Design versus strategy – a war of the worlds

Offthetopofmyhead founder and creative director John Spencer considers the tensions between designers and strategists and why they ought to get along better.

I’ve worked with a lot of strategists who couldn’t care less about design and countless designers who think strategy is nothing but a hindrance and will ignore it, given half a chance. Strategists who have no interest in design and designers who have no interest in strategy are missing a trick.

You don’t have to be “a creative” to be creative

You can’t sell groundbreaking design without clear-headed strategy to support your thinking. Michael Wolff’s partnership with Wally Olins showed how closely linked strategy and design really are and how to get the best out of their interaction. Wolff and Olins broke the mould and revolutionised the design industry’s view of the world.

But it looks like our industry’s forgotten much of what we learnt from them and has lost interest in the magic that can be conjured up when strategists and designers work closely together.

The design industry is becoming increasingly fragmented. Fewer and fewer people have a broad view of anything. We’re even splitting-up design into more and more specialist disciplines. Many people seem to think they’re employed to do their job and don’t need to know about anyone else’s. And I think a lot of them are making stuff up as they go along. It’s astonishing that anyone wants to work like that.

We ought to stop breaking up projects

We ought to stop breaking up projects into strategic and creative work and pigeonholing people as creatives and non-creatives. You don’t have to be “a creative” to be creative – anyone can have a good idea. Strategic and design thinking can be equally intuitive, inventive and inspired.

Large consultancies manage projects by making them process-driven so strategists and designers are pretty much press-ganged into talking to each other. Without the process, it would all come down to egos and personalities much like it does in smaller consultancies where the principals want to know about everything that’s being done in their name.

A lot of strategists aren’t interested in design; they just don’t understand it. And they think their work is more important than anyone else’s so they do the strategy, hand it over to the design team and let them do “whatever it is they do”. But that rarely works because design isn’t a linear process. It’s not like a game of pass the parcel.

Process is the heartbeat of creativity

Designers who believe strategy is stuff and nonsense, and an annoyance because it’s not “creative”, really ought to have a word with themselves. They’re every bit as bigoted as those wrongheaded strategists. Designers need to get involved at the start of projects and embrace the opportunity to work alongside people who have a different take on things. How else can we make sense of problems and be totally clear about how to resolve them?

Teams should be brought together when projects kick off and stay together until the work is done. They should have a mix of people with the skills and experience that’ll be needed along the way. Strategists who lead the work early on should make sure designers are kept in the loop and designers should keep strategists involved when they take over the reins. We must always be open to listening to each other’s ideas and opinions because that’s the only way we can be sure our work is on-brief and backed up by robust reasoning. Process is the heartbeat of creativity because it helps define what we do, how we do it and why.

A new way of doing things

There’s change afoot with the rise of so-called virtual consultancies. These businesses work remotely with freelancers and are challenging the conventional, studio-based design consultancy way of doing things. They don’t need to make do with employees just because they’re at a loose end and need to be kept busy. Virtual consultancies collaborate with some of the most talented and experienced people around and hand-pick the best team for each project. They know that a team of people who value each other’s expertise will create unbeatable work.


Hide Comments (14)Show Comments (14)
  • Emily Penny October 31, 2017 at 9:11 am

    Completely agree with the last paragraph. I’m one of those! Which is probably why I don’t find the observations in the top half of the piece very familiar. I work in happy and constructive collaborations with designers throughout projects. And I had thought that with the blossoming of service design and UX as disciplines, strategy was perceived much more as part and parcel of design these days. I see fewer boundaries not more. I see designers being strategists.

  • Luca Cavallini October 31, 2017 at 10:21 am

    The BrandLanguageDesign is the heartbeat of creativity: tha’s why we developed our own method to integrate and combine Analysis, Strategy and Creativity.
    Want to know more?

    • Alex October 31, 2017 at 4:08 pm


  • Tom Vanderbauwhede October 31, 2017 at 10:56 am

    I fully agree with this. I’m a creative strategist myself and being interested in design helps me a lot. I’m convinced that the magic happens where strategy and creativity comes together. Both go hand in hand. We often talk about left brain solutions for right brain problems and vice versa.

  • Mark Olson October 31, 2017 at 8:05 pm

    Creative work must be driven by strategy. Otherwise its fine art, not designed to solve another’s problem.

  • Liz Doig November 1, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    I’ve been working in brand for 15 years as a strategist and writer. The collaboration and respect this article talks about does and can exist – but I think it’s rare.

    Personally, I think the industry has created this situation by making ‘design’ its key offer and star player. In most agencies I’ve worked in or with (before I set up my own writing/strategy agency), I’ve often been seen as a kind of support worker for the design teams. Design teams, it’s got to be said, that often don’t read a brief properly, get into the background of clients and their markets – or absorb details, like why particular palettes or approaches may not resonate in certain markets.

    I’ve worked with some outstanding teams where we’ve all collaborated, listened to one another, challenged each other constructively and achieved brilliant results for our clients as a result. But that hasn’t been the norm.

    I think, generally, the industry sidelines anything that isn’t visual – and deems it to be non-creative. Project successes are often attributed to the design alone and little weighting is given to the thinking and strategy that has driven the whole project.

    So I agree that projects need to be worked collaboratively. I agree that we all need to have an understanding and respect for the expertise of the professionals we work alongside. I agree that part of the process has to be the chaos of collaboration. But I also think that to really achieve this, we all need to realise that design is only one part of a whole offer – and it shouldn’t be wearing the crown. Because surely, if we’re collaborating, we all share the crown?

  • Avril Broadley November 6, 2017 at 9:21 am

    It’s many years since I worked in a big design company but as a small consultancy we work collaboratively all the time. Mostly we do this with our clients – always bringing them to the table as part of the creative team. I think that branding, in particular, works best when the client feels part of the process. In my experience, given the opportunity, most people are comfortable with thinking both strategically and creatively – and I hate job descriptions.

  • Uri Baruchin November 6, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Close collaboration is the only way we do things here.
    Strategists have to appreciate design. In fact, they should see inspiring the creative team as part of their job beyond insight and problem-solving.
    In turn, designers aim and take pride in understanding the client’s business and how the strategy works.

    • DJ Johnston November 16, 2017 at 4:07 pm

      Totally agree Uri, here likewise at F&f we have no division between what is ‘strategic’ and what is design. I’d say this is a very old fashioned conversation debated by those who are decades behind in design process and project management.

  • Louis Lygo November 6, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    The collaboration and understanding of the two disciplines go hand in hand, one cannot be one without the other. The fact one operates in a vacuum is ridiculous. both should be equal in terms of the work, from its conception to delivery. One cannot call yourself a designer without considering the strategic possibilities and one cannot call yourself a consultant without the knowledge and value of design. Both disciplines control the brief and should never be separated. Its a commercial venture and the fact that this division is being debated in this day and age shows we are in a a sorry state of affairs. The problem it is is purely ego driven about who drives the project and has access to client facing meetings, designers want to be artists and consultants want to be Chomsky. People get confused about what is real creativity and what is real creativity. A good article albeit sad

  • Rob Gray November 7, 2017 at 10:25 am

    Great piece John. I couldn’t agree more. In fact it was a belief in closer collaboration that led me (a strategist) and my business partner (a designer) to start our business – Squad. It’s underpinned everything we do since. if you’re interested.

  • Peter Györki November 8, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Having finished my MBA I started my career in the fashion industry trying to implement an industrial view on creation, with a structured creative process based on numbers and feed back from sales in the creative process of designing the next new collection. Later I came to work in the design business as a design strategist for a wide range of industries. Such as banks and construction companies,destillers, food producers, the beauty industry. Always convinced and thrilled by the opportunity of what design and visualisation brings to all- and any industry. Over the years of collaboration with great creatives and designers I learned that the best designers all also are true businessmen by nature.
    Not wild artists. So there should be no natural conflict between logic and magic in a good team of design consultants. The conflict arises out of colliding egos.

  • Dave Spedding December 12, 2017 at 11:41 pm

    Everyone should be design thinkers and doers – different people just have different strengths. One guy might be better at understanding the why and another the how… though it’s one team. If you have people that think otherwise, it is time for their exit no matter how talented they are – they are toxic to a design business.

  • Peta Miller February 11, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    The most effective design is born from well-considered strategy. The most effective strategy comes from an innate understanding of the power of design, underpined by a clear business agenda. We all need each other to produce great work.

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