Strategists are like actors – with every project we dig into a totally different world.

Elif Tas design strategy interview

A talk with Elif Tas, a design and innovation strategist and partner at Blue Hat, a global design & innovation consultancy.

Welcome to the [Design Strategy Talks] series. Here you’ll find different perspectives and insights from her colleagues around the world. The goal? To learn and improve your design process!

We have another value-packed interview ahead of us. Grab a cup of hot beverage, make yourself comfortable and enjoy this insightful chat with Elif Tas!

Who is Elif Tas?

Elif was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey. She got her BSc in Industrial Product Design, but then shifted her career path towards design management. That took her to London, where she got her masters in MA Design, Strategy & Innovation at Brunel University. Her 2 years in London were full of inspiration, new knowledge, international networking, collaborative workshop opportunities around Europe and awards.

After her masters, she moved back to Istanbul to revamp her family business in the flexible packaging industry. At the same time, she got the opportunity to work for Blue Hat. For the next two years, she balanced both – working for Blue Hat on a project-basis and working for Politaş Ambalaj as a full-time strategist.

At Politaş, Elif kickstarted and directed the company’s organisational management process change. After 2 years of massive change and improvements, she felt a lack of inspiration and creativity and decided to focus on different projects. During that time Blue Hat was also looking to expand to new markets and offered her to become a partner in Turkey.

Since then, Elif has been working as a Design and Innovation Strategist at Blue Hat, delivering branding and innovation strategies for companies from various industries and regions across the globe.

Elif passion for design comes from within. She’s been into arts and crafts since childhood. She loves to create with her own hands. Elif also has a clinically certified OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). So problem-solving, even if the problem doesn’t exist yet, is her reason to survive. She says that problems are triggering an infinite hunger for new knowledge and designing solutions is her feast. She sees everything in her daily life as a design challenge.

Elif has tons of hobbies. She has some classic ones like baking, movies, gallery hopping, travelling and books. She loves spending time in nature. She also keeps improving her skills in pottery, embroidery, piano and watercoloring.

On design strategy

A successful design strategy starts with immersion

Design strategy is an approach to tackle business problems while responding to human needs through new possible technologies or mediums. A successful strategy should take into account 3 aspects: desirability, feasibility and viability.

“With raising data privacy and environmental concerns, I think we should also start to include ‘ethical’ as the 4th aspect,” Elif adds.

A successful design strategy should:

  • cover each stakeholder’s opinions and thoughts on the problem and on the future vision, while fulfilling desirability, feasibility and viability aspects at the same time,
  • reflect values or aims throughout its touchpoints and experiences,
  • be properly implemented,
  • have the right KPIs set to measure its success.

Elif

The most important part of it is definitely the problem definition part. I see many commonalities between design researchers and actors at this point. We both get the best insights by observing actions and behaviours on the spot. Sometimes we spend weeks, months on specific conditions to gain a deeper understanding of the problem, to build empathy. With every project we dig into a totally different world.

There are tons of new industries, experiences, journeys, decisions, preferences that have never intersected with our personal lives. Deep research and empathy are how we make a difference compared to the business people. Our wide knowledge helps us find associational solutions for various industries.

Know what you’re looking to solve and keep improving

Elif

Each strategy should have clear goals. If the goals are set the right way, the rest of the process will flow smoothly. You’ll know what you’re looking to solve.

Goals give structure to the research and ideation phases. In terms of methodology, Elif prefers to follow the Double Diamond Approach by The Design Council, UK. It consists of 4 main phases:

  • discover,
  • define,
  • develop,
  • deliver.

Elif

But I don’t think it ends at the delivery stage, instead it continues with testing and improvement phases.

Unfortunately, most of the companies think that the journey ends when you receive the strategy. Everything is done and it should succeed.

But we shouldn’t forget that strategy is nothing without implementation and validation. Every concept/idea needs to be validated with its actual audience and the strategy should be improved accordingly. Resilience and agility are the key values for any business to survive nowadays, which also means that all strategies require continuous improvement to succeed.

On design strategy and business

Continuous success via a holistic approach

Elif sees design as a way of thinking, a way of seeing and experiencing things from a different perspective, and also a way of defining problems.

People who are working in the same business or industry for a while are becoming too paralysed by their day-to-day tasks and problems

Elif

As a result, they lose their capabilities to draw a future roadmap and analyse strategic problems on deeper levels.

Here’s where design comes in. Design gives directions and helps you prioritise which problems to focus on. Having a design strategy results in more creative solutions.

Design and business methods differ and the journey from a blank canvas to the final structured roadmap is really valuable. You got to analyse the current situation of a company from an outer perspective, identify the pros and cons, define the differentiators and align them with the needs and wants of the market.

Design strategy makes your company more resilient, because it tackles problems with a holistic approach.

Elif

We go deeper into the offerings, products, communication language, tone, physical and digital touchpoints, and we even set behavioural guidelines for internal and external interactions. The strategy also sets KPIs and tells the company how to analyse that data to come up with meaningful interpretations for continuous success in the future.

Find untapped opportunities

When you start to see design as a way of thinking, it opens the doors to untapped opportunities.

Elif

Design enables asking more and more questions to trigger discussions and possibilities. These opportunities can be as simple as unutilised business capabilities, a missed positioning within the industry, an untapped area in the client’s business model or segmentation problems because of unstudied brand architecture.

Design is the main building block of new technologies and products we want to successfully bring to life. Design is the interface between the tech and the customer. What made Apple stand out back then was pure design. Not tech, not price.

Qualities of a design organization

Successful design organizations have to excel in these areas:

  • Agility – Respond quickly to problems and adapt smoothly to new conditions.
  • Diversity – Cherish creativity and practice empathy while working collaboratively.
  • Transparency – Build trust, have a clear roadmap and communicate effectively.
  • Empowerment – Keep improving, always set the bar higher to flow with the constant changing world.

A business with design at its core has to check:

  • if the design follows brand personality and represents the brand’s values,
  • if it is appealing to the target audience (customer/user satisfaction)
  • for an existing brand – can it be easily adopted by the owners, employees and its existing customers.

On managing design teams

Diversity, accountability and acceptance are key

Elif’s ideal design team would consist of diverse people from different backgrounds and different levels of seniority. There must be a balance between left-brained and right-brained orientation. Trust, dedication and accountability are a must.

Elif

We should be able to discuss things in detail even if there are disagreements. Everyone should be confident enough to speak up, no passive-aggressive behaviours are allowed.

The latest online tools allow design teams to work remotely. However, it really depends what kind of design we are talking about. Additional tools are definitely required for giving smooth feedback on visual directions, animations, videos or products.

Elif

I’ve been working as a remote team member for 7 years. In my experience, it was worse when I was the only remote one. I was feeling left out during the creative sessions. Nowadays, the whole office, even most of our clients are working remotely. Thanks to new online tools, we are able to arrange smooth workshops, presentations and brainstorming sessions.

But can working remotely beat the experience with post-its and lively discussions? Elif doesn’t have an answer to that question yet.

Be dynamic and adapt to the situation

Elif thinks design management should be dynamic. It should adapt to the project, the project’s current phase, and possible constraints.

Elif sees different styles appropriate at different times.

  • Being Authoritative and Pacesetting – Especially at the beginning of the project where we explain the methodology to follow and the constraints, people should be aware of.
  • Being Affiliative and Coaching – Especially when you see that some team members are struggling, lacking direction or creativity. It is important to show empathy, listen to the problem from their side and see how you can help them out.
  • Being Democratic – By being the moderator, you give everyone an opportunity to speak up and share their ideas. You acknowledge and discuss the ideas. This is especially helpful during workshops with a client’s teams.

When it comes to approaches, Elif prefers the scrum approach.

Elif

At Blue Hat we mostly apply the scrum approach, which is enabling small, cross-functional teams to deliver projects divided into phases. Timelines for each milestone are set at the beginning of each phase and the tasks are distributed between the project members.

She prefers daily check-up meetings to assess the progress. Between each phase, her team does a feedback session or a collaborative workshop (depending on the project) with the client to validate their work.

Collaboration with other departments is crucial

When Elif’s team wants to connect with the client, they do knowledge sharing sessions and internal workshops to remove technical boundaries between different teams.

When working with their customer’s departments, they try to involve key people from each department in the ideation, decision making and evaluation processes.

Elif always emphasizes the importance of collaboration.

Elif

You never know who’s gonna help you define the problem or who’s gonna come up with the winning idea. I strongly recommend that all stakeholders and beneficiaries are included in the process. For example; if you’re working on a hotel project you would definitely get more insights from a housekeeper than the hotel manager. None of the stakeholder segments should be trivialized.

On design strategists

When talking about what makes a great design strategist, Elif lists the following skills and characteristics:

  • Creativity – This one goes without saying.
  • Agility – Adapt to various industry problems and conditions. The ability to work in teams with different backgrounds,
  • Problem-solving – To survive in an age of continuous change.
  • Research – Stay up to date with trends, be aware of where the world is going and what are the main challenges.
  • Curiosity – Keep asking questions and never settling for an average solution. Be hungry for knowledge. Experiment with new technologies, look up new frameworks, methodologies, and best practices to keep your mind sharp.
  • Being open-minded – Travel and meet new people. In the consulting world, you never know from which industry your new client will come. Plus, the ideas that sound ridiculous at first, can later help you find a new solution.
  • Practice empathy – How would you solve a problem if you don’t understand it? Also, how would you collaborate without respecting other’s thoughts? Empathy is key.

Advice, mistakes and recommendations

Bad advice Elif hears a lot

“We should use this framework or add this as a core value because it is popular.”

Every brand and business is unique and each case should be evaluated based on its own needs and goals. Adding a feature just because it is trendy might make you fail in the long run. Also using an irrelevant framework is usually a waste of time.

Most common rookie mistakes Elif sees

Mistake #1: Not researching and collecting enough data to analyse. Jumping directly to idealistic solutions without a solid rationale.

Mistake #2: Trying to compensate for the lack of innovation with aesthetics.

Mistake #3: Clients seeing innovation and strategy as a one-time thing.

Mistake #4: Clients expecting different results without implementing any solutions.

 

One piece of advice Elif would give

Never settle for your existing know-how and toolkit. Stay humble, keep exploring, keep improving!

Elif favourite source of knowledge

Elif follows daily updates from platforms like Designboom, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review.

She tries to read reports and articles by firms like BCG, McKinsey, NN Group, Pwc, LS:N, Wunderman Thompson, WGSN etc.

Three of her favourite books are:

  • Zag by Marty Neumeier,
  • Business Model Generation by Osterwalder & Pigneur,
  • This is Service Design Thinking.

She’s also trying to attend virtual events by SDN, DMshe and physical events like WebSummit, Salone Del Mobile Milano.

The 3-bullet recap

Thank you so much for your time and wisdom, Elif! That was a great talk!

Alright, let’s try and do our usual 3-bullet recap:

  1. Deep research and empathy are key to a successful strategy. Immersion in the topic and its challenges is crucial.
  2. All strategies must be continuously improved and tested to be successful.
  3. Design management should be dynamic and adaptable, but also always ready to collaborate.

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