Why strategy is equal to creativity when it comes to great design

Last checked and updated on January 11, 2021

Clearly design and branding is all about looking good – but great design needs more than just good looks. It needs to have strong foundations, purpose, differentiation and vision – and these only happen when an agency brings strategy into play as part of the creative process. So, to create a strong brand identity, clients need to work with agencies that have not just ‘operational’ skills (e.g. creating a logo) but who are able to balance their creativity with strategic thinking to uncover what is unique about a brand.

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Before a designer even thinks about hitting the drawing board, he/ she should immerse him/herself in the client’s business and the broader industry in order to be able to start defining what the point of difference is. However, even better than this is for client and agency to take part in a strategic workshop, where they and other key stakeholders come together to drill right down into the brand and identify its ‘brand essence’. It’s not always easy to persuade a client to add an extra step to the process as they often have a brief prepared and just want you to get on with it. However, getting the right people in a room to focus on nothing but the brand can sometimes be the closest thing to brand alchemy!

Of course, we would never go into a meeting and present a new brand identity without having a rationale behind it, but a brand workshop gives us so much more to work with rather than simply investigating the competition. When you’re face to face with somebody getting under the skin of a brand, their reaction to even a word or a sentence can give a depth of insight that takes you to a completely different place strategically. It’s so satisfying when you help a client to discover what it is they want to say – when all too often they say what they think they should say. Strategy workshops have the potential to create real ‘Eureka!’ moments that can have a huge impact on not just design strategy but business strategy too.

We recently carried out workshops for a couple of clients who were initially humouring us rather than fully buying into the process. However, as the workshop developed, they fully understood the value of it. They left with a new depth of clarity that reinvigorated their thinking and truly excited them. Equally importantly, taking this extra step made all the difference to the result – we were able to produce an outstanding piece of work, rather than simply responding to what they thought we should be doing.

At the very least, a strategic workshop should allow a company to answer the question: “Why should I come to you rather than anybody else? What makes you unique?”. In the majority of cases, it will reveal a raft of fantastic material that highlights the brand’s point of difference. With this insight we can create work based on a more strategic understanding and appreciation of the client that really does change the quality of the output. We may create three or four creative options for them, but we know that strategically, they are all 100% spot on. Then it’s down to the client to overlay the subjective desire for one solution over another.

There have also been occasions where we we’ve started a piece of design work and come to the realisation that we needed the strategic workshop to get it right. Sometimes the workshop has confirmed that some of the work we were doing was right, but it has also thrown out some routes as well. Taking a step back and refocusing on what’s really important about the brand has then enabled us to come up with the perfect response to a brief.

Having uncovered what’s unique about their brand, the client then has the beginnings of a communication strategy that will drive the graphic design brief. Step two is getting the words absolutely right – crafting that sentence that summarises the brand and its proposition. This creates the first tangible piece of collateral for a client – something that, if they had just asked us to design a logo, they would never have had.

From that, we can develop a very powerful checklist of the values that we’re trying to communicate. It could be anything from choice of colour and use of photography or illustration, through to tone of voice or ‘edginess’ of design. If the process has identified that the client is thinking one thing and presenting something else, we will have the tools to pull those pieces together. Rather than just creating a brochure because that’s what they thought was needed, we can feel confident interrogating the brief to ensure that every piece of collateral is doing the job it should be doing.

For a designer, understanding the true essence of a brand – its unique selling points, ethos, culture and values – is essential to defining its creative identity. Only then can we create a tangible programme outlining where the client is visually, and where they need to be. Whether we’re looking at a brochure, a logo, a website or creation of a full brand identity or loyalty programme, executing this strategic process allows us to ensure that every manifestation of the brand is aligned, working hard but, most importantly, telling the right brand story.

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