Strategic Design Tames Complex Systems

The past few days, I have been an external examiner for a group of students and their graduation projects at the Royal Danish Academy. These students have pursued a master’s degree in strategic design and entrepreneurship, a relatively new program offered in collaboration with Copenhagen Business School (CBS). Beside the impressive projects and their fantastic presentations, I also experienced a personal sense of professional grounding.

I felt proud of my expertise, both generally and personally. The type of design expertise I practice now wasn’t learned through my education but through engaging with the world and its development. To my great delight, design education has evolved at the same pace, and the students now stand on the shoulders of decades of experience in expanding the design field to operate from a more systemic and strategic perspective. Imagine how they will develop the field during the next decade.

The exams provided me with a clearer picture of what strategic design is and what it can achieve. Before I forget these insights, I want to share my thoughts. Maybe it’s mostly for myself, but I hope you find something useful in it too. ;)

What is strategic design?

Strategic design is a relatively new branch within the design field, which over the past decade has become a prevalent approach, especially when it comes to system innovation or tackling problems that extend beyond single products or isolated services.

On the surface, skilled strategic designers might appear to have more in common with excellent organizational or political leaders than traditional designers, as they use their intuition, knowledge of people, and fascination with the larger connections in the world to propose solutions, interventions, or concepts that achieve a given purpose on a systemic level.

However, strategic designers also shape their decisions and concepts similarly to how other designers shape products. Every product is a small system where various design decisions about form, color, function, materials, etc., are made. Strategic designers work with systems larger than a single product but with the same attention to combinations of variables like behavior impact, economy, relationships, interventions, services, etc. In this way, design is the active act of making decisions in complex systems. You could almost say that design is the art of taming complex systems.

5 Key Abilities of a Strategic Designer

  1. The ability to make decisions by being curious and experimenting
    Designers work with abductive decision-making processes since other methods often cannot encompass the complexity of system level challenges. Abductive thinking is a trial-and-error approach. Designers excel in their ability to curiously ask questions and experiment to find the best answers.
  2. The ability to zoom in and out to understand and navigate complexity
    Designers have a unique ability to effortlessly zoom in on details and out to the whole. Strategic designers can maintain an overall picture of the system they are working to change while focusing on and designing individual elements. This ability is the strategic designer’s superpower and is fascinating to observe.
  3. The ability to master a craft that makes challenges and opportunities concrete
    Mastering a craft helps the strategic designer propose concrete solutions to complex challenges and communicate them effectively. It also enables the creation of prototypes that make the abstract concrete.
  4. The ability to hold space for tensions, dilemmas, and paradoxes
    A strategic designer must handle and facilitate spaces with tensions and paradoxes. The task is to understand, respect, and communicate different perspectives within a challenge to create collaboration and unity towards a common goal.
  5. The ability to absorb knowledge, methods, and worldviews and use them for inspiration
    Strategic designers have an appetite for understanding the world and an ability to absorb others’ experiences and knowledge. This curiosity helps them gather and tame the system to shape the solution.

What Does a Strategic Designer Contribute?

The output of strategic designer’s work can be anything, but it is always solutions or interventions that strive for a better world. They are imbued with empathy and loyalty to those they design for and with, and they try to represent the whole through the concrete and action-oriented. I foresee that the spread of strategic design will increase as we realize that the challenges we face today and in the future as individuals, organizations, and societies require an experimental, holistic, and purpose-driven approach. This is precisely where strategic designers excel.

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