Style, Strategy & Story: what role does strategy play within the design process?

Elliott Moody
0 min read

Style, Strategy & Story: what role does strategy play within the design process?

Continuing The Brand Identity’s partnership with Antalis Creative Power, The A Paper explores the often neglected and undervalued topics within the contemporary graphic design scene. For part two, we caught up with Two Times Elliott’s Strategy Director Dani Sampson (DS), Creative Partner at The District Alun Shooter (AS) and Mother Strategist and Play Nice co-founder Ayo Fagbemi (AF) to find out about the role strategy plays within their design process.

EM What role does strategy play in your design process?

DS Strategy gives function to form. It front-ends the design process to validate, challenge and add value to the client brief around their what, why, how and who. For us, it’s about finding the ‘pointiest’ part(s) of the research findings to craft market approaches. Each market approach is the narrative that customers engage with at a very top level (the core value proposition) and the design is a conceptual extension of that. And, in preparation for roll-out, we establish functional asset briefs to ensure outputs are designed to meet agreed objectives. Ultimately, strategy is the foundation and the scaffolding for the entire project.

AS Despite it only having relatively recently become a ubiquitous concept in our ‘industry’, for us design is and has always been intrinsically strategic. Its recent proliferation is much more about semantics and labels than reality. We aren’t thinking any harder about audiences, market places and commercial goals (i.e. Strategy) than we ever were. The beautifully crafted soap ads of the 1950s, the conscription campaigns of the second world war, and the posters bestowing the health benefits of Guinness, all intelligently respond to the sociology and psychology of the day, and are no less ‘strategic’ than the CGI infused, ‘like’ and ‘follow’ driven communications of today. It is just that the channels have become more complex.

AF The core of my process, I love to research expected and unexpected areas to provide as a springboard for thinking, that provides a path and clear direction for us to push and shape design and creative. Whether that’s conversation, interviews, references, competitor analysis, it helps guide the thinking of myself and the people I work with. It acts as a building block to ask the right questions, in turn helping you explore the right areas and eventually answers. It acts as a healthy and balanced friend to the chaos of creativity. I try to create a certain amount of rules but also enough area for play and rule-breaking. That is often when the most interesting ideas come to life.

Style, Strategy & Story: what role does strategy play within the design process?

It acts as a healthy and balanced friend to the chaos of creativity.

EM What advantages can strategic thinking bring to design?

DS Constraints are an underrated component of the design process. Not in a way where they are limiting of creativity, but by giving the design a clear space in which to live. Creatively problem-solving within boundaries and with clear objectives provides better markers for the success of a project. And, funnily enough, can actually invite the pushing of boundaries. If we’re not challenging each other at every stage of the process then we’re not making decisions with all the information we have on hand as things progress and we learn more along the way.

AS I suppose following on from the above answer perhaps this is less about ‘then’ and ‘now’ and more about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design. Good design is strategic, and what I mean by ‘strategic’ is ‘thoughtful’ design; as already discussed, design that thinks about audiences, marketplaces and commercial goals. Good design is considered, rather than visually superficial, appropriate rather than self-indulgent. It has a reason for being, and responds to strategic goals. I often analogise fine art in this context. Broadly speaking if you are a painter, you paint a picture, and if someone likes it (and can afford it) they buy it. Commercial design isn’t like this (even though I am sure every designer would like it to be sometimes). It is helping a client fulfil their objectives. By virtue of the client-designer relationship, it has to be strategic.

AF For me, it plays its strongest part through its unifying force amongst teams, it sets the course of the journey we can all go on. I look at it as making the goal smaller but easier to score in for the team you work with as a whole and individually in their part of the design process. It helps clarify and justify solutions and choices. Rick Rubin often refers to himself as a reducer, I feel strategy has in its locker both functions; and the ability to be a great producer of ideas and also a reducer of them.

Style, Strategy & Story: what role does strategy play within the design process?

Design outcomes are hitting the nail on the head more often as the result of strategic intervention.

EM On the other hand, can strategy have a negative impact on design?

DS I’d say strategy can only have a negative impact on design if it is too limiting or too open-ended. It’s a very delicate balance to strike and one we’re always navigating and improving upon internally. You need to be a master of communication in some respects to onboard the design team with the right information, but you also need to have a deep level of empathy. Each designer has a unique way of processing information and then translating it into a graphic world. I recognise the need to keep an agile strategic process in order to set each team member up to achieve their best.

AS I think the only time when ‘strategy’ can have a negative impact on design is when it is a very distinct department to ‘design’. As you will have read, if slightly over-simplistic, we have long proffered that they are one and the same. Good design is ‘strategic’ and ‘strategy’ in the creative sense at least is of limited value until it is verbally or visually applied. When these two fundamental components live in silos at best the potential of a project isn’t realised, at worst there is a total disconnect, which can be catastrophic. So it’s much more about the interrelationship between design and strategy rather than strategy ever being negative per se.

AF If strategy has a negative impact on design, it’s bad strategy, so yes. I’ve always been of the opinion that strategy is a servant to creative and design. We have to nurture, support and guide it in the right direction. We have to provide the starting position and continued insight for design to flourish.

Style, Strategy & Story: what role does strategy play within the design process?

EM Can strategy and design exist without each other?

DS Of course. But, strategy without design is just a plan and design without strategy is often just an action. Strategy and design have prestigious titles, yet they can also be described as foresight and creation respectively. Whether the designers I work with had a strategic edge before or after working with me, it’s those designers I believe are a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, I hope too that through working closely with a talented and patient design team that my design eye has developed. It’s through a mutual respect and understanding that we produce considered and sophisticated projects that don’t lose their function or form.

AS I think I have probably covered this. In conclusion, though, they can indeed exist without each other, but if we agree that strategic design is simply thoughtful and appropriate design, then it is a very bad idea for them not to coexist.

AF This question makes it seem as if only strategists can do strategy or there is one form of defined strategic process. I have worked with many designers who are strategic in their thinking although they may not call themselves strategists. So in short, if you want to achieve an aim, which I feel all good design should do, no strategy and design cannot exist without each other.

Style, Strategy & Story: what role does strategy play within the design process?

Strategy and design cannot exist without each other.

EM Does separating strategy from design within an agency’s offering make them more appealing to prospective clients?

DS A lot of strategists who have been in the industry for even just 5+ years can probably agree that explaining the value of strategy has been a challenge. But, whether clients are aware or not, design outcomes are hitting the nail on the head more often as the result of strategic intervention as there are more project gateways to collaboratively steer the ship. All brands are not the same, just as all houses don’t have the same number of rooms. By splitting them out we are able to dedicate specialist resources to each stage rather than try to absorb quick thinking into a design stage in order to keep costs comparable to design without formal strategy. So, if you can communicate the value, then yes.

AS That is an interesting question and in reality difficult for me to answer. I suspect to some design ‘buyers’ it probably does. I personally think that the kind of thoughtful clients that would work with the studios who have responded to this question understand strategy without needing to be hit over the head with it, but who knows. It’s definitely much more common now for studios to make it a ‘department’ and I have long wrestled with this, but for me as soon as you think more about commercialising design than design itself the soul has gone. And I genuinely believe good design is something cannot be rationally defined or put in a box. I very much suspect that this is my loss (commercially at least).

AF This is an interesting question, which I haven’t made a full judgement on yet. All in all, though, separating the two allows for the acknowledgement that the client will have specialist thinking along both disciplines which is necessary in our field, and communicating this to a client is important. I guess from a personal and organisational point of view, I feel generalism is also important as well. It helps each member of the team have value, respect and an ability to hold a deeper conversation about each other’s work and also, in turn, to inform each others work the right way.