A new name for Strategic Design


At this time of change and transition, I have been thinking a lot about the people who have shaped my professional path. I am lucky to be able to count amongst my mentors people like Dan Hill and Steve Lennon who are both exceptional visionaries and conceptual thinkers. Both Dan and Steve are the kind of guys that will relentlessly strive not only for performance on a project, but for industry transformation. You cannot knock out of either of these grown men that there are more productive ways to think about the small and the large problems we face in cities and in organisations.

It’s great to be surrounded by people who have got that itch: they are constantly churning out new ideas, creating new theories and developing new paradigms. ‘Strategic Design’ is one of these concepts, or rather approaches to problem solving, that Dan has been pondering on for the past 5 years or longer.

Strategic Design is the discipline of shaping the culture of decision-making around a project to create a unique proposition for the project. Borrowing from the fields of interaction design where an understanding of users and audiences is crucial, strategic design built the ‘why’? of a project, when so many of us are running around like headless chickens fussing over the ‘what?’ I remember going to project meetings with Dan where the more technically minded team members within Arup would be focused on the technical feasibility of a certain part of a project, and Dan would throw a spanner in the works by reeling way back to the fundamentals: ‘What is this project for?’ he would ask, as if it were a magical spell to shut any engineer up and envelope the room with confusion.

The term ‘Strategic Design’ emerged through on-going conversations with Dan, his clients, and some noted collaborators such as Ingo Kumic of Knox City Council. No longer was it enough for us to develop strategies for a place, we also had to design a purpose for it. That purpose would become the guiding thread for the development strategy and the development itself, as well as the measure against which to assess the success of the soft and hard outcomes of the project.

Dan developed this idea further during his tenure at Helsinki Design Lab, in collaboration with colleagues Bryan Boyer and Marko Steinberg. They even posted a little spiel on it on the now archive website for HDL. Many definitions of Strategic Design have emerged since then and have become the foundation of firms like Strategic and Creative, a Sydney based outfit that designs the future of organisations. Mike Priddis and Hanno Blankenstein who founded S&C have turned Strategic Design into an art and a science.

It was only a small leap from this territory, the territory of designing a proposition for a built environment or property project, to building the brand that sits behind that project. By brand we never intended the ‘brand expression’ that is expressed through naming, logos, and other types of marketing collateral. We also meant the deployment of the brand strategist toolkit to help foster an emotional connection to place.

In more recent years, this concept of place has emerged and gained some airtime with property clients. Formerly uncomfortable with the fact that place comes to life in tangible and intangible ways, the property sector is now invested in the idea that emotional connections to projects is the only way to activate them, to weave them into the fabric of the city, to make them come to life. But they possibly lack the tools, vocabulary and skills to be able to do that in a genuine way.

To compound the challenge further, users of ‘place’ are a really demanding bunch of people who now expect cities and the urban fabric to renew at the pace of the media cycle. As consumers of cities, we are an incredibly fickle, difficult and uncommitted group of consumers. We flutter from offer to offer, looking for the buzz of the new, in quest of a place that says more about our personal status in society than it does about our cities.

I’ve come to this conclusion that place is therefore a feeling, a search for status at work or in private life. Place responds to the basic needs of belonging yet feeling like an individual. To achieve this, developers are going to need to deploy the skills of brand strategists, marketers and experience designers. They will have to harness the power of informal networks and the influence of tastemakers and gamechangers. They will have to learn to embed themselves into the community they are serving rather than simply delivering a product.

I am personally very excited about this growing realisation in the property sector: I am excited that some of the ‘softer skills’ are coming to be valued as crucial to the success of projects and to their sustainability.

This has implications for the toolkit and skills of a placemaker: in the past 20 years, placemaking has actually been synonymous with urban design, and has been an attempt to physically build in the identity of  a place into its fabric. This is how we end up with ghastly public art or multi-coloured paving when really, this purely physical toolkit has always been inadequate for the task at hand.

With a more sophisticated understanding of the constituent elements of place, there are opportunities for strategic thinkers with urban development experience but also research, insights, brand strategy and leadership development and facilitation skills to complement client teams and wider consultant teams to really nail the life of a place from the outset of a project.

I therefore argue that Strategic Design and Placemaking are now merging as methodologies and philosophies, the language of one is influencing the other to create an exciting new space. That’s where I will be. See you there.

One Response to “A new name for Strategic Design”
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  1. […] addresses the ‘why?’ of a project, rather than the customary question of ‘what?’ (Thanks Michelle Tabet for […]

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