The first step of strategic design? Get out of the boardroom

7 Feb 2020

Image: © MemoryMan/

Fathom’s Gareth Dunlop writes that successful, strategic design involves getting inside the world of your product’s users.

In business, no group of individuals is more easily flattered than a senior team huddled in the boardroom reviewing design work.

Cosseted from the harsh elements of the real world, sipping on their soy cappuccinos done just the way they like them, and transfixed by the 85-inch state-of-the-art display they are able to get properly immersed in the brand.

It is within such an environment that senior egos are particularly stroked. And thus, it is from these conditions that the very worst indulgences of design excess emerge.

‘Design can only be considered strategic when it is founded in the user’s world – with older technology and slower internet access’

There are many reasons for this, but at the kernel is how removed a plush boardroom with perfect technology and fancy coffee is from the real-world context in which the design will be experienced.

Good design works in the bedroom as well as the boardroom and is as effective in the street as it is in the studio. Great design survives and thrives in the real world and strategic designers therefore work like fury to ‘de-sanitise’ it.

Building clay horses

Non-digital design disciplines have known this for decades and have integrated goal-directed design right into the heart of their processes.

Some readers may have watched the excellent documentary A Faster Horse, which explores how Ford brought its iconic Mustang to Europe and the challenges the company faced rethinking the American classic to make it a success in a very different marketplace.

A key element in Ford’s design process is clay modelling, where a life-size representation of the car is crafted entirely in clay. This is used to explore the model’s relationship with light, colour and other textures that will be brought in to the design.

The clay model is assessed in a variety of environments including the studio, the warehouse, under street lights and in car parks, and design decisions are heavily informed by those evaluations.

You might reasonably ask why Ford – as well as BMW, Jaguar, Aston Martin and others that do it too – don’t utilise the remarkable advances in computer modelling software and design exclusively this way. Why are they still designing using methods first developed in the 1970s?

The answer is straightforward. The clay model represents the car industry’s commitment to designing for the real world.

The focus on goal-directed design means that they don’t just want the car to look good in the perfect environment of the studio; they need the design to work at dawn, at dusk, at noon, in the driveway, under the street lamp and in the car park.

So, they design the product where it needs to thrive. They de-sanitise the design process.

From fashion to Facebook

The fashion industry believes the same philosophy. My sister, who studied fashion design in Dublin in the 1990s, spent her final year not sketching clothes with pen and paper, but swearing at a sewing machine.

In the fashion industry, pencil drawings, coloured sketches and mood boards all contribute to design, but are not deemed design. Fashion students have to make their clothes because the industry rightly takes the view that it isn’t possible to assess a fashion design until it is hanging on a model’s back or waist.

Only then can the designer understand how the textures work with other attire, how the fabric responds to the light and how the clothes hang on the human body. De-sanitising design is baked into how the fashion industry understands its job.

Two young women holding smartphones sit at a table in a coffee shop. On the table are a laptop and a cup of coffee.

“Designs and features are illustrated in a ‘lifestyle shot’ on the latest iPhone or Samsung, or the very best MacBook Pro, being used by a middle-class millennial in a warm coffee shop with a fancy flat white.” Image: © foxyburrow/

The digital industry needs to catch up – and fast. It’s not that we don’t do it at all, it’s just that we don’t do it enough. Like so much of digital design, the world’s most effective digital brands have led the way, but too few have followed.

When Facebook launches new features, it starts the process focused on the devices where Facebook is most commonly accessed. This chain of logic takes them to India (where most Facebook users in the world are), and then to mobile (where 90pc of its traffic comes from), and ends up with Redmi, Honor and Lenovo phones.

However, it is also cognisant that significant numbers of its users access the platform on smartphones that are more than five years old, so they also display the features on smartphones with keyboards, and smartphones with smaller screens and diminished graphical capability.

Forget the flat whites

It is difficult not to contrast this with how digital design is still often presented. Designs and features are illustrated in a ‘lifestyle shot’ on the latest iPhone or Samsung, or the very best MacBook Pro, being used by a middle-class millennial in a warm coffee shop with a fancy flat white.

This takes us back to the boardroom – replete with egos, comfort and coffee. In other words, a million miles from the environment in which the design will need to work.

Design can only be considered strategic when it is founded in the user’s world, with its older technology, slower internet access, and lower level of technical knowledge. And the starting point is putting down the coffee and getting out of the boardroom.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.