Influencing Strategy by Design: Design Skills

by January 15, 2008

Perhaps the biggest area of focus in the Influencing Strategy by Design course, taught by Tom Chi and I, is how a designer’s existing skills can be applied to business and product strategy.

Many design organizations seek to impact strategic decision-making by learning how to speak the language of business. But until they master these new skills, they are likely to be the least qualified people to discuss business strategy at the corporate decision-making table. Yet no one else at the table besides the design team has a complete set of design skills.

These skills define a unique perspective that designers can bring to strategic work. A number of people have outlined what principles, approaches, and skills are characteristic of design. In particular:

  • My compilation A Difference of Design outlined how design approaches to problem solving, validation, patterns, teams, and more differ from traditional business-driven approaches.
  • In Leveraging Design’s Core Competencies, Chris Conley outlined the kinds of expertise that are at the core of design.
  • Dick Buchanan also assembled a compelling list of core design competencies.
  • Roger Martin contrasted the analytical thinking approach (common in most business-driven decision making) with the design thinking approach (at the heart of the design process).

From these more comprehensive lists, I’ve distilled four attributes central to design that provide unique value to strategic decision-making. These are: pattern recognition, storytelling, visual communication, and empathy.

Pattern Recognition

People make sense of what they see by recognizing the similarities and differences between visual elements. Through the process of visual organization, designers manipulate these visual relationships to create meaning. This requires an intimate awareness of visual patterns and the ability to manipulate those patterns to tell a structured story.

This pattern recognition skill can be measured quantitatively through a series of tests known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices. The tests do away with words and numbers and present all questions visually. Participants succeed by detecting the patterns in each series of objects and separating relevant information from irrelevant information. Given the amount of time designers spend manipulating visual patterns when creating product designs, they are likely to be highly proficient in this form of pattern recognition.

The same skill can be applied to strategic work. When faced with complex market information, pattern recognition is invaluable for separating the signal from the noise and uncovering insights. This skill becomes even more relevant when you consider the huge quantities of information available today: market research, user research, Web analytics, and more.

Story Telling

The design of products requires effective communication with an audience. Each product (via its interface design) needs to “tell” people what it offers them and why they should care. This requires the ability to explain and persuade not only with logic but with emotion as well. In other words, it requires story telling.

This ability to craft a structured narrative is also pertinent to strategic work. When compared with the series of graphs and bullet points typically used to communicate a strategy, a story can be more impactful, memorable, and clear. It is well documented that people can recite epic poems from memory but fail to do so when the same content in these stories is presented to them as a series of random words. Storytelling not only makes strategic direction more memorable, it makes it more compelling.

Visual Communication

In order to effectively communicate meaningful stories, designers need to manage the prioritization and relationship of visual elements. Exposing these relationships through visual communication enables people to easily interpret complex information and its implications. Perhaps Tom Chi bests outlines how this skill set is applicable to strategic work:

“Designers can use our skills to powerfully communicate the data we’ve collected. We can represent dozens of viewpoints, influences, competitive factors and more in a single slide. We can get large collections of people on the same page with clear actionable goals in less time than any manager giving a speech. We also think about the form and scale that data is best consumed. Oftentimes, we are beset with either far too much data or far too little. They come in the form of gigantic spreadsheets or organizational meetings filled with platitudes but no content. As designers we know how to deliver data at a meaningful human scale.

Many people are visual learners, but much fewer are effective visual communicators. When these people see a diagram or visualization or competitive timeline that makes sense, the discussion quickly moves to the next level. Sadly, without some visual as a point of discussion, you’ll see these same people in endless meetings pouring through a 24-page document and leaving with less clarity than when they went in.”


Designers spend much of their time thinking through problems from the “outside in”. Contrasted with the “inside out” approaches that typify corporate business agendas, this methodology focuses on the perspective of customers and end users when analyzing and crafting solutions. Applying this perspective to strategic work creates more genuine relevance. As an example, when the eBay design team crafted a visual representation of their registration redesign strategy, they used full sized images of what actual eBay customers see to outline their goals within the context of actual an user experience.