Strategy is generally understood as a measurable approach to planning everything from business growth to developing a new product. Design, on the other hand, often evokes thoughts of websites, business cards, advertising, or packaging like we see in visual or experience design.
Combining these two disciplines gives us Design Strategy. Industry has recast this as Design Thinking, and in the process, watered it down to post-it notes and empathy exercises. But Design Thinking is a rich human-centered process that focuses on deeply understanding real user needs in order to effectively solve problems. This approach is the backbone of everything we do at Narrative.
Developers and engineers often use logical, deductive thinking to solve problems—a straight-forward approach similar to knowing whether we like a product, and how we want to change it, based on what we can see or touch.
Design Strategy is harder to gauge. We can't use a strategy and then reflect on the experience like we do a physical product. Instead, design strategists intentionally break free from logical methodologies and constraints in order to reach unlikely solutions to our clients’ challenges.
To uncover design solutions a designer must cut the cord from simple logic and reason as a means to reframe the problem and help our minds move from “what is” to “what’s possible”. Employing a series of activities can help achieve this outcome:
In the following exploration I'll share some of Narrative’s experiences and discuss the value of design thinking and its application across a number of contexts.
Lateral thinking is about looking at old things in new ways, often sparked by a purposefully strange or unfamiliar provocation. For example, we know that a car has a transmission with a gear system, a person driving it, and four wheels that get a person from one place to another.
Using lateral thinking, we challenge assumptions through unlikely provocations like: “a car that does your dishes,” or “a car without doors,” or “a car that can paint.”
Approached analytically, “a painting car” doesn’t make sense—there’s no logical connection between these objects and uses. These ideas appear unrealistic, futuristic, or naive...until we remember a Segway only has two wheels, a Tesla has no gears, and an autonomous vehicle doesn’t need a driver.
Before Tesla, the phrase "a car without gears" challenged our established views of what things are and how they work, easily dismissable as unrealistic, SciFi, or silly. Tesla and Segway are obvious exceptions now that we are familiar with them, but new approaches that reframe long-standing “truths” are only obvious in retrospect.
Within that frame, what might “a painting car” look like if it were a viable idea?
Maybe it’s a painting drone, sold by Behr paint or Home Depot. Or a small robot that can re-tar your driveway. Or maybe it’s an autonomous vehicle that can paint homes or buildings using automation, lifts and programmed movements—driving back and forth. This idea could become a dozen potential innovations that we would never consider without that lateral provocation.
Using a lateral approach to redefine products and services can be achieved by transforming a physical object from something solely functional, to something that fosters an experience.
Imagine a coffee cup. The image that comes to mind is an object that holds liquid, it might be tall or short, red or black, it’s probably roundish, and likely has a handle.
Now, think about a way to enjoy coffee. Our internal landscape shifts and we begin to imagine an experience that unfolds over time—enjoyment is unique to the individual—and that changes our expectations and desires. We laterally traverse the ideal space of coffee.
Design strategists challenge themselves (and each other) to reimagine what’s possible by suspending the realities of what is technically feasible, valuable for business, or within accepted social precedents. And the next innovation is often illuminated by these seemingly bizarre provocations.
Inferential leaps aren’t logical—they happen when we don’t have all the information and need to make an “educated guess” in order to decide what to do next.
Design strategists use inferential leaps about human behavior to hypothesize solutions based on the actions of a small group of people. Drawing from our team’s experience and the knowledge we have at that moment in time, we craft an insight to serve as the basis for structuring a plan.
As the Narrative team researched students’ experiences with college debt, we spoke with a group of students who all struggled to describe a basic understanding of their debt commitments. One student didn't know they were already paying compounding interest on their loan. Another admitted to spending money from a recent loan check on food and beer because their loan balance was already so large it seemed impossible to ever pay back—so why not live it up?
The sample size was small, and our research didn’t show logical causality for why students took specific actions, therefore we aren’t able to make sweeping claims about all students. However, using an inferential leap we can prescribe causality from this small, non-random sample to students as a whole.
Within the study of student relationships to debt, our team identified the commonality among students as a sense of resigned avoidance. By combining observations, experiences, and personal knowledge of the world, design researchers can propose likely reasons for this resigned avoidance.
In the absence of hard data, many possible assertions can be made, such as:
Most people reading this will see the first two options as more plausible than the third or forth, which sound somewhat absurd. Objectively, however, all four are just as likely to be correct, because we simply don’t have enough data to know conclusively.
To be clear, making an inferential leap doesn’t mean making up a story without any frame of reference. For example, “leaps” from what is measurable or observable may be made when defining policy or deciding how to treat a patient in a local hospital.
For design strategists, this means making plausible inferences based on realistic rather than concrete evidence, ending up with scenarios that hone in on patterns and causality of human behavior. By skipping the typical steps of building an argument based solely on connected logic, we can break outside of the usual boundaries, and make room for options that aren’t limited by lack of empirical data or months and years of lead time.
Problems and strategies are usually framed as "this or that." Two options, often opposites, are debated in order to choose the right one. Why two? Because decision making feels easier when the overwhelming idea of "all of the things we can do" is simplified into "choose between this or that."
The human desire to simplify decision making is so strong that we often reduce the number of possibilities without even realizing it. This simplification, often unknowingly, removes the opportunity to synthesize disparate ideas as we develop strategies.
In “How Successful Leaders Think” in the Harvard Business Review, Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, writes:
“Over the past six years, I have interviewed more than 50 [leaders with exemplary records]...and found that most of them share a somewhat unusual trait: They have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both.
This process of consideration and synthesis can be termed integrative thinking. It is this discipline—not superior strategy or faultless execution—that is a defining characteristic of most exceptional businesses and the people who run them.”
Spending a lot of time in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity is uncomfortable. Meditation can be one way of staying with this discomfort instead of running from it. For design strategists, it’s important to spend as much time as needed in this space so that when we gather information from many different sources and explore ideas that may initially look contradictory.
I explored this process and the insights that emerge in my book Exposing the Magic of Design.
“Part of developing insight is in hearing and being aware of multiple perspectives on a topic. Another part of finding insight is in the ability to hold multiple ideas in the mind at once, without capitulating to one or the other: to give the ideas time to marinate, and rejecting knee-jerk or impulsive decisions. The most important part of insight development is the ability to find connective tissue to act as glue for ideas: to produce a whole out of parts.”
Originally used by designers, bringing this type of strategic focus helps us solve problems for real human experience by exploring how people are likely to interact with one-another and with the world, mediated by technology, products, and services. Innovation and leadership share qualities of integrative synthesis in that both require the person, designer, thinker or leader, to look across the landscape of the known, the understood, the expected, and identify key moments or opportunities, then integrate that knowledge into a blueprint for the next, better, possible future.
Design is, at its core, a way to visually represent what an idea looks like. This process often begins with sketching as a way of investigating and exploring different ways to solve a problem or visualize a new idea. One of the most well-known examples of this form of visual thinking is Leonardo da Vinci's sketchbooks, filled with small thumbnails that show his thoughts.
Da Vinci drew dozens of sketches of birds in order to understand flying. Likewise, a design strategist uses a similar approach to generative reasoning by repetitively sketching an experience that occurs over time, seen in a comic strip style story or diagram, in order to understand how that experience “works.”
“Sketching,” whether on paper, in Adobe Illustrator, or a series of bulleted lists in a Word doc can be a useful way to consider and synthesize the multiple perspectives or possibilities in order to see the connections between them. And from there, the insights and decisions often follow.
By unifying strategy with the design process, business leaders can face obstacles head on, while giving shape to new innovations. Divergent and lateral thinking helps us challenge our preconceptions. Making inferential leaps helps move projects forward in a rational and exploratory manner. Spending time with the discomfort of contradiction fosters the magic required to reach integrative synthesis. All of these approaches are designed to craft futures in the face of the unknown. Call it Design Thinking, or Design Strategy; no matter the name, by bringing these approaches into your organization and team, you are better prepared to vision, and build, the future that’s possible.