What is Design? Note on Strategy

This is from 2013:

My wise friend, Josh Spear, has an agency that says strategy is “the practice of figuring out the best way to get from here to there.” The above diagram provides their view on this key topic of strategy … that has evaded me for many years. But I have a much easier sense of what strategy is now, much more than I do the word “design,” and yet know that strategy needs design to do the job well.

Because if strategy is the ability to choose the best path, then design is the conceptual tool to generate the paths from which to choose from. Designers are extremely good at iterating quickly, failing fast, testing permutations, and spanning a broad range of possible routes from which to define a solid strategy. Technology also informs strategy because it provides new possibilities (and thus brand new routes) that weren’t imaginable with previous means. The integration of design with technology has been slow to take over the last two decades, but it’s starting to get interesting.

How does technology come into the picture of design? Well, the field of design was comfortable and relatively stable for a few decades (mid 1900s leaning into the latter half of the century) within the known boundaries of print and the emerging boundaries of film and video. But digital technologies really messed things up — I know that Clay Christensen’s theories of disruptive technology summarize it way better than I could ever blah-blah — and only in the last five years or so have designers begun to absorb a sufficiently deeper understanding of digital technology to start to make a real difference in providing useful pathways to lend to improves strategies in the mobile, social, etc domains.

It’s much more common now to see designers that code (so-called “unicorns”) and even coders that design (so-called “ninjas”). I know this because for a long while in the 90s I enjoyed being something of an anomaly as a unicorn/ninja person, and felt quite alone. Until I was encouraged by my mentors to become a teacher, and to foster a community of people at the MIT Media Lab that could code as fluently as they could make art and design. Today I am often (pleasantly) shocked by how strategy is now being informed by designers that wield technology in elegant ways (like the Processing folks) and by technologists that wield design (like the Instagram fellows).

I now see a big opportunity to mix strategy with design and technology that I recently spoke about in my talk at TED Global last year. The question of “what is strategy?” and “what is design?” are becoming increasingly related. And are evolving, rapidly. -JM