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Essay: The importance of design strategy

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“Designers add value to a business. That is what buys you a seat at the table.
If you are not doing this, you are a production artist.” Helen Trann

Designers. Through years we have been offering solutions to problems of any matter. Connecting the audience or in other words customers with the needs of our own client. After watching an advert of a global technological company, I started wondering why is the product of this specific brand more desirable to me than a similar product from another technology company. Naively, I used to think you only need a good idea for it to make it work for the audience, however the answer to this question is far more complex. Behind weeks and months of planning, thousands of binned ideas and endless factors there is one thing that increases the value of a certain product, service or a brand. Design strategy. With no proper definition for this term, it is what differentiates between achieving the short term and long term goals of a client.

Strategy helps the designers and clients to achieve the advantage at the competition and distinct their qualities. When thinking of an effective design strategy we need to understand the accomplishment of a business strategy. The distinction between business and design strategy is the execution. Designers execute what the business wants to achieve in the future and helps to overcome already existing problems or the ones client might meet in the future. Communication is the key in life and so it is in design. As designers we are communicating the meaning of the product or brand so the customer understands the value of it. Design strategy works as a business tool. A good example is given by Terry Lee Stone (2010, p.84), if a problem of a client and business is limited product distribution, one idea of a design strategy to respond to this problem would be setting up or remaking the e-store or a website in a way it could be more appealing for the customers to buy directly.

As mentioned by Best (2015, p.48), the process of developing a functioning design strategy is logical and evaluates internal, external factors that have an impact on the design, the measurable objectives of the strategy and in addition how effectively the design works to accomplish these challenges and opportunities. Implementing the client’s parameters and needs, as well as communicating together on the outcomes of the design, both designer and client need to determine if the strategy solves the issues of the client and communicates what it is intended to. It is about seeing the bigger picture and how applicable it is to the client. What is more, at the end, the design strategy is only efficient when there is integrity between the designer and client.
There are multiple problems a design strategy can be facing and why the design can lose legibility over the time. That means tactical thinking was used to achieve the goals. And tactical thinking leads to only short term efficiency. Few mistakes to mention are lack of participation, overly simple or overly complicated thinking, not having a proper research, no focus on the specific details and not to mention pessimistic attitude or lack of interest.
Obviously with design’s changing face and new brands and business taking over the lead, it is crucial to innovate and change on the strategy. Innovation goes hand with hand with the design strategy as well. In fact, as stated by Lockwood (2008), “innovation is dependent upon design”. It is simply invention plus design. Through years the designers gained the need to give the functioning invention an aesthetic look. Now days the design makes the product tangible and usable and gives it a bigger value. It is safe to say that sales, business growth, brands reputation do rely on the design directly. Through collected immense data from multiple researchers, the data tells us how impactful can a smart visual and strategical thinking be and what difference can these points make in the future. If you take all this points to consideration, it only tells how design is important. Stop and think about it. When we step into a bakery shop to buy something to eat and you have no idea how everything tastes, you decide on the looks. Or if you are buying a bicycle and you have two options with same price, without hesitation you pick the brand you like look wise more or is known to you already. It is simple as that. A good design matters.

Design equals sales

Let’s be honest. All the great strategies or in our case designs start with a broad research. So many variables a designer needs to consider before coming up with ideas. Little details that non-designer wouldn’t have an idea about. It is the perception of the customer that we are adapting to. Earlier in the essay, I mentioned an advert from a technology company. So, I researched deeper. Huawei Technologies Co., is the world’s largest telecommunication maker. Recently beating another global company, Apple. As stated in article of Business Standard (Strumpf, 2018), after launching the new model of Huawei P20, “the company’s revenue increased by 30 percent”. After failing to succeed in previous years, the company just simply applied a new strategy. Engineers came up with triple lens cameras and designers applied a simply genius design to the smartphone and voila. Customers and audience are left impressed. On both design and user perspective. Invention plus design equals innovation. From once an ugly duckling, you have a beautiful swan, that has beaten a worldwide technological company Apple in less than a half year.

Instead of examples, let’s state the facts. In 2005, The Design Council made a survey The Value of Design Factfinder report based on 63 portfolios (2007). Based on the interviews and background research, they identified 250 business were the design had a direct impact on the growth of the business. Through 508 interviews, the Design Council conducted these facts. The business which increased their investment in designs had a more turnover growth than the ones that decreased their investment. The facts are clear. On average, it takes 20 months for the design project to pay back the investment. Also using design while developing new products or services or in business planning, it doubled the chances of a profit for the business. As well as that, another important finding from the survey was that for every 100 pounds spent on a design, the turnover profit increases by 225 pounds. And that is just conducted on business companies in the United Kingdom.

Another specific case for instance (Zach Bulygo,2014) can be an e-commerce store Body Ecology selling dieting product. At first, they created a drop-down menu to make the navigation for the user/ customer easier, but their profit hasn’t increased at all. In fact, it had decreased. After removing the drop-down menu from the website and creating an overview menu for the product, providing all the facts, their revenue increased in over two weeks by 56,43 percent. Design strategy based on user experience can do lot for you as well. After all, most of the world-famous brands are not only selling products, but through design and strategy they are offering an entirely new experience to us. They use design to evoke emotions that will get stuck with people. They are communicating the brands or business value through these emotions. And because of these emotions, that influence the user, you can see how essential to the growth and success of the product or future.

“Design creates culture. Culture shapes values.
Values determine the future.” Robert L. Peters

User experience does not only relate to computer design, it has a huge impact on the design in general. It delivers a message to its audience. Visual elements such as colours, images, symbols and credibility are combining the experience of the user with psychology. Research of the audience is crucial to the design strategy or any design in general. McKinsey & Design company also came up with the four points of design that can help you improve the most in financial performance (Benedict Sheppard, 2018). Measuring revenues and costs, not creating a barrier between physical, digital and service design and not decreasing the possibility of development, by interacting with users and constantly updating their strategy. Companies performing financially the best, understand that design is the issue that slows their revenue and management down.

To appreciate something, we as humans have to have a value to it. Same applies to a business. How to make a business more successful? Simply. Add value to the products and services. Even more successful? Add to the business value a design one. Already mentioned The Value of Design fact finder Report, shows that the business or brand performance is financially higher when design is seen as integral to the business. That’s why business can’t just rely on the on the business strategy of the product and service. The user needs to have and added value to see that what they are getting is different from the competition and offers a better experience. Furthermore, business that do so see overall impact in competitiveness, increased turnover, increased profit, development in the market or even increase the employment. Imagine just buying headphones from a retail shop. You have two types with a similar price and similar functions. Which one of them would you buy?

The ones that seem more appealing to your eyes of course. Maybe the other one is a bit cheaper or has a different function, but the one its design is more aesthetical to you have an advantage in competitors. Same applies to when we are picking a service or assistance of a business. We pick the ones that are more appealing to us or the ones with have a better experience with.

As designers we have to undergo both qualitative and quantity research, on which we can determine what is the best for the client’s goals. Our approach to design strategy requires knowledge about the client, audience, background, communication and visual techniques. Generating thousands of ideas, constantly asking questions or trying to innovate, we as designers are that bring we are what sets apart the client from the competition. So how to know what is effective, what we are bringing the audience or what is it we are trying to achieve with the design?

Design strategy and how effective it is

As I already mentioned above, research is the key to a good design strategy. Research gives the designers a deeper insight on the factors that can affect the idea itself. But what how to know what type of research we need to undergo? Sometimes you already have a stack of information provided by client, although sometimes it is not enough. Through the years designers developed few types of research methods. In theory we have five main types of them (Terry Lee Stone,2010). Traditional market research which is gathering information about customers based on their demographics, psychographics and or their focused groups. Then we have ethnographic research that links culture and human behaviour. It is more often an observational research and draws the conclusion without interacting with people. Third one is user experience research which focuses on testing and usability of a product or service, in a way it meets the user’s needs. Another one is classic design research, which is the most common one. Information is gathered from the designer directly. Usually it includes reviews of the client, competitors and services. Designer also personally experiences the product and service himself and draws the conclusion from a personal experience. And the last one is blended research, that uses a bit of every type of research already mentioned. Through a complex research, designers can understand what is the actual problem that the client is trying to solve, the context of the clients brief, who is the audience/ consumer, what verbal and visual language they should use, the competition in the field and how can the design effect the purchase or usage. Based on the research, the possibility of a bad design concept is narrowed down and improves the next design ideas that designer comes up with.

So how do we know we have the right type of research? We need to ask ourselves three most important questions. Who is the product/ service/ advert for? So again, we need to know the identity of the customer/ audience. What is their gender, age, race, profession, education? That is demographical research. Why would the customer or audience use it? We need to find out what are they buying habits, goals, aspirations, special interests and lifestyle choices. That is psychographic research. And what is it that affects the buyer closely? To answer that, we need to find out what is the culture, traditions, nationality, social norms and religion of the main audience. That is included in Ethnographic research.

After we collected all the information from the research, it is needed to pick the right medium to communicate the clients message. And for that we ask ourselves more questions. What does the targeted audience use a medium? What is the most comfortable medium for them? What makes the client appealing to them? How will it change the look of the client among the competitors? In order to appeal to your audience, you need to speak their language. For instance, you are trying to get through a crowd at a concert of a Russian rapper. Most likely you will not achieve it by being really English and polite. It is the same with design, you will not get your message through, if you don’t connect with your audience through design.

“The essence of strategy is choosing to perform
activities differently than rivals do” Micheal E. Porter

Essence of a good design strategy is to stand out from the competitors. Applying to your research, something that is different from the rivals. As in business, it is similar in design. A good example is the new idea from Toshiba company (Gregory Hann, 2015). The company came up with a Virtual Fitting room that through high resolution lets you try on the outfits before trying them on and even prints them out on a 3D printer for you. I know it sounds a bit too futuristic and over the top, however that is what Toshiba as a brand is communicating to the audience. Trying to bring innovation to fashion, they stand out from the crowd. Another great example is the streaming company Netflix. Originally, Netflix was a streaming company that simply put existing DVD’s and airing shows online in one service. However, after developing new ideas, they came up with the idea of adding their own original content. That way they challenged and stand out from other networks, by putting pressure on them. And they have been doing so for years. As well as that, because of their user experience design strategy, they made everything more simple for their users. From immense database, to search and categorising the shows/movies, shows how can a good strategy and being indifferent help you in your future.

As we know, design is about answering questions. And while coming up with ideas we ask a hundred different questions, that we need to put focus on. Answering these questions, we are coming up with all sorts of ideas. Getting an effective design strategy means there is always space for new ideas and answering new problems in the future. Keeping it consistent, but fresh is one of the most common problems a designer is facing these days. After all, it is that sets a good designer apart from the crowd. Same as we are representing the client, we are representing ourselves and our skills. Going with the crowd, however standing out at the same time. We are motivating and communicating. It is about being indifferent.

Design strategy examples through Saatchi and Saatchi

Saatchi and Saatchi is one of the most iconic and leading advertising and creative agencies all over the world. With clients like HSBC, Head and Shoulders and Huawei they maintained they competitive edge through decades and show us how they are different among the rest. Since the beginning they keep producing some remarkably good work that has a massive impact on industry. Their knowledge for publicity and sales is well known behind design industry as well. Their motto “Nothing is impossible” is what keeps on top all this time. Their design strategy always challenges in a positive way, whether it is the audience or the client. Bringing emotion and innovation together.

One of worthy examples for a good design strategy is their campaign for Chinese mobile maker Huawei in 2012. With objective to build brand engagement and promote Huawei’s already best-selling products, Saatchi and Saatchi China created a 3D fighting game that was projected on a screen a size of two basketball courts in the world’s largest fountain plaza- Fountain of wealth Singapore. Giving the customers a whole new exciting experience and actual interaction, while engaging the products in the use, they managed to engage the brand with audience, establish the brands name and create a space for future engagement.

And it worked. As I stated earlier in the essay, Huawei in space of two years increased their profit by 30 percent and became the world’s largest telecommunication company.

A classic example of good design strategy from Saatchi and Saatchi is their work for Sagatiba, a Brazilian spirit maker. Sagatiba as the client wanted to sell their product globally and Brazil as a nation without using typical clichés. So, the brief was simple launching a brand and also promote Brazil. The campaign was successful and well thought through. Saatchi used a contagion strategy in the brand. That means the idea of people discovering something new which is giving them a good experience, makes people motivated and spread around the word positively. After the campaigns launch Sagatiba as a brand boosted their sales by 90 percent and took over the south American market. The brand over the years has dried up and lost its fame, however that is due inconsistency and lack of further engagement. It is shame to come up with such a good strategy and not working with it anymore.

Boosting the sales and also engaging people emotionally to a brand is what Saatchi and Saatchi has been doing for years. Back in 2003, when Toyota as a car seller still hasn’t been recognised as much as its competitors, Saatchi and Saatchi had a task to create an ad campaign that would appeal to customers not just technically but on the emotional side as well. Their target was to make people love the brand for more than just rational attributes. Changing the old tagline “Get the feeling”, that focuses more on the technical site of the vehicle’s, they came up with a new tagline “Moving forward”. In the series of television ads, they deliver a different range of feelings to show important moments in people’s life that included their cars. They also offered a sneak peak into new ideas that Toyota is coming up with in next few years. And as the vice president of marketing for Toyota in USA James Lentz stated, “through august 2003 Toyota’s sales went up by 8 percent through first 8 months” (Fara Warner, 2004). Over the years Saatchi and Saatchi’s work for Toyota
has stayed on an emotional note and has been delivering important messages. Their ads such as “safe and sound” shaming teenagers into safe driving or “start your impossible” which encourages people for movement, connects the audience and customers with Toyota in different way and offers them an emotional experience.

In the world of innovation, Saatchi and Saatchi always bring us something new that manages to sustain the audience engaged. Obviously, they had their mistakes in years of practice as well. And what is more, all these mistakes were a result of poor research, bad targeting and weak strategy. After releasing ad campaign that were designed to prevent smoking marijuana, especially for teens, it quickly received many complaints and the client said they do not want to have any involvement with the add what’s so ever. Instead of the attempt to warn the youth, the campaign just drove more attention to cannabis and it was deemed to have the opposite effect of the supposedly communicated message (Guardian, 2015). Of course, completely missing the audience and the aims of the campaign, in this case Saatchi and Saatchi just prove how important is the research and communication between the client and designer. They were focused on the short term goals so tactical thinking rather than the long term ones or in other words strategical thinking.

As people we are trying to achieve certain goals in life. Same as designers, that are trying to achieve the client’s goals. How do we achieve the goals? Communication, research and strategy. Taking it from a simple point of view. Let’s say you are trying to stop smoking. At first you research how much you are smoking, different methods of how to stop smoking and the prices of the methods. At the end, you pick the one that is most effective to you and you know that is going to have a long-term effect on you. All you need to do is to hold on and keep pursuing this goal.

Applying this to design. You need to research how, what, why and who. Put the research into a long term strategy and just keep working with the design, to develop new ideas and appeal to the audience.


Design and business has always been offering solutions to global problems. As a separate matter, they have a good perspective of achieving something in a short period of time. However, when joined together they have a greater impact on the business, sales, product and audience. If we apply a good effective design strategy to a business strategy, the outcome of the product or services will have a greater impact on the growth of the future. Furthermore, facing the facts a design without a good business idea and business without a good design are ineffective. Take into consideration brand such as Apple. Yes, they are offering new technological ideas to the world, but it is the design that made them famous and what makes them stand out from the crowd. And as designers our aim is to make the client stand out from the crowd, making the client different from its competitors.

When executing a design strategy, we are taking into consideration factors that have an impact on the message communicated. We need to know who is the message for, what we want to say with it, why is it important and how we will say it. All these questions fall under the research that is crucial to a good design strategy. After all, as I mentioned in the essay, the reason why a design strategy fails to deliver is because poor or none research has been done. In order to succeed, the design strategy needs to offer an experience to the audience, whether it is an emotional one or physical one. The most successful businesses understand the importance of a good design strategy and what value it gives to their ideas and brand itself. They know it does not only bring their idea an aesthetical function, but it makes their idea sell more and improve. After all, people always prefer what is more appealing to their eye and has a positive impact on them. From food, travel, daily activities to even things such as friends or partners. It is only natural to prefer something that sooths us.
It is important to communicate the right value to the right audience and to speak the audience’s language. You are not really going to succeed with the idea of making fur coats out of ferrets at a Peta conference. That is why language communicated is important. Over the decades, most of the failed ideas included mistakes such as targeting wrong audience, not knowing what is the aim of the idea or poor execution. And it does not only make the idea or business stand out from the competitors, it also makes a good designer stand out from the rest.

A good design strategy answers questions to problems, communicates a certain value, offers us experience and innovates. As it is important for designers, it is important to understand the value of a good design strategy. And of course, a good design matters, however a good design applying an effective strategy is something impossible to put a price on.


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