Strategic design is about processes of change, and it has the capacity to generate innovation in Danish companies, argues Jørgen Rasmussen, associate professor and head of the Department of Design at the Aarhus School of Architecture. He explains how designers can use strategic design to help companies understand the value they are offering to their customers as a basis for developing and changing the company, and he points out that Denmark has a good basis for using strategic design to create innovation. But it is important to integrate a good understanding of business into strategic design, and here design research plays a key role.
By Irene Houstrup
Strategic design is one of the buzz words in the private sector when the talk is of innovation. And according to Jørgen Rasmussen, associate professor of the Consortium for Strategic Design at the Aarhus School of Architecture, strategic design has a graet potential for generating innovation in companies and in society.
“The world has become more complex, and we need to understand issues and be able to shed light on complex topics so that we can discuss and address them. And that is exactly what strategic design can do, in part because designers are able to convey otherwise very complex processes and issues through words and images, so-called visual sense-making – achieving clarity by means of visual tools,” says Jørgen Rasmussen.
As Jørgen Rasmussen sees it, strategic design is about incorporating design and design processes into companies’ value creation.
“Strategic processes in companies often involve many different professions. Based on an understanding of the company, the product and the customers, designers can inform strategy, that is, help bring together and highlight key knowledge for the strategic process and make it accessible to all participants. Along the way, designers can facilitate the process, for example by creating a shared visual understanding of the process with illustrations and diagrammatic visualisations of the process. Furthermore, designers can use the innovative tools of the design process to assist in designing strategies, that is, articulating or refining strategies,” he says.
|An example of visual sense-making from a seminar at the Aarhus School of Architecture about strategic design, where designers used graphical recording, that is, visual notes made during the process, to capture debate points and convey complex issues in images in order to facilitate the discussion. |
Illustration: Nanna Frank
Based on an understanding of the company, the product and the customers, acquired in part through user involvement, Jørgen Rasmussen argues that designers can help identify the unique values that the company offers its customers – the company’s actual offering or value proposition – and thus enable the company to strengthen and develop the organisation and the products on the basis of these values.
“Many companies don’t actually know their own value proposition. But identifying this value proposition and using it as the basis for innovation – that’s the key. The reason that designers are good at this stems both from their experience with user involvement and from the fact that, as design researcher Buchanan puts it, they don’t have a particular subject area or technical area of expertise, like software experts, for example; instead they are free to consider everything as a whole. Designers can generate innovation by working in cross-disciplinary teams and incorporating key elements from other disciplines and professions,” he says.
Today, designers take part in a development process in dialogue, for example, with technicians about material properties or with anthropologists about user aspects. But according to Jørgen Rasmussen it is equally important to focus on the dialogue with the business side: the finance, marketing and strategy experts, for example, who work in parallel with some of the elements that are also part of design research, including the understanding of cultural trends, user surveys, strategy development etc.
“Strategic design exists in the intersection of the three key design elements: technology, human values and business, which, among others, Stanford d.school also refers to in their design innovation model,” says Jørgen Rasmussen. He underscores how important it is that designers understand the business side and are able to incorporate the most important aspects of these three elements in their holistic understanding of the company and its opportunities.
“Design research plays an important role in strategic design, in part because it analyses, organises and conveys knowledge about strategic design stemming from concrete projects, but especially because it can engage in an essential dialogue with the business side and help anchor this dialogue in strategic design. Business insight is crucial for designers and design researchers alike,” he points out.
Among the means that designers and design researchers use to inform strategy processes and design strategy are visualisation tools. These tools make it possible to create a visual language for the process of strategy development that makes sense to everyone involved, regardless of their background, and thus facilitates the process. Visual interpretations can contain or symbolise large amounts of information, simplified through images or diagrams.
“We all know how much easier it is to grasp a graph than a long table, and how difficult it is to describe emotional values in writing. Thanks to the ability to convey the processes visually designers are often able to create the communication in the strategy process. They master a language that everybody understands, regardless of their professional background,” says Jørgen Rasmussen.
Another element that designers and design researchers can contribute, according to Jørgen Rasmussen, is a holistic approach to the company’s product development based on its value proposition.
“When companies talk about product development and development processes, they are often talking about physical products. When design researchers and designers talk about product development, they’re not necessarily dealing with physical products – they may be looking at a new service or something that surrounds the products, a service or a product that is peripheral to what the company does. A classic example of this kind of design thinking is Apple, which has used its physical design and its services to create a unique strategic fit, Harvard University professor Michael Porter’s term for a situation where product, service and company support and enhance each other perfectly. A value base that permeates the company’s image, product etc. is easy for the customers to decode and identify with, and hard for the competition to copy,” says Jørgen Rasmussen.
|Jørgen Rasmussen, associate professor, head of the Consortium for Strategic Design at the Aarhus School of Architecture, sees a great potential in strategic design as a source of innovation in companies and in society. |
Photo: Christoffer Regild
Right now, Jørgen Rasmussen says, there is a great emphasis on innovation in companies, for example at the product level, but less emphasis on innovation in relation to the companies themselves.
“When everything around us develops as fast as it does, companies will have to develop too. Many companies are falling behind, not because they’re doing something wrong, but because they fail to develop. Successful companies are the ones that are able to change and develop. And strategic design is very much about processes of change,” he says.
He emphasises that the same apples to strategic design processes in the service sector and public administration, sectors that are also potential users of strategic design.
Jørgen Rasmussen believes that Denmark has a particular potential with regard to the use of strategic design to generate innovation in companies and in society.
“It has to do with democracy and our flat hierarchical structure. We feel that we’re all equal, so we listen to each other. Executives have access to knowledge straight from the ‘factory floor’; they communicate with everybody in the company and encourage their contribution to development, so we actually have a strong capacity for user involvement, internally as well as externally. Furthermore, Danish companies are often able to change quickly because they are relatively small. And the new guerrilla approach – where companies get together in little clusters to develop a product, after which they may break up again into smaller elements and enter into new constellations based on market fluctuations – this approach is very well suited for Denmark,” he says.