How Can I Be More Strategic?

Designers often ask this question. Sometimes I think the question arises from a genuine desire to be doing something else which is more strategic in nature, and sometimes I think what is being asked is, how can I convince or influence others to do things my way?

The answer might be the same or it might not. I’ve started to keep track of the answers I hear to shed some light here.

  1. Change your title, brand identity, clothing, etc. in order to change perceptions of what you offer.
  2. Charge more money so that only the people who have real strategic influence can afford you.
  3. Bootstrap your way into different work.
  4. Be strategic. In Porter’s definition, strategic is long-term planning. Avail yourself of strategic tools both simple (e.g. roadmaps) and complex (futures analysis and design).
  5. Illustrate the strategic implications of seemingly tactical efforts. If strategic = long-term, show the long-term effects.
  6. Be more thoughtful, for example go beyond providing expertise to providing decision-making frameworks.
  7. Educate yourself. Strategy may be harder than finance, operations, and other business topics. Take the time to learn what strategists really do.
  8. Don’t be strategic in the usual sense. Instead, elevate your craft and expand its boundaries. See the influence and flexibility of a breakout designer like Joshua Davis.

What else have you heard?


  1. How about 9. Spend time with people who do strategy.

    I learned most of the strategy I know from a few key people who I absolutely sponged off of. I owe a special debt of thanks to an ex P&G guy who I got to work with over the last few years.

    Also 10. Teach others strategy

    One of the best things I did to help me develop my strategic chops was to actively teach others. Nothing exposes the gaps in your knowledge and capability more than trying to explain something to other practitioners. It’s the ultimate gut check.

  2. i remember wally olins saying that one sure shot way of being a strategist in to pretend being one.

    but the question remains…do clients seek stategic advise from designers…..or is it smarter being a strategist and then offer design advice….

  3. neither, ideally now you’re designing strategies for the near and medium future, including concepts and their accompanying business models

  4. The most fundamental definition of strategy I’ve found has roots in the military: Optimizing the configuration of resources BEFORE engaging them – planning before acting.

    Designers, either by personal choice or by circumstance, often miss the integral role they have in the business going on around them, that they are part (consulting or corporate) of an ‘enterprise’ that produces something, usually for a profit. Engineering, marketing, finance, logistics and yes, even design should ALL have strategies that help drive the larger strategy of the ‘parent’ organization. Design strategy doesn’t exist in a vacuum by itself, design strategy drives the strategy of the business…..

    Answers, then, to ‘how to be more strategic’ (v.s. tactical) should be broader and higher level, and should focus on how design would help the organization (or client if you’re a consultant) achieve it’s larger goal. New product development with new technologies? New markets or reaching new users? New parts of the world? Did the organization acquire another company? Every company has different strategic challenges. Even different companies making the SAME product will have different strategies – i.e. Apple and Dell are competing computer companies, but their strategies couldn’t be more different.

    Start by stepping outside of design a bit and read a few books on the topic – Porter’s good, but he’s an economist and a ‘planner’ and there are lots of different, sometimes conflicting points of view on strategy. Try Henry Mintzberg, look for a basic text book on corporate strategy or hunt down a strategic planner or a CEO for 20 minutes of their time – anything to get a feel for the world that design fits in. You’d be surprised how much you’ll learn.

    It’s not at all about changing clothes, how much you charge for your time or what title you choose – ‘being strategic’ means figuring out the very best “what” to design …BEFORE you actually design it. Forget #1 & #2 – too superficial, start with #7, eventually move to #3, always be #6 and #5 will take care of itself. Add #9 – ‘Talk to strategic practitioners outside design’, or #10 ‘Attend a conference about strategy’ and don’t be afraid to take #7 to the next level – get your MBA.

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