The Designer's Guide to Strategy

Keep reading, this random image will make sense in a minute...

Keep reading, this random image will make sense in a minute...

In 1999, I was 9 years into my career and I realised that I hadn't really hit my stride.

I was working for a large digital agency at the time, doing everything from UI design, Art Direction and Usability design work. (UX).

But I sill felt like I had so much to learn.

A line of sight to something more

I was slightly disillusioned with where my career was going as I couldn't see beyond the task at hand. I needed a line of sight to something more.

Around that time I was offered a secondment to a large Telco here in Australia who were pitching to buy the digital rights to our national sporting code, The Australian Football League (AFL). Essentially, Large Telco was aiming to own the platform that all AFL content was going to be served through.

I joined a small, five-person team, who as I later found out were amazing strategists. They knew the challenge ahead of them was monstrous and they knew that if it didn't go well, gazillions of Australian dollars were at stake.

I checked with my eight year old and 'gazillions' is more than appropriate here.

Albeit, I was the hack. 

I'm very sure that I was brought in to make the presentation look good and little else. 

At the time, my visual design capability was strong and I could think on my feet. 

So I was OK with that.

I was to be housed with this small team of Strategists for the next five days, putting together a presentation to convince the board of the AFL that this was the right strategic move for their business.

I didn't know where to start. I stared at the team of five and waited for their lead.

Over the next five days  I was convinced that strategy was my line of sight to something more.

This team of five applied themselves in a way I hadn't seen before. Their thinking was clear, methodical, simple. 

They weren't launching rockets to the moon, or saving children from poverty. They were simply communicating in a way that was so easily understandable that I felt like a fully qualified member of the team by the end of day one.

Picture John Travolta strutting home with a tin of paint in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever and you've got my walk back home that night.

Needless to say, I was elated. 

I had found my next step.

Always learning

In the years that followed I immersed myself in learning about strategy. I read books, I did courses, I tried applying things in my freelance business, I took people out for coffee and listened to what they had to say. I landed roles in strategy and embedded strategic development practices into the businesses I was involved with. Needless to say I drank from the well of strategy and I tried to drink every drop.

What I found though was a mystery to me.

I found waffle and parade. Jargon and sleaziness.

I found Designers who were blamed for strategic problems which were completely out of their control.

On the flip side I found Designers who even believed that the strategic problems were in fact their fault!

I found clients who wouldn't have known what a strategy was if it walked up to them in a bar, swiped right on Tinder and winked at them.

I found 'Marketing Managers' who managed nothing more than a spreadsheet of colourful little boxes.

I also found some clever people. 

People who referred to the text book like it was that big round concrete ball that chased Indiana Jones in the catacombs of Cambodia in Raiders of the Lost Ark. For them the text book was big, heavy, unwieldy and not very practical. It was also covered in cobwebs.

They gleaned from the text book exactly what they needed and ran with it, making up their own way of doing things in the process.

Bootstrappers.

I found people and organisations who knew strategic thinking so well that their method could be used across disciplines.

This inspired me to no end.

It inspired me because I had found my way of levelling up. I had found an opportunity to transcend from a practitioner to a manager and eventually a leader. 

Strategy gave me the platform to discuss problems of various natures, with my clients.

Strategy was my game changer

Where previously I was seen as merely 'the Designer' - a vehicle to create 'pretty pictures' (someone actually said that to me) - I was now perceived as something different. Something more.

On the rate card I was more expensive. When I freelanced, my hourly rate doubled when 'strategy' was listed as the requirement, deliverable and the line item on my invoice.

Strategy, for me, gave me the ability to:

  • Better understand the problem I was solving when I played the role of Designer
  • Charge more for my services as a freelancer / consultant
  • Apply my understanding of strategy to areas outside of creativity such as business, organisational change and innovation
  • Understand the value and necessity of good, human-centred research to inform strategic decision making
  • Have conversations with executives and CEOs

This last point was a game changer.

I've always been relatively good at communicating with business types - having studied marketing, advertising and working in the entrepreneurial and pioneering tech space early in my career helped me - but learning about strategy fundamentals was something else. It allowed me to challenge an executive's ideas and application of strategy and be taken seriously.

Over the years this was a key thing that bothered me in my decision to pursue a creative career. Why was I not being taken seriously when I was a Designer? Why was I seen as a 'production piece' in the puzzle, and when I was asking for validation, clarification and simply for the meat in the creative sandwich I was being asked to create - I'd be met with eye rolls?

I see a lot of Designers face similar frustrations today - many questions that come through the registration form of this journal point to what's next, how to improve, grow and move into the next phase of a creative career.


The Designer's Guide to Strategy

In 2016 I launched this journal which has been really well received. The weekly notes I receive from subscribers are heartening — I've met people from all over the world.

People I'd otherwise not ever have met and have been able to get a better, deeper insight into myself by simply looking back at sometimes mundane but meaningful moments in my career.

Over the last year I've also written a 70,000+ word guidebook on strategy for Designers which I've turned into an online co urse called The Strategy Masterclass which I believe is the perfect guide to strategy for Designers.

The Strategy Masterclass is the culmination of my strategy journey and typifies my willingness to create a single point of reference for Designers to learn the foundations of good strategy, so they can apply it to their work.

Students have unlimited access to course videos, the full 70,000+ word guidebook, downloads, resources and references.

I made a beta version of the course available to a small group of students in January 2017 and the feedback has been wonderful!

"I have already started watching the first videos and I am so curious to dive into the provided materials!! "
"Wow! After two modules, I am smarter already. It's really clear and easy to take in."

"I've watched the first couple of videos and am going to give the first part of the guide a thorough read through soon. The videos are good, the speaking is well paced and very easy to follow. Once you get into the strategy content it's obvious you know what you're talking about.

Love the personality coming through with comments like "execute the bloody strategy", its genuine and makes connecting with the course easier.

The content about leadership, accountability and responsibility, "you're the person deciding what the strategy is" was really powerful to me. Made me stop and consider what that really means."

"So far I already have a bunch of great insights that relate to my work. Especially when you talk about what strategy is, and what not."

So, I'm excited about this. You might have noticed.

My own journey as a creative over the years has lead me to truly hope I can help emerging Designers and Strategists learn an invaluable skill.

I hope it will allow the more experienced Designers an answer to their quest to find the next challenge in their careers and I hope it will provide the professional Strategist a platform of continual learning and advancement.

You can learn more about the course here.

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