Why are we so scared of strategy?

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This is an article first written by Emily for Design Week’s Industry Voice.

The ‘S’ word (whisper it) – the word that immediately springs to mind when you’re faced with a complex brief. No not that one, the other ‘S’ word. I see many design agencies struggling with ‘strategy’. It’s an issue in the industry right now as clients demand more from smaller design agencies. In the bigger-budget world of advertising, ‘planning’ might be embraced at the heart of the process, but in design we’re a bit more confused about who should be doing what and how.

It doesn’t help that it’s a nebulous term meaning different things to different people. ‘What is strategy? What is brand planning?’ junior and not so junior designers have asked me. Becoming a consultant involves developing successful processes and formats for exploring and expressing the issues at stake in a project, so whether it’s an ‘onion’, a ‘framework’ or a ‘story’, the shape of strategic work differs widely and as such can feel elusive.

At its simplest, strategy is about taking the wide view, establishing a shared vision of the opportunity. It’s about everyone being on the same page and concentrating on avenues that will lead to the result we want, and not those that might lead to another place altogether.

A lack of strategy can impair both the creativity and effectiveness of design work – and if we’re struggling with it across the industry, we’re in danger of devaluing design as a discipline. But when successfully integrated into the design process, it’s is hugely rewarding for everyone involved, delivering focus, rationale and a license for bold creative expression.

First of all, the design brief must be clear about the extent to which there is a strategy in place. It’s important for both parties to recognise the decisions that have or have not already been made so that we can establish what’s expected as an input from the client, and an output from the agency. If there’s clearly a strategy in place and the client is confident in the direction they want to pursue, then a design-led agency will provide a perfect match. Win, win, off to the Isle of Fernando. But a common scenario is that clients with undeveloped strategies commission agencies with undeveloped strategic offers and we find young agencies caught like rabbits in the headlights whispering the ‘S’ word.

Design-led studios grapple with the ‘S’ word as they reach a certain stage in their growth: established enough to attract significant projects, but lacking the turnover to employ a ‘consultant’ as part of the team. Typically, designers who set up agencies are expert in design and all things visual and don’t always have refined business, analytical and consulting skills. Clients on the other hand just want help with their branding; they want strategy and design, and they want it as a seamless package.

Many designers are sceptical of the dark art – the jargon and the charts – and sometimes rightly so. Strategy is not helpful if it’s alienating, but it can’t be dismissed per se. The thing is that it’s being demanded of designers by clients, and it really can raise the game – so what’s to be done?

Is the answer to employ a consultant as part of the team? Bring in freelance support? Or develop the skills yourself? I’ve seen all three in action and whatever the solution, the design team needs to believe in it. We need to embed ‘planning’ in the culture of a practice. The top dogs need to get it and promote it, if not actually deliver it.

Those rare individuals who do manage to combine the craft of graphic design with the sharp thinking and leadership of strategic consulting hugely impress me. Given that a consultant really does need to develop their own strategic tools, isn’t there an exciting opportunity for designers to invent new tools – better tools perhaps that are visual and engaging? It’s something I see burgeoning in the service design sector. Becoming a strategically astute creative is a great aspiration, but how do you get there?

I’m sure it could it help if the theory and practice of strategy was nurtured back at design college, helping to demystify the ‘S’ word. We also need to develop more of an appetite for professional development among designers. While marketing professionals – our clients – frequently take courses and diplomas to boost their skill-set, there’s sometimes an assumption that a designer’s skills are innate. Don’t tell me they’re too cool for school?

For some designers, developing strategic content, never mind a ‘consulting persona’, will be an uncomfortable stretch. (Likewise, as a consultant I wouldn’t expect to pick up technicalities of graphic design just like that.) An alternative is to bring in specialist skills to boost the team. Fostering close working relationships and bouncing ideas between left-brained and right-brained people can be hugely valuable.

All in all, it would be nice to see the design industry embracing strategy a bit more fondly. I can’t help thinking it’s time the ‘S’ word had a rebrand. Surely between us we have the expertise to do it? It might help designers and clients alike have a clearer, shared vision of what it is, how it helps and where it fits into the design process.