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Head Before Hands: When Design Meets Strategy

Mark Dziersk

Headline photo credit: Florian Klauer

Design strategy is a tricky thing to define. Much like "design thinking" it seems to mean quite a lot of different things to different people. I keep coming back to the simplest definition of "design strategy" that I know: Head before hands.

But just in case that’s too simple, here’s another way to express it: "Strategy is a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim". It’s the art of planning and directing overall operations and resource expenditures.

Strategy is the idea that we center where we are now, create the goals and dreams we see in the future and then map a plan to get there.

But strategy also needs to be flexible enough to take advantage of unforeseeable opportunities and unpredictable changes that require — to use a football term — "calling an audible." That’s when a quarterback sees something quirky with the play that’s been phoned into his helmet and calls a new play out loud and in the moment and that responds appropriately to the actual circumstances.

We live today in a world where many of the previous rules of a marketing or distribution strategy have been changed forever. The Internet informs us instantly and exposes empty promises. Products can no longer be pushed at people. In fact any product that does not consider the user first no longer makes it to the shelf or store because the ability to authentically address user needs defines its success or failure.

The ideas that have traditionally been part of a marketing strategy or distribution strategy, strategic roadmap, corporate strategy, product launch strategy and innovation strategy are no longer enough.

The Harvard Business Review points this out:

Today's dynamic markets and technologies have called into question the sustainability of competitive advantage. Under pressure to improve productivity, quality, and speed, managers have embraced tools such as TQM, benchmarking, and reengineering. Dramatic operational improvements have resulted, but rarely have these gains translated into sustainable profitability.

HBR goes on to argue that over the last two decades, tools like design have taken the place of strategy, moving managers further away from viable competitive positions.

Michael Porter argues that operational effectiveness, although necessary to superior performance, is not sufficient, because its techniques are easy to imitate. In contrast, the essence of strategy is choosing a unique and valuable position rooted in systems of activities that are much more difficult to match.

The good news is that since design can be one of the most difficult tools to imitate and quantify, it can become the enabler of truly effective strategies that are simple, sometimes prescriptive but always flexible in addressing — first and foremost — the user needs, for as Charles Eames once famously said, "Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design."

In many ways Design has always been about putting head before hands. Design strategy is increasingly recognized by leading companies as an exceedingly effective way to succeed in today’s markets. A way to stake out a unique and valuable position.

Now is a unique time to build on this opportunity, the opportunity to leverage Design as strategy. There have never been more great design examples out there; let’s grab this moment.