Strategy always comes naturally with good design

In the Design Business article Creating plans for a more strategic future (DW 14 February), Ruth Nicholas quotes James Sommerville as saying ‘being involved in the creation of strategy proves the point that design is not just something that can be bolted on as an afterthought’. It proves nothing of the sort.

What in fact is happening in the larger consultancies is that design has become a bolt-on to the strategy being offered up to their clients. Rather than indicating greater flexibility, the misappropriation of ‘strategy’ has resulted in a myopic fixation on a pseudoscientific approach, at the expense of intelligent design. Simply put, what strategy should bring to the client is a solid foundation of clear, guiding principles.

This is the base from which a consultancy can assist its client in pursuit of corporate and brand goals. This sort of productive relationship has been in existence for far longer than the current, pervasive notion of strategy.

Good designers naturally think strategically, because of the straightforward need for consistency and because of their tendency to idealise their clients and their client’s products.

Hans Schleger’s work for Mac Fisheries in the 1950s; Paul Rand’s work for IBM from the 1950s onwards; and more recently, MetaDesign’s work for The Berlin Transportation Authority – to name a few – each typify a design-driven programme informed by an intelligent appraisal of the clients’ needs and executed with vision, talent and originality. By designers, in close co-operation with their clients. It is the design that gets remembered, and rightly so. A customer or consumer does not see strategy.

Somerville is further quoted as saying that designers mistrust strategy until ‘all of a sudden the penny drops and the importance of strategy becomes apparent in the end result.’ This is terribly misinformed because in fact, strategy has always been at the heart of good design. Those designers who might be surprised by this notion are either not very good or not very experienced. Tragically, despite the many protestations from big groups that ‘creativity comes first’, it is usually seen as being easier to sell strategy to a client and then whip out some design at the end to sweeten the glaze.

Strategy has always gone on, but now it has become a career, popular with young consultancy executives who don’t understand design and so mistrust it. In reality, design is the backbone of anything a client will wish to bring to the attention of its consumers, but the strategy steamroller is crushing the life out of it. Designers are being edged away from the boardroom table, with dire results for the relevance of their work.

Strategy should not be allowed to usurp design, but nor should we disregard it’s rightful place in the design pantheon. It’s a part of design however, not the other way around. We must rescue design from the fate that seems to await it at the hands of many groups; that of being buried in a back room, reserved for the eccentric antics and colourful behaviour of ‘creatives’. If creativity – whatever that means – is indeed to come first, then we must desist from treating design like the pantomime horse it’s in danger of becoming.

Timothy Wilkinson

Creative director

FutureBrand English & Pockett

London EC1

twilkinson@futurebrand.com

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