When Van Gogh painted his “Sunflowers,” I doubt he did much digging into the how and the why of sunflowers. His painting was meant to be beautiful and that’s about it. But you can bet that when the UK’s Guardian newspaper won a 2018 D&AD Pencil for its rebranding effort, there was a hefty dose of strategic thinking that went into it. But why do design teams need to trouble themselves with things other than making stunning designs? 

Well, ideally, design and strategy have a symbiotic relationship. 

Strategy without design principles is lifeless and cold. Design thinking breaks strategic planning out of its robotic box and drives innovation and creativity. The greatest benefit of applying design thinking to strategy is that it focuses on the end, keeping the user in mind at all times. Applying design principles brings a touch of humanity to processes and procedures that can sometimes be absent in strategic planning. Iteration and testing are central to design thinking, and those concepts can elevate a good strategy into a truly great one. 

On the other hand, design without strategy is simply art. Now, as one of the pillars of western civilization, hopefully we don’t have to speak in defense of art. But in advertising and marketing, art is just a foundational piece. Rare are the times when an agency can afford to make things just because they’re beautiful. Those beautiful things need to have a purpose. They need to drive action, change behavior or move the needle–depending on your preferred phrase. Art for art’s sake doesn’t achieve what we need it to achieve, and that can be a hard sell to a client.

Here’s where strategy comes in to save the day.

When you’re able to point to the strategic process that led to your team’s design decisions, it gives credence to the choices you made. When the crucial moment comes that you’re presenting designs to stakeholders and decision-makers, the case for your designs is much stronger if they rest on a foundation of solid strategic thinking. Writers, artists and designers understandably sometimes want to listen to their instincts and let the muse take over. But, in a room filled with people who may not know much about design, strategy wins the day. When you can communicate that you chose a color because it represents a certain business vertical, or you chose a type treatment because it reflects a crucial pillar of the brand’s identity, those stakeholders are much more likely to feel comfortable with the design.

Our design teams begin every project with a strategic process that digs deep into the DNA of our client’s brand. That discovery process results in a dual strategic and creative brief that will serve as a strategic anchor for every creative decision that we make. What comes out of that is real magic. We get to launch beautiful things into the world but, more importantly, we get to produce beautiful things that work. And that’s the sweet spot.