I am Anuja, a Design Researcher and Strategist. I currently work with Accenture in a multi-faceted team of researchers like myself, designers, developers, content writers, etc. Our team works to solve various organizational issues in a ‘creative’ way, enabling transformations through the medium of design.
Who is a Design Strategist?
In simple words, a Design Strategist is specialized in using design as a strategic tool that organizations and businesses can benefit from.
There are many roles that this profile can play in an organization. However, largely as a design strategist one is expected to identify people’s unmet needs and look for business opportunities within these.
Keeping an eye open on changing trends and the identified opportunities, design strategists help steer the businesses to leverage on these and define the design directions.
What did you want to be when you were in higher secondary school? What motivated you to join NIFT?
I was always inclined towards arts and visited a lot of exhibits around the city to fuel my curiosity. One such time, I clearly recall going to a commercial art exhibit, where I first heard the term ‘design’. Over the next few years, I met and spoke to a few designers and it brought me conviction that I could make a difference as a designer. I was so thrilled by it, that by 10th I was looking at various design colleges and design streams I could take up.
Coming from a modest background, design education then seemed expensive. My best bet was to get into either NID or NIFT, as both were the only two prestigious institutes with relatively affordable fees. That’s how I made my way to choose NIFT, Mumbai eventually.
What is the role of Design Researcher Strategist in an organization?
For a hypothetical example, let’s say that one of the challenges we have is that 90% people log in late to office affecting the productivity of a business. If you look at it, coming late can be due to various factors like, personal (for example, my kid’s school bus is always delayed, thus I always end up missing my office shuttle) or operational (for example, my office shuttle takes a route which is prone to traffic jam, making me late to office everyday). Therefore the effect on productivity can also be relative.
As a design researcher/strategist, we are supposed to look beyond the obvious reasons for some things to occur, to go deeper to understand an issue and eventually find a way to solve it. That’s what I do.
There are three areas in which I function:
1) Understanding the gaps between the business vision and user needs.
2) Bringing onboard insights which help defining the problem area and a direction for solving it.
3) Lastly, it involves facilitation. Bringing required skill sets and mindsets together to help build solutions and answers to the problem.
What steps did you take to land in your present job?
As a designer, you are taught to steer away from your own bias, so you can design something that works for the intended users. This means spending time on field, observing people shop, studying products on shelves or standing in dusty streets taking notes. Many of my peers, just thought of field visits as a fun trip.
But, I made sure to make the best out of these. I took every opportunity to learn more about users, reflecting on how effectively these observations could be made and ways of turning them into design opportunities. I had a lot of experience on field, even before I started working and had a good hold on few research methods.
Eventually, I think it was a matter of making it perfect. Every project I worked on thence has been an opportunity to learn more, do more and never stop.
What do you wish you knew before you started preparing for this career?
Being on field (research) is like being on stage. You must improvise based on your audience and situation, no matter how much you have rehearsed.
One of the key things that I realized is that, you need to take a lot of risks. And no theory or anybody will ever prepare you for that. In most cases, you will have data points to back and support your directions. Sometimes you will have to fight for your hunch.
What things would you do differently in preparing for this career?
I was a Communication Design student. I didn’t know that I could specialize in Design Research/Strategy and make a career out of it, till almost my last year of college. Nobody then spoke about it. Looking back, it seems that I luckily got the right exposure. I would like re-doing it and love to have it as one of the key subjects in my college.
What do you love about your job?
My work is not restricted to any domain. I have so far worked on projects in FMCG, social causes, market launches, category innovations, transport, automotive and many applications and service platforms. Every project opens new opportunities to learn. Even when you are in the same domain, no two projects are alike, and I certainly love that part.
Other good part is the people I interact with. I literally work alongside people from various fields and learn so many perspectives. I think it plays a key role in how I think and work today.
What are the challenges you face in your career?
One of the biggest challenges I would say is readiness of the organizations and clients. It’s hard to prove the value that this role brings on table in the short term. It is not a magic wand that fixes problems in next release (well sometimes it does).
It can be time-consuming and thrives on a lot of collective efforts of all people involved, including clients. Many a times clients don’t want all of that, they just want easy fixes. Like make this look good, or we know who our users are and there is only so much you can do in that capacity. It makes you feel that industry is not ready for it just yet.
But personally, I believe that people are just beginning to warm up to it.
Soon, I hope this role is more integrated into the business.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I am always wrapped around with new information or content. I do this consciously by reading a lot of books, blogs or journals during my free time. Even on my way to a restaurant, I might engage into a conversation with the cab driver trying to understand more about his day, his beliefs, etc.
This usually leaves me with a lot of thoughts through the day. I hence fondly doodle in my notepad about these. It helps me document them and keep them organized.
Can you please summarise your career journey?
School and College:
- +2 – Science (PCM)
- College – B.Des., in Fashion Communication, NIFT
- Internships – Lokus Design
- Graduation project – Hindustan Unilever (HUL)
- Freelance consulting – Worked for various companies like HUL, NIFT, and startups.
- Design Researcher Strategist – Worked with Tata Elxsi, on various research projects in automotive,strategy, space design, trend forecast, etc.
- Accenture – Work as Sr. Researcher and Strategist as a part of a global team.
What sort of experiences helped prepare you most?
Working on a wide variety and scales of projects has helped me understand my role as a designer and strategist better. Various scales of projects give you a very different outlook on how businesses perceive challenges and why they are blindfolded towards certain areas. Wide variety on the other hand, gives you cross domain learning. Problems don’t exist in isolation, hence working over time you can see larger patterns making you intelligent to handle your next challenge.
Secondly, meeting people from different walks of life gives an opportunity to understand the world from a different lens. As a researcher and strategist, you often get to meet many people from different walks of life and understand their stories which are often inspirational and gives you much deeper understanding of life.
What are the skills and education required to be a Design Strategist?
Some of the critical skills as part of the job profile would be :
- Verbal communication: 95% (This forms a larger portion of the job, be it talking to the clients or the subject experts or interviews or even bringing different teams to work together, you must communicate effectively)
- Impeccable Observation: 80% (attention to detail, curiosity)
- Written communication: 80% (Fluency in writing and communicating ideas in words)
- Analysis : 70% (Thinking, looking at patterns, concluding)
- Creative thinking: 60% (Good at finding alternatives to the same problems)
What do you think potential recruiters look for in a Design Strategist?
- A lot of confidence to take product or experience to the next level.
- Play the role of proactive design advocate.
- You are expected to be on top of your insight gathering ability -How quickly you can leverage on available resources to help define the next steps for designers or businesses.
- You also need to stay updated by reading and following various sectors. Cross learning is a key.
How do I know if a career in Design Thinking is for me?
Design is a very inclusive field. Today the team that I am a part of, has people from various disciplines and backgrounds, and together we solve problems. We work on challenges and ‘how can we make this better?’ and that’s the key attitude required.
If you look around and ask more ‘whys’, you can question the knowns, then design research/strategy might interest you.
For being a Design Researcher or strategist, you should preferably have your education in either design or psychology. There are also PG courses like Strategic Design Management or Business Design which can help you with required training. You can apply for these with a valid bachelor’s degree from any stream.
Any recommended resources for aspiring Design Strategists?
What do you think everyone leaving higher secondary school should know?
Design, design research or design thinking are the new buzz words people are hearing these days. Many students who approach me to understand more about the field are fascinated by the design culture which is more liberal than some other disciplines. There is this cool-hip stereotypical image of a designer wearing floral pants and big glasses on their heads. Although there is nothing wrong with that, it is important to remember that it is a lot of hard work like any other field and requires a lot of patience and practice. Hence, it does not give you an easy place into organization. At least not yet.
All the views mentioned here are my personal views and are not representative of the organization(s) I may be associated with.
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