Ten principles for good strategic design

A recurring theme in many of my dealings with chief executives is their frustration with the over-complexity of the strategic planning process. Despite their best efforts, strategy takes on a life of its own that all too often grows into a many-headed monster that controls and dominates rather than enables.

It was with this dilemma in mind that I came across a beautiful quote from Sir Jonathon Ive, Chief Design Officer of the $760 billion Apple behemoth. Ive has been a lifelong admirer of Dieter Rams, the chief designer of Braun products, and frequently quotes one of Rams’ key design principles, namely, “Good design is as little design as possible”.

It strikes me that this principle has some relevance to the strategic planning process, i.e. good strategy is as little strategy as possible. Note here, that I am not suggesting that organisations have no strategy, simply that they ‘make do’ with as little as possible. With that in mind here are Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design, translated into ten principles for strategic design.

1. Good strategic design is as little strategic design as possible

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.

Back to purity, back to simplicity.

2. Good strategic design is honest

Good strategic design does not make something more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate with promises that cannot be kept.

3. Good strategic design is unobtrusive

Strategies fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

4. Good strategic design makes a strategy understandable

Good strategic design clarifies the strategy’s structure. Better still, it can make the strategy talk. At best, it is self-explanatory. No jargon, technical complications or clever smokescreens required.

5. Good strategic design must be useful

Good strategic design must fulfil certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological. It should emphasise the usefulness of its outcome whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

6. Good strategic design is long-lasting

Good strategic design avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

7. Good strategic design is thorough down to the last detail

Despite being as simple as possible nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the strategic design process shows respect towards the user.

8. Good strategic design is innovative

Good strategic design is innovative yet innovation can never be seen to be ‘an end in itself’. This is particularly important for strategic designers who often are blinded by the desire to always come up with something new and shiny.

9. Good strategic design is aesthetic

This is a bit more difficult to translate the aesthetic into the strategic design domain, However Rams sees the aesthetic quality of a product to be integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. In such a way strategic planning should also be seen to be connected to our everyday lives – not just an esoteric activity. And, if not too far a stretch, it should ultimately enhance out lives.

10. Good strategic design is environmentally-friendly

Good strategic design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of its products.

So there you have it, Ten Principles for Strategic Design, as influenced by Dieter Rams.

Of course some of his principles perhaps need a bit more imagination than others to stretch them into the world of strategic design.

Nevertheless, I find most of Rams ideas to be remarkably appropriate to address many of the concerns raised by chief executives regarding the industry that has become the planning process.

Perhaps by reframing ‘strategic planning’ as ‘strategic ‘design’ – and the associated design behaviours – might help some organisations to free themselves from the suffocating burden that has become associated with ‘strategy’.