Strategy – then Design

By April 2, 2013 Blog, Thinking 4 Comments
Strategy - then Design

There’s nothing quite like the experience, and memories, of a great holiday. You save for it, look forward to, and generally plan ahead to make the most of your most precious resources – time and money.

A list is essential. Pack for the weather, book flights and accommodation, a good book, passport and all those little things that you sometimes forget. To make the most of your hard-earned and well-deserved vacation, quite a lot of planning and thinking goes into it. You don’t just jump in the car and take off [as liberating as that sounds], unless, of course, you are a sucker for the mystery flight option – if you don’t know where you are going then any destination will do.

The same rules apply to getting the most out of a design and communication project – don’t just dive into the executable without having a strategy first.

You took that vacation to get some kind of return, be it rest and relaxation, meet new people, strengthen a relationship, celebrate a wedding or get a tan. Rarely, if ever, is it just to spend 20 hours in transit. Working with a designer should be the same. You should engage them with a specific outcome in mind.

Here are seven topics that we ask our clients to think about when approaching a design project.

1. What is the objective of this project?

If the objective is to facilitate a sale, then how simple is the sales and fullfilment process? How easily can the customer pay and take delivery?

2. What other design and marketing tools will you need to complete your objective?

What will they cost to execute and maintain? Clients and consumers are busier than ever before, so how do we catch the [shrinking] attention span of our customer when there are so many messages, over 6,000, via so many channels, competing for their attention every day? An offer that “gets the cripples out of bed” is one method, but that’s not sustainable. Smarter competition and shrinking margins are taking care of that.

3. Who is your target market and how do you currently communicate with them?

As business becomes more complex and the competition―and the consumer―become smarter we must find new, relevant ways to communicate with them, to differentiate our brands from the competitor and clearly say who we are and why we are the best choice.

4. Who else has done this and what results did they get?

There is no point reinventing the proverbial wheel, particularly if its been done before – and even more so if it failed. Perhaps a similar problem to yours has been solved already, and succeeded, but didn’t return a margin of success that warrants pursuit.

5. What is your brand’s positioning?

How will this communication strengthen it and contribute to your brand’s goals, vision and mission?

6. Who is your competition and how is your product different?

How are we going to differentiate your product from your sea of competitors, both visually and in the copy? What does your product do that nobody else does? Where is your product positioned compared to the competition? This information is critical in developing a brand and communication strategy that successfully informs the creative.

7. How will you measure the success of your project?

Too often, marketing and communications fail to get a seat at the decision making table, and therefore they become reactive exercises where we, as designers, are given the task of creating a deliverable, rather than guiding our client about which deliverables to create. There are too many brochures, annual reports and direct mail pieces sitting around, by the box load, under somebody’s desk, destined to find a home in the recycling bin, the casualties of a plan that never was.

As strategic designers, these questions enable us to better understand your project, so that we can design in context and serve you best. So that we can bring your information to life, and differentiate your product from the sea of competition. So that your design journey is a safe and prosperous one, as any good journey should be.

Dan Kuss

About Dan Kuss

Twenty years in the design industry can do one of two things – drive your love affair with all things design, or drive you nuts. We’re pretty sure Dan hasn’t gone nuts. What does drive him nuts is agency-centric solutions.


  • Keith Arnold says:

    Love the analogy between a holiday and a creative project – simple and effective. I think one chink in the armour of getting business (of any size) to adopt strategy AND design is to actually separate the two components. This is often best done by two separate people or teams as a lot of business research shows business owners and managers believe creative people aren’t also strategic and vice versa. Whether we agree with this misunderstanding or not will affect how succesful we are in getting clients to our table.

    Great subject though, and really well written. It deserves to get the door broken down !

  • Paul Preiss says:

    Great piece.

    I love the analogy with booking a mystery flight. Far too many organisations are on that flight and unsure of their real destination. Deciding on what we are trying to achieve is always the first question.

  • Peleg Top says:

    Good advice and good thinking Dan. Design without strategy is like building a house with no blueprints. I like the questions you proposed. Good stuff!

  • Dan Kuss Dan Kuss says:

    Getting the opportunity to talk fundamental business strategy with clients is like hens teeth, as you would probably agree Keith, but talking design strategy shouldn’t be that hard. I had a meeting with a client today to redesign their point of sale and the conversation went straight to design, and drove around the Why. Establishing the why is effectively part of the strategy of improving the product in question. A goal post or two, something to measure against at the end of the project should be simple enough to establish. We just need to learn to talk more of their [business people’s] language, and the respect and trust will come. The Strategic Designer, by David Holsten does a great job of explaining how to get a seat at the illustrious table.


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