A design approach changes how a strategy team works
How the methods of graphic design were used to innovate, communicate and solve problems big and small.
I will never forget my very first class in graphic design: Typography 101. We were told that ‘type is simply a bunch of lines, dashes and dots.’ Even a decade later, I still think about this. A small set of simple shapes can combine into an infinite number of combinations to form letters, words, thoughts, ideas—anything.
Graphic designers (among other kinds of people) use these shapes to create objects and experiences, like protest signs that give people a voice, navigation signs to move people through cities, novels to transport people to far off lands and media sites to share culture and opinions. Lines, dashes and dots do big things.
But there are other tools that graphic designers use in contemporary contexts. Designers are doing more than crafting a visual poster or a set of symbols. Graphic designers can be found in tangential industries, like experience design, education and in medicine. For the past year, I’ve tackled a non-design problem with a graphic design approach by using the methods I’ve learned as a graphic designer—which is to say, a creative problem solver.
The project, put simply, was to improve an agency’s process of creating a brand strategy. Kitted out with my experience as a visual communicator, I went about changing the way the team works.
Making ideas accessible can be as simple as scribbling shapes on paper.
At its core, graphic design communicates visually. It takes an idea and represents it in a way that others can understand through sight and interaction. This is useful in two particular situations. The first is the obvious one, when a design has to clearly communicate on its own because there is often no one around to explain a design to a user. The visual communication has to be completely self-sufficient in getting a message across.
The second situation happens during the design process, when the designer is working with a team to perhaps solve a problem, reorganize a system, or come up with a new idea. Being able to quickly sketch a concept makes it easy for others to understand a semi-formed idea. Putting pen to paper helps bring ideas to life so others can give feedback and build upon them. In both situations, the designer is sharing information.
S O W E A S K E D :
How can this idea be broken down into shapes? What is the essence of this idea? Are there other ways it can be expressed?
In my job as a researcher and service designer, I use visuals all the time. They are quick to make and usually a combination of simple shapes. But the idea they communicate is always clear. While I was immersing myself in the team’s workflow and methodology, I often presented back to the team what they had said or done by acting like a mirror. The team could see their beliefs and behaviors from a different perspective, which revealed misalignment they couldn’t see before. The visuals were also essential in explaining complex systems or ideas that weren’t quite tangible or finished. The sketches and diagrams became a conversation starter among the team.
The strategists on the team weren’t naturally inclined to sketch ideas. But over my 18-month project, as I scribbled on paper constantly, they also began to put pen to paper. When we were trying to organize information or understand a complex process, drawing circles and triangles instantly helped bring more clarity to everyone in the room. It became a tool to communicate seeds of thought.
Design is driven by a defined purpose that everything else can follow.
Strong designs have a clear concept. A concept distills and connects everything to a single purpose. Every expression of that design is rooted in the concept and becomes a facet of the idea. Think of Airbnb, who believes everyone should feel like they belong. The brand’s tone of voice is friendly and inviting, but they also invest in communal housing projects to provide homes to people who might otherwise belong nowhere. Design, business and innovation decisions can all be based on that purpose—born of the single concept.
S O W E A S K E D :
What is at the core of the idea? What is the ultimate purpose?
Articulating a purpose works in both big and small scale situations. When I first joined the agency, the service that the team provided was a proven success. But the internal process to get there was sometimes unclear and clumsy. My first goal was to articulate some truths about what the company stood for and who they were to clients. Once we were all on the same page about what the agency’s purpose was, the brand strategy process could then be reconstructed to contribute to that purpose. It provided a measuring stick for every aspect of the process. We asked questions like: Is this phase contributing to the reason we create a brand strategy? Are we guiding, facilitating or creating in this phase of the process?
This approach even worked on small details. In the interviews conducted by the team of researchers, I wrote questions that remained open-ended as the team had them previously, but identified an intended purpose or a broad type of response we knew would be useful. This direction allowed the researchers to guide a conversational interview toward particularly useful insights.
When the purpose was clear to the team, their actions, behavior and thinking shifted to become more aligned—and efficient!
Design is the ability to recognize the difference between universal stability and ambiguous opportunity.
A designer has to think about how to represent an idea so others can understand it when she’s not there to explain it. Fortunately, we have universal symbols and semiotics that can make it easier—put ‘sale’ on a sign and more people will come to the shop, use an infinite scroll and people will stick around longer, display a handicapped symbol and people will know who it’s for. We think marriage when we see a wedding ring and trendy tech when we see the curve of an Apple product.
Understanding any level of universal meaning is useful, but it doesn’t mean we should religiously stick to these widely accepted symbols. They are simply starting points that we either accept or challenge. For instance, a logo used to be very stable and consistent, even predictable in how they were used. That universal functionality of a logo was challenged and now we see logos that morph and flex in and out of consistency. Creativity challenges the stability of the universal and creates something new.
S O W E A S K E D :
What can we rely on? What’s consistent here? How can it be reframed and reinvented?
What I realized over time about the agency’s process was that it was truly bespoke—shifting and adjusting to every client and need. The customization was valuable to the client and coveted by the team, but part of it was due to uncertainty. My project was a chance to identify patterns in the process—pulling out elements that were consistently proven to work. They could become a codified habit rather than a new task for each project. Once we knew the consistent, universal elements of the process, we implemented tools and taught new practices to make the tasks easier and quicker to finish.
With those parts of the process more or less on autopilot, the team had more time and headspace for the bespoke elements. We ring-fenced space for the team to be innovative, creative and reflective. New ideas were fostered through rituals and frameworks that set the scene for quality concepts. This was the place to question convention.
Make-watch-learn can become a habit.
Designers know the power of a prototype. Test prints are useful for books, prototypes insightful for apps, scaled models essential for concept cars. Physically making a design not only helps make sure it’s as you intended, but is also a chance to find flaws you couldn’t see before and opportunities that were hiding.
Making a prototype is also really useful for ideation and feedback. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation when only words or images are used to describe an experience or physicality of an object. Making a prototype will instantly jumpstart conversations about what is working and what isn’t. Rapid prototyping shares the beginning of an idea with teammates so, together, they can keep pushing concepts further.
S O W E M A D E A N D T H E N A S K E D :
What is working well? What isn’t working? How can we make it better?
My work with the agency followed this approach. The entire project was conducted through action research where I would observe the team, propose ideas, implement changes, and adapt to findings. By trying out ideas, we were able to see if they were doing what we expected. We could easily and quickly see flaws and opportunity in action. I could pivot with new information and feedback from ideas in a really agile way.
Through debrief interviews and candid conversations, there was a constant feedback loop in my work that was manageable for myself and the team. To further enable to team, I facilitated reflective sessions that made space for considering changes to the process.
Design requires an understanding of the users and of the parameters of change.
Graphic design guides human behavior. Visual communication can inform patients of a pill bottle’s contents so they take the medicine as directed and it can help people navigate effortlessly through public transport (or confuse the hell out of them). Design is part communication and part intervention, where information is inserted into a situation that shapes and guides a user’s experience. To start, understanding the user and environment through research and user testing helps the designer see the human side of the scenario.
S O W E A S K E D :
What is the current situation? What are the user’s motivations? What are the barriers to shifting behavior?
My strategy for improving the team’s process began with a human-centered approach. First, I observed the way the current process worked, then I dissected the human behavior and their thinking to finally identify challenges and areas of opportunity.
With an understanding of my users (a team of strategists), I created new tools and rituals that enhanced the process and helped the team deliver what they ultimately wanted to accomplish. The changes encouraged collaboration, equipped for reflection, and fostered communication. With the interventions in the workflow, the custom-made tools and rituals evolved the team’s behavior. Experienced team members could feel equipped to do quality work while new team members could feel confident in their contribution and understanding of the process.
Graphic design methods are intuitively transferrable.
Thinking visually is a skill of designers—it’s basically a prerequisite. By making thinking visual, an idea becomes inclusive and available for everyone to see. Whether it’s by sketching an idea before it’s fully formed or by changing behavior through intervention, graphic design methods can be used for a lot of purposes.
My favorite thing about graphic design is that it lets people participate. The methods of design can include others in the process of building something that everyone can be confident in and proud of. In essence, they democratize the creative process.
This was the ultimate goal in my work with the agency. I was able to transform a complicated process into something that is now concise and easy to understand. It works for the people unfamiliar with the agency as well as those closest to it. The diagrams and communications I created allow everyone to grasp the complexities of the process while the tools I created equipped everyone to contribute and participate.