The Strategic Edge
By Pat Matson Knapp

Strategic thinking may be the sharpest design tool in your arsenal. The principals of DesignMatters tell you how to hone it and keep yourself a cut above the competition.

So you've got a nice portfolio, chock-full of pretty pictures. You can show a wide range of design work representing a cross section of clients and industries. And you're feeling pretty good about the way you present yourself out there.

But while you're showing those pretty pictures, can you talk about how they solved your client's business problem? Can you articulate how your work helped a client meet key sales goals? Can you present yourself as a strategic thinker?

These days, a beautiful portfolio is simply "the cost of entry," say Anne Haerle and Jeni Herberger, principals of DesignMatters, a Kirkland, WA-based consultancy that helps designers and creative teams maximize their strategic value. "To really compete, you have to offer something bigger and better than just a pretty picture," Haerle says. "Strategic awareness is becoming that key factor that can separate one design firm, or an individual designer, from the rest of the competition."

Haerle defines strategic awareness in two parts: understanding your clients' business goals so you can deliver creative solutions that help them achieve those goals; and understanding your own firm's business goals while recognizing that what you do affects your organization's bottom line. At a time when good design has practically reached commodity status, clients demand more of the design work they commission. "They want substantive results, and they want to see that their business goals are integrated into design solutions," Haerle explains. "That's where strategic thinking comes in."

  1. Put it in writing.
    Determine what strategic awareness means to your firm and develop a strategic-awareness statement to live by. For example: "Our firm is dedicated to developing creative solutions that deliver business-focused, bottom-line results for our clients."
  2. Walk the talk.
    Be the strategic-awareness poster child for your firm. Demonstrate it at every opportunity.
  3. Alert your staff.
    Meet one-on-one with each creative team member to review strategic awareness and its role in the organization. Rewrite their job descriptions and create individual career plans that focus on strategic thinking.
  4. Be a mentor.
    Schedule regular follow-up meetings to check staff members' progress. Coach them through challenges. Let them know when they need to polish their strategy skills.
  5. Design it in.
    Integrate strategic awareness into the design process by maximizing research and information on client business goals. Include employees in client meetings. Require creative briefs to include business goals. Track design explorations and choices to business goals.
  6. Send a strategic message to clients.
    Make sure all marketing materials reflect your strategic stance. Listen more than you talk to clients. Be able to explain design choices in the language of business, not aesthetics.
  7. Put your money where your mouth is.
    Reward employees for their strategic-thinking skills. Include strategic thinking in your compensation systems and promotion paths. Realize that if you reward strategic thinking, employees will be motivated to operate that way.

Pat Matson Knapp is a Cincinnati-based writer and editor who contributes frequently to HOW and other design publications. She is the author of Designers in Handcuffs (HOW Design Books) and Designing Corporate Identity: Graphic Design as a Business Strategy (Rockport Publishers).

Reprinted with permission from HOW magazine;

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