Strategy and Design- Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Great duos are rare, but legendary. Abbott and Costello, Lewis and Martin, and of course Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are classic examples from the glory days of Hollywood. But what makes Fred and Ginger different is that they didn’t use the comic and “straight man” formula, where one half uses the other to exaggerate or dramatize their wit. Fred and Ginger amazed us with their extraordinary, complimentary moves and interactions together. They were two but connected as one.

Unfortunately, strategy and design are often not great dance partners, and when they do dance together, they each seem to hear different music.

Design is a way of looking at the world that seeks diverse inputs, but relishes the singular sense of authorship in the outcome – a complex sort of collaborative individualism. Strategy is an input, but can sound like a scratchy old vinyl record. Designers would rather dance to their own music and strategy is something to be fast-forwarded through on the way to creativity; a requirement of the work versus an ingredient.

The scratches come from the collision of two worldviews. Design is concerned with solving problems from a new, enlightened perspective, ideally unburdened by business motives. Strategy is often perceived by designers to be about assigning business tools and motives to limit or constrain, or worse, prescribe solutions.  After all, great design cleans up the mess left by unbridled business practices and “marketing”, right?

The problem is widespread and ongoing in the creative agency/design business. In fact, many leaders in the industry have a hard time defining what “strategy” even is. At one end of the spectrum there are the big “innovation accelerator” firms who charge handsomely for months-long engagements; leaving their clients with beautiful, but vaguely actionable presentations. At the other end is a tidy review of client-provided research with some conjured up “so whats”. There are also firms that get labeled as creative but not strategic, and others strategic but not very creative. How can these two capabilities co-exist and both become strengths? What should strategy deliver, how should it be crafted, and how should clients and creatives digest it?

The irony is that design needs a purpose – a clear problem to solve, and strategy should be embraced as providing that. Most often the disconnection is a clash of personalities and priorities more than content. The goal is a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fit with strategy and design that creates something greater than each alone. This sort of collaboration requires an understanding of the role of strategy, and the role of design, and fostering respect. (And, by the way, creativity is not mutually exclusive.)  Getting it right is challenging, but magical when it happens.

As a separate but needed partner to design, the role of strategy needs to be clear. What should strategy bring to the dance?

  • Strategy distills the key business questions that must be answered with research and analytics.
  • It challenges the myths and lore of an organization by assigning the appropriate role to opinion and fad in order to illuminate what really matters.
  • It makes what is known and what is discovered relatable and remarkable. Great strategy is data in the hands of a storyteller.
  • Strategy defines what success looks like, motivating and aligning the team on a common mission despite their differing perspectives.
  • Strategists identify how business value is to be created by applying Design and Brand Thinking, elevating the understanding of how a sustainable competitive advantage can be achieved.
  • And finally, strategy translates design and creative deliverables into a language that non-designers can comprehend and socialize internally.

Business challenges today are more complex than ever, needing to integrate physical and digital experiences, products and services, brand delivery, and ongoing meaningful innovation.  Strategy is a necessity, otherwise design efforts can be well intended but diffuse and confused—a mere effort in educated guesses and self-justification. To be an effective partner with design, strategy must reframe business challenges and propose solutions in ways that can be a guiding inspiration to designers, not dictated outcomes. Strategy and design need to be dance partners for clients to see value. The choreography is a joint venture, and the performance is unimaginably better together.