How Design Contributes to Strategic Thinking Inside the Organization

While teaching a web user experience class at a university, I have received the chance to explore with the students the website development process and to highlight the role of design and creativity during the different development stages. The website development process suggests the involvement of design in both the early developmental stages and later in the feedback and evaluation stages. However, are these the only roles design can play within the organization? Should designers stay in the creative room to accomplish a specific task to design a layout or a product, or should they get involved in a broader role inside the organization?

In a research study conducted by the Design Council in 2001, strong evidence indicated that design rule can contribute to the success of an organization in multiple aspects, such as by:

  • Increasing capital turnover by 51 percent.
  • Increasing profits by 48 percent.
  • Reducing costs by 25 percent.
  • Improving the organization’s image by 50 percent.
  • Improving communication with the consumer by 45 percent.
  • Improving the quality of the product or service by 44 percent.
  • Increasing the development of new products by 40 percent.

The Design Manager’s Role in the Organization

In order to better understand design’s contributions inside the company, we need to learn more about the design team’s responsibility, and the head of this team is the design manager. In his book, Challenge of design relationships, Borja de Morzota categorizes the design management role based on the following:

  • Strategy: Design contributes to shaping the design organization’s vision and strategy.
  • Operation: In this type of role, design contributes toward improving the whole system, including its marketing, production, and communications.
  • Function: This is the core of the design role, where designers create new, innovative ideas and products.
strategic thinking
The role of design manager inside organizations (source: Challenge of design relationships, Borja de Morzota)

In other design management approaches, leadership is categorized into a strategic level, tactical level, and operational (functional) level. The tactical level is very similar to the operational stage in the above model, as it includes tasks related to business strategy and design of the project management structure.

Incorporating design into the above tasks requires contributions on multiple levels within the organizational structure, starting with new product development (NPD) and inevitably shaping the whole organization’s vision and strategy.

The Strategic Design Management Framework

In Robert Jerrard’s and David Hands’ book, “Design Management: Exploring Fieldwork and Application,” designing the strategic management of a company is implemented through a five-step framework:

  • Step one involves a clear understanding of the company’s strategy by the design team and design managers.
  • Step two develops a solid understanding of design requirements within the overall organization’s strategy.
  • Step three ensures communication between the design team and the rest of the functional units within the organization.
  • Step four entails creation and review of design briefs.
  • Step five includes comparing the outcome against the objectives described in the design brief.
design management framework
The design management framework (source: Design Management: Exploring Fieldwork and Application by Robert Jerrard’s and David Hands’ book)

While the above steps provide a holistic vision of design’s contribution to company strategy, step five merges management of design production with evaluation of the output based on the initial requirements discussed in the design brief. Separating these sub-steps into two distinct stages in the framework gives clearer vision to desitgners’ role in this stage of the production. Additionally, having a separate step for evaluating the output highlights this stage, which many companies neglect, especially after the end of the project.

The strategic thinking inside the company or organization is a holistic process that involves multiple parties from different units, including the marketing team, the design team, the C-level executives, and executive managers. All these parties have to ensure that the overarching strategy is applied to the company structure and that projects flow through the above framework.

Changing Organizations by Design

In design strategy and competitive advantage research published in Business Horizons 1998, design strategy is defined as “the effective allocation and coordination of design resources and activities to accomplish a firm’s objectives of creating its appropriate public and internal identities, its product offering, and its environment.”

Design also contributes to the company’s strategic development through the following formula:

Change = Vision X  x  X Felt Need to Change

Based on this formula, designers participate in their organization’s strategic development in two ways:

Vision: The design manager champions the project’s or organization’s vision to the decision-makers inside the organization.

X refers to the steps required to apply the change, which include design stages such as branding, logo design, website design, etc.Design contributes to the company’s or project’s strategic planning and development during different stages, including planning, implementation, and evaluating feedback and improvement.

Impact of internal and external factors of the design strategy is not isolated from the whole process within the company; it is actually affected by a number of factors, such as the client and the society. The first factor that affects design strategy is the business strategy, because the design strategy is described within the context of the company’s business strategy.

The second factor is the brand’s legacy and who both the client and the society perceive the brand of the product or the company to be. This is one of the factors that should be taken into consideration, as this perception of the existing brand can be inserted as a strength in future company strategies. In my previous article about the design thinking behind the London Underground’s new train, the designer strived to keep the sense of the old London Underground train in both interior and exterior, as this branding adds value to the new innovation in both client and user aspects.

The third factor is marketing communication and how it affects the development of design strategy. Both the design team and marketing team should have full integration and understanding of each others’ plans in order to build a strategy that fits both departments’ goals and needs. Many companies fail to come up with an innovative product because of the miscommunication between those units, which subsequently leads to a product or service that does not keep the end consumer in mind.

Many examples provide proof that design contributes to the building of a successful strategy for an organization, and this contribution requires involvement on multiple levels, including the strategic level, functional level, and operational level. This integration of design into the whole organization structure won’t take place without effective communication between units inside the company (Empathic Design: The Most Difficult Simple Approach to Successful Design).

While many see this change as a consumption of time, effort, and financial resources, the results indicated above by the Design Council provide a forecast about the impact of such change over the whole company’s business. Applying design strategy is a potential investment that can lead the company to more success and market share.


Rafiq Elmansy

Rafiq Elmansy is the founder of Designorate.com, author, and design and innovation consultant. He is an affiliated faculty teaching design at the American University in Cairo. He holds a master degree in Design Management with Distinction from Staffordshire University, UK. He has more than 17 years experience in the field of UXD and interaction design, and his books are published by John Wiley, O’Reilly Media and Taylor and Francis. He is also a contributor at the Design Management Review. Rafiq is a jury board member for the A'Design Awards, Poster for Tomorrow, and Adobe Achievements Awards. His design artwork was exhibited in many locations including Croatia, South Africa, Brazil, and Spain.