How much strategy?

Definitions within the business of design have been constantly changing over decades. Indeed, my own father and his colleagues all called themselves ‘commercial artists’ through most of their career years. And even though I studied ‘Graphic Design’ at college, all of us there were destined to either be ‘art directors’ or ‘illustrators’ rather than ‘graphic designers’ per se. And now, well, everyone seems to be a 'graphic designer', regardless of where and how they trained (if at all).

And on the consultative side of what designers do, it used to be that the ‘brief’ was the driver of a project until the notion of ‘strategy’ came into play. Historically, we have companies like Landor to thank for this line of thinking, and developing a line of processes that underpins much of what brand strategy involves today. Of course, the scope of strategy can vary immensely, from what should more rightly be referred to as a short ‘tactic’ right through to a long-term ‘strategy’ that reports directly and significantly to business plans.

So how much strategy work is appropriate? Clearly, investing 200 hours of time into a strategy for a small and short-term project might be out of proportion, as might be the converse situation of not enough strategy for a major project. But the good news is the activities behind the thinking can be varied to suit, and flex according to scope – the variables are those of breadth and depth.

Since brand strategy involves a series of observational and analytical activities to form a process, the number of activities involved can be varied – the more the better, obviously, but there comes a point where that diversity of information becomes overload. That is the ‘breadth’ I refer to, and is the difference between two or three workshop sessions in a single day versus a range of them conducted across several weeks or even months. Similarly, the ‘depth’ of the process can be varied according to how many participants are in a workshop group as well as how many parallel groups are run, and also by how the findings of these activities are compared to those of competing organisations, products and services. (Also, the depth of a brand strategy project can be increased with the addition of visual components to the regular linguistic components – clients tend to feel included in activities that involve language, whereas those involving image are more often the domain of designers and conducted in the studio.) Consider the result a matrix of content that can be fulfilled in multiple axes to suit.

To conclude, let’s go a little bit off topic and look what the work of strategy entails. If we compare to the way humans learn, strategy should be viewed as three activities: Gathering information; sorting it; then determining what it means. Yes, the last part is the hardest and is required to be present and accurate in order to warrant the activity in the first instance. So the answer to ‘how much strategy’ lies in the ability to deliver meaning.

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