Beyond a role

After much contemplation, I begin this essay with the title of ’What is the role of a designer in strategic design?’. I had trouble naming the topic due to the need to establish a good balance between the human and structural approach in framing this article.

From my perspective, there seem to always be 2 general categories of designers especially within the design course I was in, ones whose works seem to be more ‘artistic’ and others who lean toward the ‘pragmatic’ — designing for the masses. Upon reflection, I personally see design as a marriage of both which makes use of the same fundamentals and processes that lay behind the scenes, but ultimately achieving different results. Throughout my short years of numerous internships and my recent interviews with the past 17 batches of design graduates from my school which I did together with my team for a school event, this contrast between the ‘human’ and the ‘pragmatic’ seem to surface even more apparently.

Going back to the title, even though the current one encompasses the structural essence of my topic, it still seems to be lacking something, something raw and intimate which forms the ‘human’ dimension. I guess we will find a suitable title as I continue this essay but moving back to the topic, in that same regard, back when I was a design student, I wanted to push the conversation of design to consider the frameworks and approaches that build our propositions. Especially when it encompasses the designing of strategies/ infrastructures which form an additional layer above what we learn in design school about the typical design process. How do we balance additional structural parameters that are typically seen as technical, distant — a stark contrast to the emotional and empathic approach distinctive to designers?

How do we then balance these multiple layers of viewpoints? And how can this affect the perceptions others have on the value of design?

Strategy in Design

Strategic Design. I did a quick search on the online Cambridge Dictionary which defined it as,

‘a detailed plan for achieving success in situations such as war, politics, business, industry, or sport, or the skill of planning for such situations

It is a buzzword commonly associated with business infrastructures, politics, etc., sectors that deal with numbers, figures of authority; distant, over-arching systems that define the steps taken to achieve a specific aim. As obvious as it seems, the strategy itself is not exclusive to any industry, it is but an end result of a cognitive process. A strategy is formed from a macro perspective after careful consideration and assessment of often complex parameters. The differences across the industries lie in the tools used to construct and frame the particular strategy or the ‘skill of planning’ as Cambridge defined. Although these tools are increasingly interweaved such as the blue ocean strategy employed by marketers, they are often also specific to each industry.

In businesses and corporate organizations, charts and graphs are often used to justify certain business ventures and innovations, often considering the political and economic dimensions. Designers, on the other hand, use their mastery over visual interfaces and ethnographic research skills to justify and give form to their innovations, working closely with the end-users themselves in order to relook at problems and turn them into insightful design interventions.

Personally, I see designers as providers of solutions leaning towards the social and cultural dimensions that govern users’ behaviors. Designers often have to take a step back in order to rebalance these different dimensions that help construct a solution, applying both analytical and intuitive skills. I see strategic design as more like a ‘generalist’ — one who can look at issues from both an empathic yet global dimension so as to provide a holistic perspective that encompasses both the structural and ‘human’ aspects to a solution.

Credibility as a Designer

In design school, we are often taught that designers are problem solvers and that users are the ones who are ‘experts’ in their problems. We are taught to apply design principles and diving deep into understanding context and users to find solutions that are ‘human-centered’. In short, we are empathic problem-solvers. We take a step back to evaluate the behaviors of users — the experts of the problem while considering other dimensions so as to build a holistic and resilient solution.

However, if the users are the experts as mentioned, how much credibility do we have as designers over these experts? In this article I read, they argue that experts are blinded to the necessity of a redesign due to their highly developed coping mechanism.

Examples of high-grade plastics proposed to surgeons. Image source:

DePuy hired Helen Hamlyn Centre (HHC) at the Royal College of the Arts in London to redesign surgical tools and for the collaboration to produce a framework that allows DePuy to rapidly produce innovations so as to remain competitive. Current reusable surgical steel tools often used have remained largely unchanged since the 19th century. These tools often have slippery handles that slip around in the surgeon’s grip during surgery as their hands are often covered with blood and fats. Before the intervention of HHC, most surgeons do not even notice this appalling design flaw as they have developed highly improvised techniques that circumvent the apparent flaw to the extent that they are already blind to the problem. Also, as highly skilled experts, they know their tool best and were unwilling to change their manner of operating the tools even after being made aware of its flaws as they have adapted to it. They want to mitigate the risk of learning something unfamiliar especially when it concerns the life and death of a patient. However, this allows the failures of the current tools to continues and this will eventually have a negative net effect on future surgeons and doctors. They see that through the improvisation of current ineffective tools, highly skilled surgeons are still able to have a positive outcome for the surgery but the question is, why risk it at all?

As designers, HHC was able to convince the surgeons to adopt disposable, high-quality plastics after pointing out the inadequacies of current tools as well as improving the overall flow of the operation as these disposables do not need to be sterilized and hence mitigates the risks of sanitization while at the same time, making it more cost-effective for the hospitals as they do not require maintenance as well. As such, as designers, the ability to act as a neutral party to liaise with experts and stakeholders from the different fields without perceived biasness has also allowed them to provide a more holistic solution. More importantly, with the success of the tools, the designers were able to change the mindset of the surgeons about the integrity and effectiveness of plastics, wiping away decades of mistrust toward materials other than their beloved surgical steel. By stepping back and looking from another perspective, the designers were able to re-evaluate the current problem to identify opportunities while still effectively empathizing with the expert surgeons, acting as the middle ground.

The WhoCares? publication commissioned by the National Council of Social Services to Fuelfor. Image Source:

In another example closer to home here in Singapore, the ‘Who cares?’ project commissioned by Singapore’s National Council of Social Services (NCSS) to Fuelfor, which I am using as a base for my own thesis is another example of a successful strategic social design that redefined how caregiving is approached. The evaluation of caregiver care via the emotional dimension truly demonstrates the empathic approach taken by the designers in crafting the framework. By portraying the issues that these caregivers face via emotions, a universally relatable trait — the designers essentially crafted how they wanted the audience to perceive the issues that the caregivers are facing in a manner that most can identify with. As such, it makes it easier for not just the designers themselves, but readers like me to put ourselves into the shoes of these caregivers, providing a distinctive perspective to relook at the issues that these caregivers are going through.

The designers also act as a bridge to propose solutions that may lie outside the expertise of the commissioner, NCSS — outside of the social domain. Within the booklet were several propositions that included the architecture that encompasses an entire ecosystem of solutions involving interventions from technology, space, and social domains that work together to provide a comprehensive concept direction. The designer is this case, acts as a bridge to the multi-faceted system that stemmed from the social domain to seek opportunities from other fields, simplifying and reframing these existing infrastructures from various industries to lower the barrier of adoption for a new context. As mentioned by G.Concilio (2019), “Design has grown in appeal by identifying itself with a series of tools and codified approaches and processes, which manage to face complexity while cultivating an action/solution-oriented approach.”

Humanizing a Structure

It’s fascinating for me to see designers acting as a medium for the convergence of these different dimensions. And then an epiphany struck me — I’m starting to see why a designers’ role has traditionally and understandably been mistaken to be aesthetics. The ability of a designer to tangibilize and balance considerations from the various domains via our ability to empathize with the various stakeholders as well as end-users is what distinguishes us and makes a solution ‘designer-ly’. By toeing the line which separates the various fields and systems, we hence ‘outline the architecture’ of a problem, considering it from all angles to provide insightful opportunities and holistic solutions that are simplified yet well-considered from various parameters. And understandably one of the most tangible manifestations would be aesthetics.

That made me think of an article I read a couple of months ago while working on another project, one which may not necessarily be from the design industry per se but is in its own right, an unmistakably designer-ly solution — the shift from the Roman to the Hindu-Arabic numeric system. The simplified visuals brought forth by the systemic adoption not only allowed people of the time to visually navigate the growing numerical complexity with ease but revolutionized the manner in which we interact with numbers. With this in mind, our fluency in visualization as a designer allows us to take a step back to navigate through complex systems in order to communicate with distilled interfaces.

The Hotel Room 47, Sophie Calle, 1981. Image source:

Another example my professor brought up was the approach of the French multidisciplinary artist — Sophie Calle. Her autobiographical works often portray snippets of the subject, requiring the audience to project themselves via the medium she chose — an avatar for the projection, into her works so as to construct their own interpretation. The raw and intimate nature of her works taps into the psychological frame of viewers, acting as visceral qualities only possible through stepping into the shoes of the viewer and knowing the viewers would do the same through an appropriately chosen medium. Her ability to remove herself from her works and enter the frames of her viewers, albeit from a more provocative and ‘human’ dimension is in hindsight similar to how a designer constructs from multiple perspectives in order to distill a solution into its essence.

Making the Known Unknown

“The more firmly we’re convinced we’ve identified an object, the less precisely we understand it.” (Hara, 2007, p. 23.)

In essence, I would reckon design in the general sense is almost like cubism, to think from multiple angles, to be able to constantly shift between different layers of perspectives before synthesizing it into one succinct yet dynamic composition. This allows designers to distance ourselves from the situation, to relook and rebalance through the expanded dimensions, from the systemic and structural to the raw, psychological frame of the user. Perhaps I will end off with the last example which stuck with me with its poignancy — Kenya Hara’s ‘Exformation’ studio and the Re-Design exhibitions. The idea of taking a step back to relook into things we think we know can be made unknown and hence rediscovered. His demonstrations with these using both conceptual ideas and daily objects challenges one to relook into things that we think we are familiar with — to reimagine its possibilities through a shift in perspective, to break it down to its essence, and hence providing a richer and more meaningful interaction with this renewed sensibility. As Hara (2013) stated in an interview with DesignCulture, “Good design has the power to rouse people, not as an answer but as a question.” That got me thinking that perhaps a designer’s role in design strategy is to facilitate the raising of questions from the perspective of another, to remove oneself from the equation and hence I think I found the title for this article, to look beyond a role.


What a strategic designer* does. —

What do I mean by strategic design. —

Strategy Definition. —

Strategy by Design. —

Sophie Calle Artworks. —

Hara, K (2007). Designing Design (5th ed.). Switzerland, CH: Lars Müller Publisher.

Nørretranders,, T (1998). The user illusion: Cutting consciousness down to size. New York: Viking.

Helsinki Design Lab. Case Study: Instrumental Design. —



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Shawn Ng

Shawn Ng

Designer living in sunny Singapore. I enjoy exploring new perspectives that can shape creativity and design.