Design as Strategy, Design as Execution

by Luke Wroblewski July 1, 2005

As more companies attempt to harness “design thinking” to create strategic advantage, a potential dichotomy may emerge within internal design departments.

Most corporations have organized their design group in the context of their product development process. What this amounts to is that the design department is part of the company’s “assembly line”. Product ideas come in; they’re scoped, designed, spec-ed, developed, and shipped. Most often the strategy work has happened before the design department gets involved.

Now as more companies specifically look to design to create meaningful long-term customer relationships and to differentiate their products (the volume of product releases and cost cutting [the China price] from competitors requires them to gain market advantage any way they can), the assembly line positioning of the design department becomes problematic. Designers in the midst of production cycles (getting a product out to market) are asked to think strategically about the next product cycle or the next big idea. Though this may initially seem like a great opportunity for these designers to add strategic value to the corporation, there are some potential drawbacks.

The strategic design process, as elegantly described by Tim Brown from IDEO, requires different processes, skill sets, and even environments than the production design process. Strategic design is a process of ethnographic user observation, rapid prototyping, and openness to failure (if it doesn’t work quickly try again). These methods are considered luxuries when a product team needs to ship on time. Instead, the production design process sees more direct benefits from incremental innovation, usability testing to validate detailed design directions, and prototypes that are iterated on -not quickly discarded. And frankly, failure often isn’t an option when a product needs to meet its release date.

One could argue that these are simply stages of the design process and therefore not in conflict with each other. However, when the same organization and reward structures and potentially even the same designers are asked to support both strategic design and production design (perhaps even at the same time), neither process is fully optimized.

As a result, several companies looking to capitalize on up-front design methodologies have begun to more clearly distinguish design roles through organizational changes. SAP, for instance, has recently formed the Design Services Team: a strategic design group (separate from the centralized design department) that reports directly to the CEO’s office. This group is optimized for strategic design allowing their colleagues in business verticals to focus on execution.

In such a system, strategic design no longer needs to occur in the middle of the assembly line potentially eliminating unnecessary process conflicts between production and strategy. By its nature, strategic work is high-level and continually changing as it progresses. Constantly changing product requirements, on the other hand, are painful to absorb during the production cycle.

I’m not advocating two design groups for every company that wants to benefit from “design thinking”. But recognizing the differences between strategic and production design processes is an important step to creating the right “place” (time, environment, roles, organization) for strategic design to flourish.