XXX.6 November - December 2023
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Strategy Requires Execution

Jon Kolko

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For the sake of contemplation, imagine there are two types of design work.

The first is strategic design. This includes visioning, cultural commentary, big societal or corporate shifts, the politics of design, a focus on ethics, discursive futuring, and so on. The activities involved in this type of design often include vision stories and storyboards, persuasive evidence, generative qualitative research, frameworks, debate, and dreaming.

The second is practical design. This includes bringing a product or service to life, shipping, launching, implementing, and building. The activities involved in this form of design often include wireframing, prototyping, development, feature management, specifications, and critique.

Recognizing that this distinction is overly simplistic, take a moment and reflect on your own work. Where would your center of gravity lie?

Over the 20-plus years of my career, I've seen a slow and steady desire by designers of all experience levels to move from practical design to strategic design. Students fresh out of undergraduate and graduate education want to think big. Practitioners want to shape product or service vision. Design leaders want to influence the big and broad direction of a company or institution. Academics want to make big contributions to our shared knowledge of the discipline.

I've talked about these desires with designers, and they consistently feel that these jobs and career moves pay better, are more satisfying, and have less strife and conflict. The jobs are perceived as more autocratic, with less forced interdisciplinary collaboration (commonly described as "managing the stakeholders" or "dealing with marketing"). Designers feel that the strategist gets to move more freely and quickly.

Practical design is perceived as grunt work. In shipping products, you're in the weeds: answering Jira tickets, arguing over the corner radius on an interface element, and fighting tirelessly with product management to allocate time for fixing usability, visual, and interaction design defects. In academia, the equivalent may be graduate students spending hours upon hours manually coding research utterances.

Without strategy, our practical design is aimless. Without a North Star, we lose inspiration and momentum, we diverge in our goals, and we spin and spin. But without practical design, we've accomplished very little. We make no impact on or improvement to the world around us. This is true in every aspect of the discipline of design. In academic research, without practical design we generate little knowledge. In product and service design, without practical design we launch nothing of consequence. And in a civic space, without practical design no residents benefit, because nothing changes.

What's worse, the practical design likely will actually get completed, but by someone with no business completing it: someone lacking the skill and experience to do as good a job as the strategy calls for. This person may not even be a designer at all. In many companies I've worked for and worked with, this job gets pushed to engineers who recognize they aren't particularly good at it and often don't want the responsibility.

Without practical design, we've accomplished very little. We make no impact on or improvement to the world around us.

Everyone can't be a strategist. In fact, the pendulum seems to have swung far too much in the direction of "the fun stuff." There's a common tour of duty among junior designers who, after entering the job market, spend seven or eight months at a company before moving to the next, and then the next, and then the next. They are chasing that strategic influence, struggling with the pragmatic and what they often consider boring, tedious, and unfulfilling implementation work.

It is said that new technology will replace this "boring" work, leaving only a need for mature knowledge work. But automated or enhanced design tools like Midjourney, or features that produce generative imagery in Photoshop, have not and will not replace this level of product work. Neither will cheap design services found on Fiverr. The reason is because of the contextual specificity of each design decision. Any decision needs to be considered in the context of every other decision, and unless that Fiverr designer joins your team, they'll just never have that end-to-end understanding.

There are fewer and fewer people interested in making things, and more and more people interested in identifying what needs to be made. There is a gap in design talent. So, through the lens of a hiring manager and as someone who has influenced more than a thousand alumni who are frequently on the job market, these are the design skills I see that companies need, and—in recognizing the need—hire for, aggressively but often with very little success:

  • User interface interaction design. Mature products do a lot of things, and it's easy for an interface to spiral out of control with complexity. Most designers I've seen can do the main flow—the happy path—with some ease. But it's the edge cases, the plan for future expansion, and the response to real technical constraints that emerge during design, that take thought and effort.
  • User interface writing. A huge part of design in a large organization, and particularly with a distributed workforce, is written communication. For better or worse, and even with the most visual, comprehensive integration with design tools like Figma, products get built through Jira, and Slack, and email, and specifications. Writing acceptance criteria for design or describing QA defects takes time, effort, and an excruciating attention to detail.
  • Usability testing coordination. Online tools have made think-aloud user testing easier, but many organizations don't use those tools, and many don't need the formal expanse of such systems; they just need to get some people in front of the software, watch them use it, and think critically about what they saw. Coordinating these tests doesn't just happen. Someone has to plan them, schedule them, facilitate them, and so on. It's project management, but with an understanding of the content.
  • Iteration and "reps." Design isn't one and done, but iterations can be tedious and feel unfulfilling, particularly during the spin cycle of problem-solving. It's these reps that make a design, and a designer, better.

Note: These are product-centric, as the majority of my work is in digital products. I have to assume there are similar skills in service design, civic design, and other design fields. (If you know what they are, I would love to hear from you.)


Any of us who have been doing this for a long time will recognize these skills are the same as those we likely learned 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Simply, we need a resurgence of interest and ability in "classic" skills, because these skills are the foundation upon which strategy is built.

Ultimately, my goal as an educator is to help my students gain the knowledge and skills to find meaningful jobs, and one of my primary goals as a hiring manager is to find designers with the best skills and talent that I can. Both goals are presently deeply constrained by a lack of these skills and, more importantly, the lack of interest in them. I hope that those with professional influence urge their peers, and perhaps themselves, to reconsider the value of these "old, boring skills"—which in fact are extremely rewarding, once practiced and perfected—and, in turn, generate the professional excitement necessary to fill the market gap.

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Jon Kolko is a partner at Narrative and the founder of Modernist Studio, acquired in 2021, and the Austin Center for Design. He has written several books, including Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love (Harvard Business Review Press). [email protected]

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