The arcane alchemy of strategic design

3 Nov 2020 by Mike Tisdall

Strategic design alchemy v3

Insight Creative makes quite a play of calling itself a strategic design agency. But what is strategic design? And is it the game changer that we like to think it is?

I’ve always been seduced by great design. If I had my time again, I’d strive to be a great architect. It’s the power of the aesthetic to uplift, to inspire, to affect your feelings. Great design still has that effect on me, as does great music. All very ephemeral but powerful nevertheless.

Ever since I founded Insight 45 years ago, the aesthetics of what we do has been a vital component. But I quickly learnt that the look is only the vehicle. It’s the idea behind the aesthetic that’s the difference between whether a design works or not. It’s what it does, the affect that it has, that’s the point of all this. And as I got closer to business, the more the importance of that resonated. I set out to find the formula that rationalised the ephemeral. But of course there is none. You can’t bottle it.

I remember briefing designers back then, saying ‘it’s got to be right first, then we can make it beautiful’. 

I didn’t recognise it back then, but what I was saying was ‘the design we produce has to be strategic design’.

So, with the benefit of a much older and wiser outlook, what does ‘strategic design’ look like to me now? It’s design practice that sits at the nexus between corporate strategy and design thinking. Its goal is to merge the business objective with creative solutions that move beyond just aesthetics. Solutions that capture the imagination, captivate an audience, inspire. But that also shift perceptions, make a train of thought clear, solve a problem, persuade, and drive action.

Design alchemy

There’s an alchemy at play here. The strict discipline of rational business thinking in a lyrical dance with intuition and sensibilities. That’s where the magic lies. And that’s precisely where my entire career has been centred.

While that word ‘rational’ sits naturally with the business thinking side of the equation, there has to be a similar discipline when approaching the creative execution. It’s where the left brain and right brain play trade-off. Where science meets the arts. Where the actuary marries the artiste.

And that’s where the creative strategists in our organisation sit. Constantly balancing the tension between logic and comprehension on one hand, and soul and sensibilities on the other. Conducting the orchestra to bring diverse mindsets together in harmony.

And how do we go about that? Ah, that’s the arcane enigma of strategic design. But it sure takes strong discipline and some inner turmoil. We can’t give all our secrets away but we can tell you where it starts: 1/ a critical analysis of a brief and what success means, 2/ an in-depth understanding of the audience and what drives their perceptions and behaviours, and 3/ looking beyond the obvious for optimal solutions that engage hearts and minds, and that drive interest, desire and action.

And when we get it right – that’s pure gold!