Stepping up to Strategic Design


We’re in need of a new breed of designers.

Design itself is a convoluted term. It’s more complex than it appears at first sight.

Being a “designer” is more than just making beautiful things.

I’ve been there, though — working as a designer to make a new logo, packaging or a site. But after a few years, I wanted to step up — to get out of the silo and be taken more seriously.

Doing a master’s degree in design management was an investment — I learned how to frame new business opportunities and explain them in ways that made sense to people besides designers.

But working in this new mindset meant making sacrifices. I didn’t take on “logo” projects anymore, so I said no to many potentially lucrative assignments. But it brought me further than I could have ever gone just sticking to graphic design.

What do designers need to do to step up?

Design with a purpose.

It’s not just about making pretty things. Having a strategic approach to design changes the way you think, and changes the way you work. Design is about the overall experience, and the value it brings to the user. If a design doesn’t have real substance and value — ask yourself — why do we need this?

Consider commercial business strategy.

Always attempt to relate your work to the goals of the business. Strategic design goes beyond the appearance or function of a particular design — how will design affect sales or company culture? A number of leading international educational institutions have established design management as a respected postgraduate course of study and research, including TUDelft (Netherlands), Brunel University (UK), and Pratt Institute (US) in order to develop this “hybrid” designer: a person who can function at the intersection of creative problem solving and commercial development, and have an impact on C-level decision making.

Move from presentation to conversation

Start with the problem, not the solution. Ask the right questions. Move from answering briefs, to writing the briefs together with your client. First, seek to understand the pain points and the perceived needs. Then and only then start to look for solutions. It’s not about creating “magic”, it’s about creating viable solutions.

Be accountable for your own development.

The stereotypical designer probably is used to hiding behind a big screen and beautiful work. To take the next step into strategic design, acquire new knowledge and skills. Make it a priority to invest in yourself — and find ways to actively position yourself as a strategic designer.



Design management encompasses the ongoing processes, business decisions, and strategies that enable innovation and create effectively-designed products, services, communications, environments, and brands that enhance our quality of life and provide organizational success.

On a deeper level, design management seeks to link design, innovation, technology, management and customers to provide competitive advantage across the triple bottom line: economic, social/cultural, and environmental factors. It is the art and science of empowering design to enhance collaboration and synergy between "design” and "business” to improve design effectiveness.

karin folmanComment