A talk with Andreas Kissling, a design strategist from Germany.
Welcome to the [Design Strategy Talks] series. Here, you’ll find different perspectives and insights from my colleagues around the world. The goal? To learn and improve your design process!
Let’s jump right into it with our guest this time, Andreas Kissling.
Who is Andreas Kissling?
Ever since he was a little boy, Andreas wanted to become an inventor. His grandpa had a small workshop in the basement and it was there that he first started to create things. Later, he designed and built his own furniture for his room. In fact, his bedside table served as a showpiece in his admission interview at HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd, where he studied design.
Andreas took great pleasure in designing feasible products, with a goal of solving specific problems. However, it soon became clear that he wanted to tackle design problems even earlier in the value creation process, and not only through design work.
His focus has gradually shifted from design to science and business. Andreas likes the tension between these three areas and he sees great potential for designers who are developing their skills beyond classic design. That’s how he ended up being a promising young design strategist. You can check out his projects here.
How to reach your goal with design strategy
For Andreas, design strategy essentially describes a strategy that is primarily developed through a design approach.
The definition of strategy is “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”.
With a strategic approach, we can always find out whether the next step leads in the right direction, instead of getting lost in the dark. And to find out whether the next step makes sense, gathering qualitative and quantitative data in the real world can help us make the right design decisions
In his eyes, the general long-term and overall aim of a design strategy is to reach the sweet spot between business challenges, technology and the creation of value for the customer.
It’s crucial to merge company interests and user needs and transform them into new products and services that are practical and useful for both sides.
So for Andreas, design strategy is all about:
- identifying customer needs,
- defining a suitable product offering,
- designing a business model.
But in order for the strategy to work, it should always be aligned with business strategy, emphasizes Andreas.
How to maximize your strategy’s chances of success
Unfortunately, the success of a strategy is only made clear at the end of a project. With that said, you can maximize your chances by obtaining feedback during the process and checking to see whether you are on the right track or not.
The build-measure-learn principle from the Lean Innovation approach is particularly helpful. To ensure a measurability of success, KPIs (key performance indicators) should be defined in the very beginning of the project. The KPIs can, for example, be determined at certain milestones and compared with the initially defined KPIs
In order to measure KPIs, you need to test your ideas. Frequent testing might seem like a time-consuming detour, but the insights you gain are incredibly valuable and can verify or falsify your own assumptions.
Instead of spending three weeks working on a solution that is not desirable, I would prefer to spend one week building a test scenario, evaluating the data and deriving new design measures in the second week, and finally implementing them in the third week. Even if the final result is not perfect in all its facets, I would rather have a result that tackles the real problem and is not yet perfect than a perfect result that does not solve any problem.
Once you have a solid design strategy with KPIs in place, the benefits start to emerge. You can expect:
- better alignment with all stakeholders,
- a more systemic approach,
- a coherent design language and customer experience,
- fewer meetings and faster decisions.
Connecting business and design
Andreas has noticed that design thinking has become increasingly important in traditional management consultancies and many corporations. More and more design agencies have been acquired by leading consultancies in recent years as they begin to build strategic design departments.
“If you get the seat at the leadership table as a designer, you need to speak the language of the other C-suite members,” says Andreas.
He doesn’t think that it’s convincing if you make assumptions based purely on personal experience or design education.
Saying that product A in red will sell better than product A in blue is not enough. However, if the designer uses his experience and design education to create a test scenario, he can argue much more convincingly with exact numbers, e.g. out of 100 respondents, 70% chose red over blue.
That’s why Andreas recommends acquiring the necessary scientific knowledge and learning the appropriate business language.
Implementing design methods to gain competitive advantage
Design can have a hugely positive impact on business.
In October 2018, McKinsey published a study with the title The business value of design. The study outlines how “Companies with top-quartile McKinsey Design Index scores outperformed industry-benchmark growth by as much as two to one.” The study also notes that design can provide a competitive advantage when organizations apply it on all levels.
Andreas recommends taking a look at the danish design ladder:
- on the first level, there is no design at all,
- on the second level, design is only used for aesthetic purposes – it‘s called design doing,
- on the third level, design is already used as a process – like design thinking,
- on the fourth and final level, design is applied as a strategy.
The fourth level represents the holistic implementation of design across all areas of a company.
“When your company is design driven and achieves the fourth level, the competitive advantage is even higher,” says Andreas.
He follows it up with an example:
A design-driven company always focuses on the user. In 1999, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, was interviewed by CNBC and he said that his company places a strong focus on “great customer service”. This example shows that even 21 years ago, Bezos understood that it’s crucial to put the customer at the center of a company’s activities. And that’s exactly what design strategy does.
Design strategy also offers a competitive edge because it fosters useful innovation.
Having a strategy can be restrictive and reduce divergent thinking. But to achieve your goal faster, it’s very helpful to have a well-defined space and not too much of a playground. I would say that having a strategy results not necessarily in more creative, but in more innovative solutions. Those solutions are new and viable. And that is what almost every company is searching for
As a designer or design strategist, you become accustomed to very divergent thinking and can generate many ideas. The ability to make ideas tangible through rapid prototyping and the application of the build-measure-learn principle is an important skill – one that will add value to your work and business.
“With this Lean Innovation approach, organizations are able to innovate faster with less risk,” Andreas concludes.
What skills do design strategists need?
Dealing with new topics, technologies and megatrends all year round is what makes being a design strategist so exciting.
That’s why a design strategist needs to know how a company creates, delivers and captures value. In other words: how to gain knowledge about different business models. As a design strategist is working at the intersection of business and design, they also need to understand technology and good user experience design in order to implement ideas
A design strategist should be able to combine creative and analytical skills – this will make discovering the most impactful aspects and solving various creative challenges a lot easier. You also need to know how to communicate your ideas, so a design strategist requires excellent presentation and storytelling capabilities.
Andreas has also noticed some good habits of top design strategists:
An empathic and human-centered design approach, curiosity, willingness to learn and listening to others are all good habits. That applies to user research as well as teamwork. In other words: be a good team player.
A good design strategist shouldn’t stick too religiously to a certain solution. They must be willing to kill their favourite idea if it just isn’t suitable for the project.
My advice is to not have a concrete solution in mind when starting a project. I call that the ‘oh, it has to be an app, no matter what’ case. It‘s better to have a well-defined problem and a clear vision. In the course of the process, you‘ll figure out what the best solution really is
Andreas also offered a great piece of advice for new design strategists:
Embrace uncertainty and act like a scientist! The challenges faced by design strategists are extremely diverse, making it nearly impossible to define a clear unified process. Instead, design strategists are equipped with a broad repertoire of tools and knowledge that they can apply at the right moment, gradually shedding light on the issue and helping to steer the ship in the right direction in rough seas.
Diverse teams lead to successful projects
An excellent medium to connect designers and non-designers is a design thinking workshop. This established methodology allows diverse teams to work together on a solution, and everybody can bring their individual expertise to the table.
Personally, I’m always trying to find intersections and similarities between other disciplines. When connecting the design team to the rest of the organization, it’s important that you are able to speak the language of an engineer or a marketeer. It‘s like when you go on an exchange trip to another country with your classmates and you can communicate with the students there – it leads to fewer misunderstandings and it’s more fun!
A design thinking workshop can also result in a brilliant ad-hoc project team.
Andreas describes his perfect design team as being as heterogeneous as possible, including people from different cultures, different ages, and different T-shaped specializations.
That way, you can ensure that there are many perspectives on an idea. It gives a team the ability to pre-validate the ideas with all involved team members. And of course, everyone in the team should be a motivated team player with an open mind and respectful attitude.
When working on a project, Andreas thinks that it’s very important for everyone on a team to have a clear role. This helps to avoid competitiveness between people with the same professional background. It goes without saying that you should also establish good communication and feedback culture.
Tools that Andreas uses
When it comes to tools, Andreas likes to go old-school: pen and paper, plenty of free wall space, sticky notes and a marker.
What helps me in my creative process is leaving the computer turned off for as long as possible, using my brain without any digital distractions and thinking about the problem in a comprehensive way.
When he shifts to the ‘digital phase’ of work, he emphasizes the importance of an ergonomic workspace, a big screen, appropriate lighting conditions and a fast computer.
His digital toolbox includes:
Miro.com for remote collaboration
Notion for remote collaboration (+ notes)
Google Forms and Google Sheets or Excel for questionnaires and data evaluation
Adobe CC – but since he is a design strategist, he only uses this occasionally – like when he needs to create a quick prototype to test his ideas.
Podcasts, books and media that Andreas recommends
Andreas is a big advocate for Linkedin Learning, where you’ll find a tremendous number of online courses to choose from so that you can educate yourself further.
He also recommends Medium.com, the Inside Design Blog by Invision, and the Beyond Users Podcast.
For more studious types, he suggests ourworldindata.org and the reports and studies conducted by McKinsey, Accenture, and the Boston Consulting Group.
Andreas is an avid reader, but if you’re not, then he recommends getting an Audible or Spotify account. This makes it easy to listen to thousands of fantastic books and podcasts.
Here’s a list of strategic design and other helpful books that he thinks will be of value to you:
- Business Model Generation, Value Proposition Design and Testing Business Ideas by Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur and David J. Bland
- Running Lean by Ash Maurya
- Lean Innovation Guide by David Griesbach
- The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick
- The Business Model Navigator: 55 Models That Will Revolutionise Your Business by Oliver Gassmann, Karolin Frankenberger and Michaela Csik
- Leading Design by Jan-Erik Baars
- Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
- The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions by Rolf Dobelli
The 3-bullet recap
Andreas, thank you so much for taking the time to share your views on various design strategy topics with us! Great stuff from a great young mind! 🙂
I hope that you’ve learned something new from this interview. As always, we’ll finish with a 3-bullet recap to remind you of the most important points.
- Merge company interests and user needs, then transform them into new products and services that are practical and useful for both sides.
- Having a strategy doesn’t necessarily result in more creative solutions, but it will produce ones that are more innovative.
- Don’t have a concrete solution in mind when starting a project. Instead, have a clear vision and you’ll find the best solution during your design process.