The following article was first published 13 years ago. I am not convinced that despite this being the age of design thinking and the associated high profile of design in business that things have really changed much! What do you think?

Introduction

Recent (2002!) research into the extent to which design management is being offered as a consulting service offered up some interesting (and perhaps disappointing) insights. Virtually no consultancies (PARK being the exception) that provide design-related services include “design management” as a specific competency that has been articulated into a set of services. Although one would think there is a market opportunity here for an enterprising agency to differentiate itself from the competition, the evidence shows that for those who have tried it hasn’t been easy and it won’t get any easier any time soon.

Among the reasons offered by the consultants interviewed was that clients or potential clients don’t have a clear understanding of what design management is. Those who have tried in the past to establish a design management service and communicate its potential value to their clients have faced an uphill service marketing battle. The all important elevator pitch, communicating the essence of the proposition in 30 seconds or less, or approximately 10 floors, proves a formidable challenge! These challenges become more formidable when the form of design management being envisioned is elevated to a higher level, the formidable beast known as strategic design management.

Part 1

Why call it a formidable beast? Well let’s just take a look at the phrase ‘strategic design management’. It is constructed of three words that in and of themselves can have professionals from three fields debating the depth and breadth of their meanings for at least the length of several weekend conferences! For example, Mintzberg discusses 10 schools of strategy in Strategy Safari. Management consultants and gurus offer new schools of management every season. And design? As John Heskett in Toothpicks & Logos likes to say, “Design is to design a design to produce a design”. The words combine into a dizzying lexicon of terms: design, strategic design, design strategy, design management, strategic design management. The conceptual complexities become even more daunting when we bring marketing into the mix.

Much of the literature on the subject urges that design management is most effective when user-, consumer- and customer-focused. From the strategic management point of view, customer-focused differentiation effected through design can be a source of competitive advantage. From the user-centered design and customer-centered marketing point of view, market-based practices can be developed that inform the strategy formation process, especially in the transition from planned to emergent strategy. This systematic production of design information can support the creation and iteration of all customer interactions manifested in the design of products, services, environments, and communications. It is the vast scope of this holistic inclusiveness that provides one of the largest challenges to converting principles of strategic design management into a set of valuable consulting services that doesn’t require a firm the size of McKinsey to support.

Part 2

Probably the single most influential factor in determining the types of consulting services potentially required by a company is the organizational context of the prospective client. Since strategic design management, to be effective, requires an organization with the strategy and operations to make it work, the nature of consulting engagements will vary according to the extent of design’s infusion into the client organization and the level from which the contracts originate. It can also depend on factors such as culture, size, nature of the business, and on the internal resources and competences the client has at its disposal. Organizations in which design is an integral part of corporate or business strategy tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Design is viewed as a strategic resource valued as a tool of Strategy and managed strategically
  • Strategy and Design are represented and managed at each level of the organization
  • Strategy and Design are enterprise-wide activities and each level of the organization has the requisite business and design knowledge to effectively manage and be productive
  • Organizational structure supports vertical and horizontal integration and coordination of activities of people, practices, and processes in the pursuit of strategic objectives
  • Organizations plan and manage multiple channels of interaction with customers
  • Design and marketing, as tools of strategy, are pivotal in integrating customer experience through all points of contact

Each of the values described above will vary depending on the unique context of each client organization. The degree to which any of these factors are present in an organization will in all likelihood determine the type of engagements external consultants might have. It will also determine the degree of strategic impact the work of external consultants will have in the client organization.

Part 3

Because the range of services offered by current consultancies is finite, focused on implementation, and carried out by functional specialists, they cannot be expected to solve all of the strategic needs of large client organizations that interface with internal and external customers through multiple channels and points of contact. Even firms that include strategy in their range of competencies use it to drive implementation. In other words, the strategy is purely tactical and directly related to a project.

Most of the interviewed consultancies offering design-related services are still hired by their clients on a per-project basis. This tactical employment of design means that consultants find it difficult to influence the development of the client organizations’ emerging strategies. In addition, many clients have not yet developed integrated enterprise-wide strategies for the use and management of design. Corporate design objectives are not communicated to consultants before they begin their work, further hampering their ability to include themselves in a process of strategic design management. As such, the involvement in strategy formation as opposed to only strategy implementation may distinguish strategic design management consulting from traditional design consulting.

A unique quality of strategic design management is its ability to manage Design to the point that it is a source of sustainable competitive advantage, no matter what the organizational context, no matter what the design need. There is potentially a market for a new model of consulting services, divorced from specialist design outputs, the goal of which is to help organizations manage Design as a critical element of strategic management. The service could be designed to have a universally scalable application to any organization large or small and facilitate the optimal outcome from any of the numerous design implementation specialists available to companies. In such a scenario, strategic design management consultants will need to be design generalists and management specialists in order to adapt to the unique and specific needs of each organizations context and requirements.

There is great diversity in the consulting industry, with consultants being found in almost every field of professional practice. Management consulting has been simply described as the identification, diagnosis, and resolution of business issues and is very often employed by firms to help in the areas of strategy, operations, and information technology. Might we then say that strategic design management consulting is concerned with the management of design in the identification, diagnosis, and resolution of business issues that are of strategic importance to an organization? As short and sweet as this is, it may still not be enough to help an innovative service market launch communicate its value in 10 (let alone 250) floors or less.

Published originally by the Design Management Institute in April 2003 as part of their eBulletin series.

About the Author Brian Gillespie

As an independent consultant specializing in the design and innovation of business I help my clients and partners manage the diverse activities associated with driving business success by design. With a background in UX, CX and Service Design I focus on researching, designing and managing for integrated multi-touchpoint digital and physical customer experience ecosystems. I collaborate with an extensive network of exceptional and cutting-edge design agencies and talented individuals worldwide. My work is predominantly carried out in Europe and the US. Recent productive collaborations include PARK, Mad*Pow, and the E*TRADE UX team. Recent clients include global firms in financial services, pharmaceuticals, and technology. ​​ Let's collaborate!

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