Unprecedented times indeed

We are continually told these are unprecedented times. And we are also told to never waste a crisis.

Infact the famous British banker and financier Nathan Rothschild is known to have said ‘great fortunes were made when cannonballs fall in the harbour, not when violins play in the ballroom’. He also said the more unpredictable the environment, the greater the opportunity – if you have the leadership skills to capitalise on it.

In DBC HQ we don’t have a cannonball, nor a ballroom, but we do speak to a lot of design leaders. Here’s what we know…

The only constant is change

I know that since I got my degree, designers have learnt to think differently. Where once we practised the ‘black magic’ of design, creating from instinct, producing behind closed doors then presenting (often actually using the word ta-dahh!!!). Now designers problem solve and think strategically.

But what does that mean?

Strategic thinking can mean different things to different people

When you think strategically, you lift your head above your day-to-day work and consider the larger environment in which you’re operating. You ask questions and challenge assumptions about how things operate in your company and industry. You gather complex, sometimes ambiguous data and interpret it, and use the insights you’ve gained to make smart choices and select appropriate courses of action.

Harvard Business Review

Problem is, strategic thinking can be hard. And it takes time.

It takes time to lift your head above your day-to-day work when faced with immediate demands and deadlines. It’s much easier to dive head first into a solution and get stuff done. Problem is – as is often eloquently said – haven’t we all spent enough time trying to polish a turd?

So designing via strategic thinking can be the slow-cooking method of designing.
It’s taking the long route to the destination, hoping to see some interesting sights and pick up some great souvenirs along the way.
It’s arriving at the destination confident you’ve covered some new ground and explored all the options.

Not every project can include strategic thinking – transactional design isn’t costed to include additional time, and nor does the client expect it – but the good news is, once the methodology is in place, you don’t always have to take the longest route – you can pick and choose what tools will be of most benefit to the project.

What makes a good strategic thinker?

Here’s a list of attributes that make for a good strategic thinker. I’d much rather have shown these in a venn diagram than a list because so many overlap. (Plus the fact I do love a good venn diagram.)

  1. Curiosity. Strategic thinkers are genuinely interested in what’s happening … and why.
  2. Consistency. Strategic thinkers pursue goals doggedly and persistently.
  3. Agility: Strategic thinkers are comfortable adapting, pivoting and shifting when new information comes.
  4. Future focus: Strategic thinkers are continually looking for opportunities (and threats)
  5. Outward focus: Strategic thinkers can identify trends and patterns and understand implications
  6. Openness: Strategic thinkers are not defensive, they welcome new ideas
  7. Breadth: Strategic thinkers continually work to broaden knowledge and experience so they can see patterns and connections across seemingly unrelated fields of knowledge
  8. Questioning: Strategic thinkers are open to continually asking what they should be doing, where, when and why to create better value.

What’s my point?

Aren’t these the same attributes that make for a good designer?

Well yes. Well spotted. They are.
I would argue good designers share a majority of these attributes.
That’s why designers make such good strategic thinkers.
And that’s why designers can make great leaders.

All these attributes deliver clarity in the design process.
From clarity comes understanding.
Understanding leads to knowledge.
And knowledge makes for a great presentation, because most clients respect knowledge.

Want more?

Here’s three articles about designers using strategic thinking:

  1. In new business strategies – building the studio you want rather than letting clients set your future direction.
  2. Using strategic thinking to talk money with clients.
  3. Why happy designers are more productive – how studio owners can be strategic in the way they build their business.

As always, happy to discuss, just email.

Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at mbdesign.com.au.
My current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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