Strategic designer is not a title or a definite role, but rather a set of qualities that complement a good “skateboard” profile of the design discipline. In addition to the 4 major design profiles & their competencies – UX researcher, UX designer, UI designer, and Service designer – Strategic designer’s field of work includes business perspective focus, political maneuvering around stakeholders, entrepreneurial attitude, and applied leadership practice.
If you open LinkedIn Jobs in Finland and look for “design” as a keyword, you would probably see quite a few different roles advertised: UX designer, UI designer, User researcher, Business designer, Service Designer, Product designer – and any combination of these. There is a big chance that “Strategic designer” will not pop up in the search. And if it does – please, ping me, I’ll be curious to talk to the folks who identified the need for a strategic designer in their organization.
The reason I started to think about strategic design as an identity is because, quite honestly, the traits that are valued in such a profession are not directly derived from the design discipline’s corner. Those key traits could be developed in any environment. Before we go into them, let’s assume our position in the map of design.
"The reason I started to think about strategic design as an identity is because, quite honestly, the traits that are valued in such a profession are not directly derived from the design discipline’s corner. Those key traits could be developed in any environment."
My experience comes from IT departments in the industrial corporate world, SAAS IT consulting, and SAAS product design. I will frame the design discipline from the perspective of the latest experience – Product Design.
Product Design is a relatively new discipline in the market. If you look back 15 years ago we were all just finishing framing Design Thinking & Service design mindsets – a multidisciplinary approach with the toolkit to allow the merger of various perspectives into user-centered insights & solutions. Design thinking truly formed the foundation for product design and then the applied skills of User Interface and User Experience design filled in the needed digital competence criteria. In a nutshell, as I see a Product Designer now at the end of 2022 is as follows:
Product designer has a broad area of expertise within the core 4 profiles with competencies in all 4 profiles and masters at least one of the profiles in depth (the actual profiles could vary depending on the company’s context). So, technically speaking, the more points you score in the competencies across those profiles, the better the chances you would have a solid Product Designer’s role in a SAAS company.
However, it is also important to mention that the competencies alone are only about 30% of the designer’s success in the organization. The rest 70% will come from your collaboration with your peers & your colleagues from merged areas of work, your contribution to the organization’s culture, vision & team’s competence development. And those 70% of the professional self will most probably be the same across any discipline and any team. This is why anyone who wants to enter the strategic design scene needs to look carefully into those competencies and needed mindset.
"However, it is also important to mention that the competencies alone are only about 30% of the designer’s success in the organization. The rest 70% will come from your collaboration with your peers & your colleagues from merged areas of work, your contribution to the organization’s culture, vision & team’s competence development."
On top of the Product Designer’s profile, a Strategic Designer is:
a very good generalist across the design discipline. And the title doesn’t matter! Strategic designer is a mindset or professional identity, not what your leaders decided to call it.
a true politician, keeps good relationships across the organization and knows when and how to involve needed stakeholders. Politics are unfortunately inevitable once you break into a certain level of impact. If you feel like you don’t want to be in the center of a political game, consider staying away from the strategic path.
a very good listener who is able to connect the dots, learn context and keep an objective big picture in mind all the time. Sometimes you need to kill your own darlings and force yourself from being biased with your own opinion.
an entrepreneurial-minded individual who knows business priorities and is able to recognize and drive impactful opportunities for reasonable expenses.
a true team player because design work is a team sport. This is one of the most important weapons in the leader’s arsenal. I would argue that a strategic designer is a leader who is able to recognize team’s strengths and organize those strengths toward mutually beneficial success.
In conclusion, one piece of advice I would like to give to anyone who wants to pursue the career of a strategic designer – be strategic about it! Even if you are in a role where you are not provided with an opportunity to be the full professional self, stay on track and gain the needed qualities along the way. Regardless of the environment, gather perspectives, facilitate discussions, embrace the team and drive your own design aspirations – until you find a place that will appreciate you for all these amazing qualities.
Anna is an IDBM alumna from the second master's batch of 2011. Her true professional aspiration lies within hands-on challenges around the ambiguity of strategic design, user-centered approach, and design-driven folks with a good sense of humor. She worked in various industries and for the past few years found her professional "voice" in the growth of SaaS product companies.