The Fusion of Strategy and Design

Strategy and Design

The Best Branding Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Since its founding in the 1950s, branding has largely been divided into two distinct disciplines: strategy and design. Strategy’s traditional role is to research, understand the competitive landscape, distill the meaning, and establish the market opportunity into a well-formed creative brief. At this point, designers typically take the brief and visually communicate against the strategic objectives.

The handoff from strategy to design is not without its pitfalls. Oftentimes, key information gets lost. Strategists can work in intellectual isolation, sometimes forgetting how ideas can manifest and communicate non-verbally. Designers, on the other hand, have the challenge of breathing life into work they did not have a hand in creating. That’s a lot of potential to leave on the table.

Good Ideas Come from Anywhere

Strategy needs to be able to uncover ideas that clearly communicate the value of a brand in a way that can connect with audiences. Too much academic isolation can leave strategies flat, empty, and impractical (looking at you, Peloton). On the flip side, brand design void of strategy risks being received as an artistic expression without any clear purpose (remember the Tropicana redesign?).

In today’s complicated and fragmented world, audiences are more informed and aware than ever. Only brands with compelling creative and strategically-sound value propositions are able to cut through the clutter and connect with customers. In other words, only the best ideas can win.

In Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From,” the author argues that “the trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.” When it comes to branding, this means that design and strategy need to be working in tandem throughout the entire project.

The Approach in Practice

When design and strategy work hand-in-hand, strategists get to experiment immediately with new and different ways of communication earlier than they usually would. Oftentimes, discussion leads to powerful metaphors and concepts that can inspire design. Designers get first-hand experience with the raw data that is used to shape strategy.

More interestingly, there is space for those who sit somewhere between worlds. At Emotive Brand, we call these players Creative Strategists. During our recent work for Gantry, creative strategy played an important role in guiding the process.

“Very early on, in a collaborative meeting with strategists and designers, we came up with the concept that the emotional foundation of real estate should be just as strong as the physical one,” said Creative Strategist, Chris Ames. “This wasn’t really copy, it wasn’t exactly a brand idea, but it was a common language we all agreed on: emotional support as scaffolding. And while there were a million other vital strategic pieces and meetings, this common thread helped us stay in-sync in a language we all understood. It’s about the ability to structure thinking logically for non-writers and visualize big ideas for non-designers. That’s the magic.”

What’s the result of this integrated approach? Designs are deeply rooted in strategy. Strategy has vetted ideas for clarity and actionability along the way. Before the creative brief is even written, powerful ideas are being generated and the work moves forward seamlessly. This makes for better work that can be done in less time.

The Challenge of an Integrated Approach

Agencies and consultancies large and small have talked at length about the importance of fusing these disciplines, but few are able to deliver a truly collaborative approach. Self-constructed silos and the egos of leaders often become stumbling blocks. The heart of the matter is that working in this truly collaborative way can be uncomfortable, but the results are worth the effort.

Truthfully, getting strategy and design to work well together is hard for human reasons. It takes a lot of humility to check your proficiency and talent at the door to contribute to projects where you aren’t always the expert. When teams can exhaustively explore ideas and don’t allow themselves to be precious with ownership, then the best ideas will flourish.

Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency in Oakland, California.

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