How to Transition from a Designer to a Strategist

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Over three years ago, I transitioned from a designer to a strategist. Working within the more executional area of design still informs my thought process today. I know which concepts are executional, and how to communicate these to different audiences. However, the transition can be a challenge. This is why I wanted to offer some advice for stepping into a strategy role, or using strategy more within your design process.

What we’ll cover:

Before going into any ideas, let’s level set on an important fact - as a designer, you do strategy in one form or another. In order to create any design, whether it’s in the physical or digital world, a designer must consider multiple factors. These include brand strategy, visual identities, customer or user preferences, industry standards, expectation drivers, experience benchmarks, executional possibilities etc. Designing is solving a problem, whether it is functional, aesthetic or both.

The following suggestions are meant to amplify and solidify the strategy you already do, as well as provide further options. As a designer, you might be in a multi-functional team with a strategist, UX designer, marketeer, customer/user insights expert - or not. Different industries have different configurations or norms. Hopefully there is something within the variety of ideas that works for your specific scenario.

Develop Tools to Inform Your Audience

The greatest challenge of any creative concept is buy-in from your audience. Making them see your perspective can be both a long-game (especially within a brand), or a short-term dazzle (such as agency pitches). Some of the most beneficial tools I built as a designer helped to inform both my design process and others’ outlook.

While at Converse EMEA, we created strategic tools to understand the European customer’s world. These included customer journeys videos, trend reports, interviews with industry leaders and customer insights. We used these to develop our product strategy, while also communicating our findings cross-functional and cross-company. This was especially important for our regional team, as we had to justify our actions to the global office.

For some stakeholders, design feels like magic. As designers, we feel like our solution is obvious. Collecting information, whether it’s about the customer, benchmarks or trends, can help others more subjectively evaluate our choices. This might seem unnecessary, but us designers can forget that everyone can’t see what’s in our heads. Identify pain points or key drivers for your organization or client, while using strategic tools to extract and communicate these actionable insights.

Boost Your Written and Verbal Communication Skills

A lot of strategy - and design - is about communication. As a strategist, I need to communicate both up and down the corporate hierarchy, as well as cross-functionally. This requires understanding different audiences, their perspectives and their vocabulary. For a single experience concept, as an example, I have numerous approaches to verbalise and justify its direction. This is because each audience has their own stake in and concerns about the experience.

Improving your communication skills is a life-long pursuit. It requires experimentation, observation and humility. To start, consider how you communicate design concepts at work. Ask yourself - could it be clearer; is there a dimension missing that would help others understand my concept; is there a better way to structure my concept presentation; or how can I better verbally walk through my concept? The main thing to remember is that your audience is never ‘dumb’ or ‘uninformed’. If someone doesn’t understand your design concept, you failed to convey your idea correctly. It’s hard to hear, but it’s true.

Contribute Strategic Ideas and Research

I’ve worked with many designers who are strategic. As a busy strategist working on multiple projects at once, a strategic designer is a godsend. They contribute new ideas, see product or experience development from a unique angle and can lessen the strategist’s load. Now, your team might not have a strategist, but there is usually another function connected to your team that focuses on the business, brand or customer side. This can range from UX designers to creative directors - it just depends on your business.

In addition to contributing ideas during project phases, there are other ways to help out strategic teammates. One of the most appreciated is what I would consider ‘strategy gruntwork’. This usually includes finding great case studies, visuals and/or additional customer insights. Many times, having another mind on mining such data is super helpful, as everyone has varying resources and perspectives.

As difficult or awkward as it might seem, taking that first step can open up new opportunities. Depending on the person or project, it might be immediate or take some time. Don’t get discouraged if a strategy team member doesn’t respond immediately. Everyone has their own comfortable ways-of-working. Thus, it might take months for that team member to understand where you could fit into their concepting process.

Offer to Write Parts of a Design or Experience Strategies

As a strategist, there is a point where you are writing tons of content, while organising it at the same time. This occurs everywhere from concept to execution. It is necessary, yet monotonous work. Whenever a designer helps out to write content relevant to their work, I am very grateful. First, due to their expertise, they can speak to their design decisions better than I can. Secondly, editing content is easier than writing it from scratch. So as a designer, offer to help out and write content. It’s a good way to practice your writing skills and will be appreciated by strategists.

Let’s summarise

  • As a designer, you do strategy in one form or another; let’s boost that
  • Create strategic tools to help clients or teams understand your creative perspective
  • Start with improving your communication skills, as it’s a life-long pursuit
  • Contribute ideas and help out with strategy ‘grunt work’
  • Offer to help write presentation content, which is also good writing practice