Strategic Design Definition for Daily Use

What is Strategic Design? Definition For Your Day-To-Day

Title: Strategic Design Definition

What is Strategic Design? Breaking It Down to a Definition

By now, we need for a general Strategic Design definition, as many companies are looking for services in this field and some universities now offer Master’s degrees in the subject. Last but not least, Iconstorm also specializes in Strategic Design. That is why we want to do our part to clarify the concept.

Our definition attempt is strongly rooted in our own business practice. In our day-to-day, we actively guide companies in innovation projects and support them in building design competence. “Actively” in this context means more than just consultancy, because our approach is based directly in the operative project work and produces tangible results. From this, we want to deduce a definition that will serve as a basis for discussion in order to specify this relatively new field. So let’s start with our definition attempt:

Strategic Design: Definition for the Day-To-Day

Strategic Design is a collaborative platform that enables people to work together to design meaningful solutions in the face of complex challenges. It sets the cognitive conditions under which teams, based on the different perspectives and abilities of their members, use design methods to expand their scope for taking action and making decisions. By means of its hands-on approach, it unfolds transformative potential that organizations can use to strengthen their capability to act in the present and in the future.


These three sentences pack a punch. In order to explain this definition in more detail, we will sort the individual ideas in separate sections and discuss our most important sources of inspiration. At the end of the article, hopefully a good overall picture of the topic will emerge.

Richard Buchanan, Wicked Problems

1) “Complex Challenges”

Complex challenges are characterized by an often intransparent interplay of different problem systems; they are difficult to outline and can only be solved in an integrated way. The idea goes back to the concept of Wicked Problems, which C. West Churchman coined in 1967. Organizations that operate in the social or economic spheres today are always confronted with complexity. Especially in innovation projects, it is necessary to mediate between different problem systems in order to ensure sustainable success. If only one side of a problem is dealt with, other difficulties (social, ecological, legal, etc.) are often revealed or even caused.

Design can make an important contribution to dealing with complex challenges. One of our most important inspirations can be found in Richard Buchanan, who tried to schematize the idea in Branzi’s Dilemma in 1998. He discusses that in a postmodern society there is no longer a common guiding notion of the “good” and it becomes necessary to mediate between categories such as the useful, the just or the pleasant. Design, he argues, accomplishes this through a focus on collaboration and bringing together diverse perspectives. Buchanan shows that design is much more than the mere creation of signs or objects. On a deeper level, it can also influence interactions and thinking. Important competencies from design – for Buchanan, inventing, judging, deciding, evaluating – help to deal with complexity in a targeted fashion. Buchanan therefore calls for design to be anchored in the innovation process from the very beginning in order to give it a meaningful direction.

Image: David Buchanan: Four Orders of Design
Buchanans Four Orders of Design
At a lower level, the competencies of the higher level do not “disappear”. Rather, the fields of competence complement each other. By taking a holistic view of an issue, design can thus make an important contribution to the drafting of solutions and the shaping of systems.

Simon Sinek, Purpose

2) “Work Together”

In his work, Buchanan emphasizes that design is driven in particular by a culture of practice, of active creation and the search for shared values, ideas and goals. The common purpose then gives a project inspiration and power, out of which something new emerges. Getting to the bottom of the topic of purpose is likewise an important concern for Simon Sinek, who developed the idea of the “Golden Circle” in Start with Why.

Sinek argues that most companies know exactly what they do, meaning that they can describe their products and services. However, only fewer can outline how they do it, i.e., pinpoint their unique value proposition. And just a small group knows why they do it. Why they get out of bed in the morning to work, why the company opens its doors for them and why anyone should care. Getting to the bottom of precisely this Purpose helps to resolve many contradictions and to give direction to thinking and doing. This is not only true for an organization as a whole, but also important in individual projects. The search for Purpose is therefore an important part of Strategic Design.

Simon Sinek’s well-known TEDx Talk on the power of the unassuming question, “Why?”

Tim Brown, Change by Design

3) “Meaningful Solutions”

Tim Brown, in his 2009 book Change by Design, also focuses on a culture of innovation that does not produce mere “commodities” but designs holistic experiences that create value. He emphasizes the importance of good collaboration, where the best idea prevails rather than one that is predetermined from the start. Brown’s particular focus is on Human-Centered Design as well as success criteria for the development of ideas and innovation. He asserts that one should not simply build a random new product and push it into a market, but should start with the motives of real people. This requires an in-depth analysis of the users’ needs. Based on this, prototypes should then be designed and tested in a lean process.

For Brown, a successful idea ultimately fulfills several requirements: First, it is based on people’s needs (desirability); second, it is technologically feasible (feasibility); and third, it has a viable business model (viability). Thus, he proposes to integrate different problem systems in a co-creative process. At Iconstorm, we call this “Meaningful Innovation”, and Meaningful Innovation succeeds in integrating relevant problem dimensions to develop sustainable solutions. Brown was the inspiration for this framework, although it should be added that a) at the time of his book, the sustainability dimension was not yet so prominent and b) in addition to the technological, economic and human context, other problem systems can also be relevant, for example the legal or social context.

Image: Meaningful Innovation
Meaningful Innovation
“The ultimate purpose or function of design in society is to conceive products which express and reconcile human values concerning what is good, useful, just, and pleasurable.” – Richard Buchanan

Otto “Otl” Aicher, The World as Design

4) “To Design”

In “The World as Design” Otl Aicher describes how modernity subjected our world and lives to the primacy of reason. Only reason prescribes what is right and justifies that fact by invoking the authority of our intellect. Thus, it dictates how we live and work together. In the modern business world, he writes in recourse to Marx, this leads to a thoroughly organized kind of work, in which nothing new is created anymore. It is a controlled world where work must be done in a “reasonable” fashion and where the chances for true change are slim. The result is the modern division of labor, in which people, as cogs in the machine, are alienated from their actions and no longer makes any creative contribution of they own. Aicher contrasts this bleak outlook with the culture of design.

The culture of design brings together independent thinking and inventive doing in the process of creation. In designing, people work creatively and experience self-efficacy, as real solutions emerge from the process. A design, says Aicher, speaks for itself and is just as real as a scientific theory. But because you are creating a piece of the world, designing is creative, personal, fulfilling. It’s inspiring and, in the end, more fun than simply managing the status quo. This culture of design is an important part of the design process and also a central building block in Strategic Design. The focus is on quickly designing visible or tangible artifacts that effectively show whether an idea can be discarded or built upon. They are the basis for decisions and actions and trigger a new kind of collaboration that has a positive impact on individuals, teams and companies.

The culture of design brings together independent thinking and inventive doing in the process of creation.Otl Aicher, The World as Design


Giulia Calabretta, Gerd Gemser and Ingo Karpeen, Strategic Design

5) “Cognitive Conditions”

On working in the co-creative process, Guilia Calabretta published a book in 2016 appropriately named Strategic Design. Together with Gerd Gemser and Ingo Karpen she outlines eight skills that are of practical relevance in the design process. The first, Envisioning and Inspiring deal with finding a long-term purpose that builds motivation and excitement for everyone involved (Setting Objectives). Simplifying and Structuring focus on implementation and process: dealing with complex information and a defined process in which the team works in a goal-oriented and agile manner (Configuring Project). Finally, Embracing and Educating are important for creating commitment to the project in an organization. This involves managing a sustainable process, educating and involving stakeholders, and building design competencies and knowledge in the organization (Embedding Project).

While Calabretta describes the competencies mentioned so far as “sequential”, she ascribes a fundamental and overarching function to the skills of Aligning and Translating. The point here is to always make sure that all team members are kept in sync with the process and even complex project are kept aligned with the common purpose. To achieve this, information needs to be expressed in as many different languages as possible (visual, linguistic, etc.) so that everyone can work with and understand it. Design methods lend themselves very well to this because they simplify things and try to be inclusive. The process is accompanied and moderated by experienced strategic designers.

Image: Strategic Design by Guilia Calabretta, Gerd Gemser and Ingo Karpen
Strategic Design
The book is very practice-oriented and gives good clues in which areas one should be competent as a designer today.

Peter Kruse

6) “Different Perspectives and Abilities”

Organizational psychologist Peter Kruse emphasized that complex problem systems also need complex solution systems. In doing so, he criticized the classic organizational hierarchy, in which decisions are made top-down and later implemented in compartmentalized silos at the bottom. This, he said, is a rigid and overly simple system that cannot respond to the signals of a complex world. Instead, the degree of networking in the organization should be increased, and individuals and especially teams should be given much more freedom to act and make decisions independently.

He argues that you need a network of people with many different skills in order to disrupt your own system with creative ideas. Kruse identified three important roles in such networks: Creators who like to come up with unconventional ideas, Owners who have a lot of expert knowledge in their field and Brokers who like to network with people and know where to find information and resources. Kruse said that when you bring different people together a “supersummative intelligence” will emerge and that such a team, by combining its skills, is better equipped to deal with complex challenges. In a Strategic Design project, this is taken up and efforts are made to design working methods and an atmosphere in such a way that everyone can contribute according to their strengths and views, regardless of personality and preferences. Ideally, the team will also be staffed according to this idea.

Playbooks, Best of Breed

7) “Use Design Methods to Expand the Scope for Action and Decision-Making”

The design process requires a different mindset than usual project work. It is agile, iterative, it drafts and discards again. The process has been formalized in the well-known Double Diamond by the British Design Council. Since Strategic Design requires gathering diverse people in the same process, in practice it always uses exactly those tools, methods and formats that are best suited for the respective project. This is in accordance to a best of breed philosophy. A playbook is structured from various fields to make the work efficient and goal-oriented. Roughly, there are three areas that need to be addressed: The overall process, the collaboration, and the content that is worked on.

At Iconstorm, we use various sprint formats on the process level, for example, such as our Strategic Design Sprint, which in turn can be combined with the Lean Startup methodology, methods from Agile, Design Thinking, Rapid Prototyping and others. On the collaborative level, you can borrow a lot from Liberating Structures, ideas from Holacracy and the like. When it comes to content, there are well-defined design fields such as Business Design, Human-Centered Design, UX Design and many more that may be appropriate depending on the challenge. At the end of a sprint, for example, there can be a product prototype with a suitable business model that are both easy to explain to stakeholders and further developed in the organization. Since methods are now a dime a dozen, it is advisable to design a suitable playbook for every new project.

Image: The design process according to the British Design Council
The Design Process
Overview of the design process according to the scheme of the British Design Council

Helsinki Design Lab, Legible Practices

8) “Transformative Potential”

Last, but not least, the Helsinki Design Lab dealt with the topic of Strategic Design until 2013. Many of the ideas listed here can also be found in Legible Practices, one of its main works. The authors particularly emphasize the transformative potential inherent in Strategic Design projects. They compare such projects to a Trojan horse: By creating convincing prototypes in the face of complex problems, they develop a tangible, inspiring effect according to the principle of “show, don’t tell,” even if they are limited to specific and concrete goals. The culture of collaboration in such projects is also infectious and inspiring.

Therefore, the authors believe that Strategic Design can be an important vehicle for systemic change in the organization. On the one hand, the projects are limited enough to test them without much risk, on the other hand, they are important enough to create new meaning. For example, by making their results visible and through active stakeholder management, a Strategic Design team can make people aware that innovation can also be done “differently”. In this way, they can contribute to the emergence of a new culture of innovation through practice. The organization, in turn, can take up what it has learned to better position itself for the current and future challenges of a complex world.


So much for our proposal of a Strategic Design definition. Surely there are many more interesting ideas, sources and people dealing with the topic. What do you think? Is this a good, applicable, (in)complete formulation? Are there ideas that should be added? Feel free to write us on LinkedIn and join the discussion.


Read more about Strategic Design in practice in our white paper on sustainable business innovation.

Iconstorm White Paper<br>Sustainable Business Design
Iconstorm White Paper
Sustainable Business Design

Shape a future-ready business with Strategic Design

  • Use proven Business Design methods to develop sustainable business models.
  • Create Meaningful Innovation using the Strategic Design framework.
  • Including an expert interview, a case study and our favorite practice tips.


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Image: Felix Guder, Iconstorm

Felix is driving Strategic Design as a vision in our company. Get in touch with him if you’d like to discuss the topic more in-depth.

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