So you Wanna be a Design Strategist? (Part 1)

by November 28, 2006

Once every two months or so I have the pleasure of chatting it up with Bryan Zmijewski during breakfast. Bryan is an IDEO veteran, Stanford University lecturer on design, and the founder of a customer experience design company named ZURB. His experiences have given him great insights into the intersection of design and business. Insights that he’ll be sharing in a three part series on Functioning Form titled: So you Wanna be a Design Strategist? We kick off the series today with part one.

So you Wanna be a Design Strategist?

After consulting for nearly 9 years, I've come to the conclusion that being a designer doesn't automatically entitle you to the collective benefits of any industry. You have to sell yourself and talents every time you walk into a room. Is that good? If you have the skills to drive ideas, it allows you to set the rules and process; if being the person who pushes ideas forward just isn't your thing, you might find yourself becoming the disgruntled designer.

Here are eleven skills of a Design Strategist:

1. Read people

What's the most important skill of business decision making? Knowing what drives people to make decisions. Getting groups of people excited about an idea requires understanding what motivates them. You might have the best ideas in the world, but if you fail to understand the dynamics of the room, you may never get past your first idea.

In my first consulting gig I was invited to present a proposal at a board meeting, unaware that this public company's entire executive team would be in attendance. There were two billionaires sitting at the table. Really. I was wholeheartedly unprepared to sell a single idea to this crowd. I tried getting the group to brainstorm, using some techniques that had been successful for me in past situations. But in less than 5 minutes I was told, 'I think we're done here'. Ouch. It's a lesson that rings in my head all the time.

Reading people is a skill that can be learned, but getting really good at it comes as the result of years of practice. Every meeting, every conversation is an opportunity to hone your skills.

2. Don't over research

By its very nature, a designer's job requires using both left and right brain functions. Sometimes over-thinking a solution makes it hard to get people excited about the emotional content of our work. You do need to present research that helps your point, but don't make the mistake of devaluing your gut instincts or hunches.

Designers have an innate ability to sense and feel out a problem based on experience. This is a characteristic that many people wish they had. Sometimes, you're just going to know something is 'right' and you won't have the luxury of time to do the research to back you up. Train your clients to be willing to take a chance on your hunches.

3. Build in the metrics

No matter how right-brained and creative we are, in the business world, clients want quantifiable results. Building benchmarks and metrics into your projects will ensure that you get the chance to really show them what you've got, by giving them enough numbers during the process that they feel comfortable.

Remember, lots of people think that Excel spreadsheets and pie charts are the best way to justify budgets and map out next phases. Don't send your clients into metrics withdrawal--with a little work on your part, you can devise a numerical report card that helps the left-brained clients to feel more in control of and informed about the whole process, meaning that there's a better chance they'll sit back and let you work your magic uninterrupted.

There's More...

Continue to part 2 of So you Wanna be a Design Strategist?