What is design strategy?

Good Design Strategy builds a bridge between the needs of people, and the needs of business.

Design Strategy is as much community-centered as it is business-centered. The job of a Design Strategist is to uncover the needs on both sides of that equation in order to facilitate decisions around what needs to ultimately be designed. As a result, the Design Strategist is equal parts creative problem solver, and identifier; the Design Strategist holds great power, and great responsibility.

Where did Design Strategy come from?

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of what Design Strategy is, let's take a quick trip down memory lane, and explore where it came from. 

In the 1950s, at MIT, Buckminster Fuller introduced the concept of Design Science. Fuller's work was quite pioneering in that it brought together an interdisciplinary team of experts to work collaboratively and tackle problems in a more systematic manner. 

This approach was iterated upon in the 60s and 70s in Scandinavia under the guise of Cooperative Design (or what's more commonly referred to nowadays as "Participatory Design"). Like Design Science, Participatory Design puts design methods to work, in a collaborative manner, in order to tackle big problems. But, unlike Design Science, Participatory Design believes the end user, or community ultimately impacted by the problem, should have a seat at the table. As a result, in Cooperative Design sessions, you'd see everyday people represented, alongside experts and creative facilitators.

As time went on, theories like these became more and more wide-spread, with the innovation consultancy, IDEO, popularizing the Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design methodologies in the 90s and early 2000s. In recent years, the field of Design Strategy has evolved and expanded to encompass many new methods and frameworks under its umbrella.

For more historical information, check out "Design thinking origin story plus some of the people who made it all happen" by Jo Szczepanska on Medium. Link

How does Design Strategy work?

Design Strategy is as much a mindset as it is a practice. Working as a consultant, a design strategist balances a top-down and bottom-up approach while following a process that begins with divergent thinking, and ends with convergent thinking (Fig. 01). 

While the top-down approach allows for clarity in vision from the sponsor (authority, funder, client, etc.) of a project, the bottom-up approach empowers leaders to work in concert and collaboration with the community (end user, customer, beneficiary, etc.). In doing so, the work employs a framework that is considerate of both the goals of the project’s sponsor, and the needs of the community. This balance is what makes Design Strategy so unique.

If the Design Strategy only considers the needs of the sponsor, the end solution is built entirely upon the assumptions and desires of the internal team, and may land flat, or even prove offensive, when introduced to the community.

If the Design Strategy only considers the needs of the community, the end solution will likely be well thought out and relatable, but can be at risk of lacking long-term sustainability and operational know-how to maintain or scale the solution.

In a Design Strategy project, it is completely natural that the designer’s own agenda and bias appears in the work. It is important to consistently acknowledge and challenge these biases throughout the engagement. In addition, the practitioner's ability to stay neutral to the needs and desires of both the sponsor and the community is critical to the Design Strategy's success; the practitioner must resist taking a side, and generate the best result for both parties.

This way of thinking and working can have a big impact on the success of a project or organization. Research has shown that Design Strategy can improve customer loyalty and public relations, send products and services to market more rapidly and with better acceptance, organize the process of innovation in a more effective manner, and introduce more unique ideas into the world. For more on the benefits, check out these two papers:

Steen, M., Manschot, M. and De Koning, N. (2011). Benefits of Co-design in Service Design Projects. [online] International Journal of Design. Available at: http://www.ijdesign.org/index.php/IJDesign/article/view/890/346

Hurley, E., Trischler, J. and Dietrich, T. (2019). Exploring the application of co-design to transformative service research | Journal of Services Marketing | Vol 32, No 6. [online] Emeraldinsight.com. Available at:

What does Design Strategy look like?

The work of a Design Strategist typically falls into three phases: research, design, and strategy/implementation.

Research: Research can be conducted at the desk, or on the field. Desk research is done to gain insight into the market or industry the sponsor works within, and to understand demographic information and trends associated with the identified community. Field research is done to hear directly from the community and sponsor, and typically consists of interviews and observational studies.

Design: Design is the generative phase. This can be done in a small group, large group, or individually by the Design Strategist. The design phase benefits from a collaborative, inclusive, and interdisciplinary team.

Strategy/Implementation: After generating ideas, and synthesizing research, the Design Strategist works with the sponsor and community to identify key recommendations and pathways forward.

Working with, and learning from, verynice

verynice is a design strategy practice that gives half of its services away for free to non-profit organizations and social enterprises. We specialize in brand strategy, user experience design, and strategic foresight. Our experience spans 750+ brands including the American Heart Association, Apple, the City of Los Angeles, Disney Imagineering, Google, and the United Nations.

At verynice, we're available to work with you on your design strategy needs. In addition, through our publishing house, Reginald, we make all of our methodologies available to the public. Reach out if you have a project that you'd like some extra hands on, or browse our library of toolkits for a more DIY approach! Any questions? Send us an email: info@verynice.co.