans involved.


Two things to notice:

First, there is a ton of names for more specialized disciplines. Sometimes these are distinguished by the industry they are working in (e.g. Transportation Design) and sometimes they are named by yet another perspective (e.g. UX-Design). Most confusing: There is another discipline of product designers who do not relate to Product Design, but conceptualize purely digital products instead. Anyway, I wager, that you could trace every specialized discipline back to one of the core disciplines or a combination of these at least.

Then, though methods vary, the overarching process stays the same. Therefore individual tasks are somewhat interchangeable. You could ask a communication designer to think about interaction or you could ask a strategic designer to think about a product. In fact the difference is biggest in study. What an individual designer does after her graduation often blurs the lines.


Understanding a Product as Part of a Bigger Picture

The mentioned four orders are a mere example of how many layers a product has. As a system gets more complex, there are more & more stakeholders casting different perspectives on a product.

Let’s take a dishwasher as an example. A dishwasher clearly has a physical shape. For its daily use it needs to be ergonomically correct. It has to give away visually, that it is a dishwasher, yet it should fit into the design language of its brand and the kitchen of its user. It needs to tell where to start it and which program to choose. A dishwasher uses a designed amount of water. It needs to be manufactured in a certain way. It needs materials or workpieces. It has an impact on the environment. Some dishwashers are part of a smart home system.

It is an essential quality of strategic designers to understand a given product as part of a bigger picture and be empathetic enough to understand the perspective of each stakeholder in said picture. Next, they should be competent to visualize and communicate this system. That is important to not miss out on hidden stakeholders and to bring everyone on the same table.

Complex Systems lead to diverse requirements. Diverse Requirements make it hard to turn a challenge into a holistic result. Yet this is another essential task of strategic designers.



Building Human Centered Business Strategies 

There are two different approaches to combine design & business. The basic approach is utilizing design to fulfill a given strategy. The second approach is using design methods on the business itself.

Aligning Efforts to a Design Strategy

Ever bought a service where you felt as if something was odd but you couldn’t name it?  This feeling can emerge, when elements of a customer journey are not clearly aligned.

It may be that different people are responsible for different parts of the process and therefore give their own touch to their work. Maybe there have been professionals who were challenged to design a certain element, e.g. a website, and others who put their thoughts in a clever payment process. Both not knowing of each other.

In any case the design strategy has not been consistently implemented or (worse) has never been established. A prime example for a strategic design task.

In fact, design can only hope to accomplish its goals if all efforts that are felt by the user are consistently aligned to each other. 

Using Design Methods on Organizations

In his book „Leading Design“ Jan Erik Baars describes very vividly how design should be integrated in different corporations. He points out that design needs to be a core competence within every level of a given company. Only then could the company reach a level of „Design Being“ (Based on the Danish Design Ladder. Though Baars frames it lovingly as „Design Slide“ to avoid an impression of false safety). Baars also highlights the importance of aligning the different dimensions of a product to a clear design goal.

As said before, strategic designers see their challenge in designing systems or organizations. They build product strategies or business models.

Integrating them is a must have for business development teams since they spread a human centered view. This is key to build products that are not only usable but also solve an existing need.

And as we know this leads to a better position in the market and longer lasting relationships with customers.


Tackling Societal Challenges 

I’m not convinced that designers have a unique responsibility to fight climate change or social injustice. Instead I think everyone needs to do that. Yet we can talk about where a strategic designers responsibility originates & what she will do about it.

Design strategists view it as essential to connect all the perspectives to a holistic picture. This picture does not only consist of the people affected, the organizational and technical aspects, but its connected environment as well, meaning ecological or societal interactions or side effects.

Now, when beginning a new challenge, the first task is always to understand the problem – to analyze a given system and pinpoint the flaws or opportunities.

The societal relevance of strategic designers starts in these broad problem definitions. The responsibility here is to accept the environment as a non-negotiable stakeholder and communicate its demands as requirements.

Doing so, they ensure to produce things that are in line with their surroundings and get stakeholders to be aware of their consequences.

Of course strategic designers additionally inherit every designer’s responsibility of not planning harmful products.


So, what is Strategic Design?

  • Strategic designers apply design methods to systems and organizations.
  • They understand every object as a touchpoint to a bigger system and design it to fulfill a holistic experience.
  • They transfer business to tangible design strategies and qualify to build business models.
  • Strategic designers focus on broad challenges; they define why and how something should be built and will definitely ask what implications an element has on our world.


At the end, a quick thank you to Philipp Olinik who reviewed the first draft!

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