Featured, Product Design, Design Strategy

The Secret Weapon of Strategy: Words


Many designers are intimidated by writing — but language is fundamental to crafting a design strategy.

Design is a craft-based discipline. We make things — traditionally, these have been physical, tangible objects — crafting furniture out of wood or steel, or printing posters with paper and ink. As design evolved to include interactions and behavior, the “materials” expanded to include pixels, motion, and diagrams — things that incorporate time and digital spaces. Now, design is expanding again, as we increasingly focus on design strategy.

Strategy includes plans, policies, and frameworks, and so our material toolkit is growing to include language in addition to images, diagrams, motion, and sketches. But many designers are attracted to this discipline because they naturally have more visual acuity than written abilities — perhaps they hated English classes but excelled in art or photography. Visual design is also seen as a valuable skill. Pick up a marker and draw something on the whiteboard that even remotely resembles an animal, and you’ll gain an awed “you are magic” respect from the room.

However, focusing exclusively on visual communication as a design medium can lead to this “magic” being discounted as less important than Big Decisions. In spite of great efforts from leaders like Dan Roam or Austin Kleon, drawing is still considered a second-class citizen in many business contexts. It’s as if sketching is valued for its idiosyncrasy or strangeness, not for its depth and intellect.

Another problem with using visuals exclusively in design is that — no matter their fidelity — they often aren’t sufficient on their own in describing complex, nuanced problems. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to communicate the full meaning of a new product or service design with only pictures.

Industrial designers compliment their sketches with annotations, and interaction design wireframes usually come with accompanying explanations. But for many designers, this is arduous. It’s not the “fun” part of design, and practitioners often assume written supplements like brand guidelines are rarely used.

When designers expand our own ideas of how language and visual imagery can work together, very concise, specific language becomes the most important tool we have to do one of the most important jobs we have during the design strategy process: convince people that we’re right.

The Design Strategy Process

When we work with our partners to develop a design strategy, we typically include two main elements.

First, we set up an argument for change. This is based on qualitative research and provides evidence and rationalization for new ideas. Next, we sketch a vision state. This is our north star — the place we want to go. This is a highly visual glimpse of an optimistic future, where new products, new services, and new ideas are all in harmony. This vision, more than any part of the process, is grounded in what most people would think of as traditional visual design: beautiful, creative, and immersive.

The vision state sparks the imagination, conjuring a new world into existence. This is where many designers feel most comfortable. The vision is shown in a combination of sketches, wireframes, movies, animations, or models, tangible and vivid. A vision state doesn’t have to be sexy — contexts like enterprise software call for something much more conservative, but even these include a “magic” view of the future.

The argument is the most difficult part of the process to communicate in design strategy, because it’s completely subjective. It’s the scaffold that the entire subsequent story is based on and it needs to be defensible, but it’s a story — surrounded by quantitative, objective data. And what’s frustrating for many designers is that this part of the process relies heavily on language as a persuasive communication method.

Consider a typical scenario in which a design strategy emerges: people at a given company believe that there needs to be a change in the products and services they offer. In general, the current portfolio isn’t satisfying the needs of customers or providing the value they expect. Perhaps the industry’s bar has been raised. Maybe the products have grown haphazardly over time, through acquisitions and mergers, and it’s impacting sales. Perhaps the technology has simply gotten better.

“We need a change” may be clear, but how to go about that change is not, because there are infinite paths forward. In the best cases, everyone on the team is smart, committed, and reflective, and they have ideas for improving the products or services. In this ideal case, let’s say everyone has also sketched their great ideas and they feel confident that these ideas represent the best evolution for the company and the users. It’s still highly unlikely those ideas are perfectly aligned and that they align with what customers actually want, need, or value.

The team has the best intentions, but they still need a clear direction and a catalyst that is simultaneously intellectual and emotional. This catalyst needs to exist in an environment where facts matter, and it needs to have the power to persuade people to change their minds about things that aren’t actually measurable — like what the future should be. This means the argument for change needs to be charismatic, too.

Stories Establish Emotional Connection

First, we need to establish the emotional context in which to think about the argument — and this comes directly from qualitative research. The stories, quotes, pictures, and experiences real people share with us become the substance for a narrative that is intended to tug at the heartstrings.

In some contexts, like medicine or education, the stories that we include are viscerally emotional — people are unable to complete their education or they experience terrible parts of the healthcare process — and those go directly to the heart. But even when we’re talking about back-end software, people’s stories resonate on an emotional level.

Designers talk a lot about empathy, but we have a different goal here. By presenting these stories with real-life photos, videos, audio, and quotes, we can create a sense of sympathy, encouraging the audience to care about the experiences participants are having and taking action in order to help them. Sometimes, their needs are utilitarian — like a new feature or a seamless workflow. Often, our work highlights more universal needs — collaboration, community, recognition, and so-on.

These emotional stories are effective for a variety of reasons, which COO Jon Kolko discussed in “Stories, the Way to Our Heart and the Key to Design Strategy.” One fundamental reason is that the stories are true. We can hypothesize if participants were entirely truthful during our research process, and we can argue whether their experience is anomalous or common, but their unique stories are real. And that means these emotional stories are elevated and taken seriously by most decision makers.

Creating Pseudo-Objectivity

Now that we’ve presented people’s real, lived experiences — and their individual needs — we can use that material to set up a framework, abstracting the specific people and needs to more general themes and patterns. This framework articulates principles, assertions, or implications: things our products, services, and vision should do to help not only the people we engaged with, but to help all of our customers or users.

This is where the game of language comes in. We need to establish boundaries around an opportunity space by using assertions, slowly edging into inference. In order to do this, we need to make “abductive leaps.” The audience sympathizes with participants, and this is the foundation for these leaps in traditional forms of logic.

If we push too hard, the audience will fall back on more deductive analyses, realizing quickly that the data used in this framework is biased, non-randomly-selected, and of a very small sample — so we can’t stray too far away from plausibility.

From here, we can design the connective tissue between research and vision — using the medium of words. The ability to successfully establish a believable framework rests on the craftsmanship of language.

Here is an example of how this works, inspired by a recent project we completed at Modernist Studio.


Imagine that your company builds video conferencing software, and your leadership team has identified a potential play in an ancillary business: live streaming for social interactions. One executive read an article that described Twitch’s almost 4-billion-dollar valuation, and another watched his daughter stream her Fortnite experience. Now, as the head of emerging business, you’ve been asked to figure out if there’s an opportunity for your company.

Stories from the Field

You’ve conducted research with 20 gamers, spending three hours in each person’s home, watching them set up their gaming rig, explore online games, stream their experiences, and share some of their history with online streaming. You’ve just returned from field work, and prior to synthesizing your research, you start to develop “stories from the field.”

Stories from the field are exactly as they sound — anecdotes that the team felt were exciting, strange, funny, or sad. We highlight the extreme, in order to emphasize that “the user is not like me” — that we can’t simply make things we want because they may not provide value to our customers.

Consider Megan’s story:

Megan is 42, and by day she works as a hairdresser. After work, she stays up until 2 or 3AM playing various games and streaming her experiences on Twitch. She’s unique, in that her favorite games are older titles — she plays the King’s Quest series, along with other titles from the 1980s. She explained, “I grew up on these games. It’s a way for me to go back in time. My son showed me how to use an emulator, and now I can play all the games I played when I was a kid.”

But she’s also starting to get wrapped up in the social pressure for popularity. When she discovered Twitch, it energized her to play in front of other people. “It makes me feel like a star, not a nerd.” She’s gained fifteen loyal followers who log in each evening to watch her play. Now, she thinks about her audience all the time. “Sometimes when it’s slow at work, I’ll think about playing, and what I’m going to do that night to make my audience pay attention.” She feels pressure to perform, which she doesn’t mind, but she feels guilty if she misses a session.

Megan’s excited by the opportunity to gain a larger audience, but she’s not sure how to go about building a following. She speaks with awe about some of the Twitch streamers who boast thousands of followers. “I never understood celebrities, like the ones on TV. But there’s something pretty cool about being good at something in front of other people. Some people make a living out of this. I can’t imagine doing that, but it would be great if I could do this and people would want to pay to watch. But I don’t understand how they get famous. Some of them are really funny, but some are just these kids, playing games. I feel like I could do better.”

Stories from the field begin to establish the scaffold. Think about how many unique elements there are to Megan’s story, and how the executive team would respond:

  • Megan isn’t a kid. She’s 42. Meaning, gaming isn’t just for teenagers blowing off their schoolwork — it’s something adults do, too.
  • Megan isn’t playing Fortnite. The storyline around streaming is that it’s all about the newest title, but she’s not interested in the new games — she wants familiar games that are attached to memories.
  • Megan aspires to be a famous streamer. While her aspirations aren’t huge, the idea of gaming as a living isn’t completely foreign or out of the question.
  • Megan has meaningful emotions around gaming. She’s aware of complex feelings of guilt, expectation, excitement, and pride.

Megan doesn’t fit the preconceived notion of a gamer, and that sparks curiosity. When our stakeholders heard stories like this, a pretty magical thing happened — they became advocates. It’s almost impossible to not start thinking about ways to help Megan be more successful, ways to better package her behavior into a platform to help her achieve her goals.

We write stories from the field for each participant. The writing is curation: we are compressing a whole person, and three hours with that person, into a few paragraphs.

Patterns and Themes

In parallel to writing these stories, the team synthesizes the raw data from the research — a process described in more detail in “A Strategic Storytelling Tutorial.” The end result is a series of patterns, themes, and insights about the research as a whole, which are described in the declarative, as sweeping generalizations about people.

Based on our research with live streamers, we identified pillars like this:

Pillar 1: Audience Changes Everything

Gamers started playing games because they liked them — they were a form of escape, entertainment, or community. But when other people are watching, the emphasis changes. The focus is no longer on the game, but instead, it’s on the presentation. For some, this is a source of pride. Even a small audience can be a motivator to do more and try more, and as that audience grows, so does self-respect. But for other gamers, this is a source of performance anxiety. An audience has expectations that the gamer is actively and constantly streaming. Missing just a few days can lead to attrition. This results in a slow change in attitude around gaming, as it stops being a fun end in itself and becomes a strenuous, stressful activity.

For example, Charles, a gamer in North Carolina, streams newer games like Fallout 76, and his channel has gained over 3000 followers. When he streams, there are typically 80 or 90 people watching. He told us that, “It’s a total thrill. When the room hits 30 or 40 people, or has new people that I’ve never seen before, it’s a rush. I used to do stupid sh*t on my skateboard and BMX, and this is the same feeling — it’s adrenaline, but something else, something more real.”

Matt, a streamer in college, agrees, and used the same word: thrill. “I don’t really stand out in college and it’s pretty boring. But in here, when people are watching, it’s thrilling. I feel important.”

Mary described the same idea, but for her, streaming was a source of anxiety, not pride. “I feel like I owe them something. Every night, there they are, waiting. And if I don’t show up, I feel like I’m letting them down. It’s almost a burden.”

Pillar 2: Being Good Isn’t Good Enough.

Game streaming is a show, and that means that the details matter. Being good at the game is tablestakes — it’s the other things, like production quality, sense of humor, and a running dialogue that really bring a steamer to life. This can be a frustrating surprise for new gamers who are looking to build a personal brand and grow an audience. When people visit their streams and leave, they often wonder why, and it’s only when they are more experienced that they realize how much the non-game parts of the experience matter.

Megan has noticed the importance of demeanor and reflects on how she can be more personable on camera. “The people I follow, like Macwa45, have a combination of a cool accent and really strong language. They say things loudly and emotionally. I’m not sure I have that. I’m much quieter.”

Matt learned about the consequences of performance and production value the hard way. He is an expert in Fortnite but was streaming from his dorm room. It was dark, the sound quality of his mic was poor, and there was always noise and activity in the background. “I couldn’t figure it out. I was better than so many other players, but I had almost no one watching. I thought that winning would do it, but it didn’t.” Many months later Matt found a Reddit thread about how to improve some of the production details. “I was pissed until I figure it out. I wasted a ton of time.”

The Language Framework

A set of constraints starts to emerge from the research synthesis and we capture these in our framework. This is the piece of the puzzle that needs to be tailored to the appetite of the company — it needs to be enough of an abductive leap to identify exciting opportunity, but not so much of a leap as to be unbelievable or undesirable.

For the gaming project, we identified this framework:

Game streaming isn’t about gaming. It’s about branding. Our products and services must help gamers build and grow their personal brand. To do this, we must help them:

  • Build their narrative by encouraging introspection and reflection
  • Establish regularity and consistency by providing operational structure and support
  • Deliver a top-tier production by giving them tools to manage the details

This is an opportunity framework. It’s 60 words long, and each word matters. “Build a narrative” is different than “establish a persona.” “Operational structure and support” is different than “scheduling and timing.” This language is refined to create an impactful tool for forward momentum through an iterative process — similar to ideating on sketches.

When used together, stories from the field and large provocative statements become the framework, and it’s made up almost entirely of language. A framework is an idea, and language is our medium of presenting it.

Using the Framework

At this point we’ve taken our audience on a path from research to need to inference. The framework was developed subjectively, but now that we all agree on it, it becomes an objective way to judge and assess new ideas.

“Our design must” statements fall directly out of the framework with ease. While alignment about requirements or criteria was previously difficult, this shared framework develops a common language for evaluation. The framework has become a trusted sieve through which we can pour innovation. This work elevates “user centricity” to be a real set of evaluative criteria for strategy when answering “what should we build?”

We think about this research process — through a language framework and into ideation — as establishing inevitability. We want our audience to think, “Of course we should build that new idea — it fits perfectly into the framework.”

If our framework is:

Game streaming isn’t about gaming. It’s about branding. Our products and services must help gamers build and grow their personal brand. To do this, we must help them:

  • Build their narrative by encouraging introspection and reflection
  • Establish regularity and consistency by providing operational structure and support
  • Deliver a top-tier production by giving them tools to manage the details

Then our design must…

  • Fix technical production deficiencies without requiring technical knowledge
  • Create opportunities to integrate community participation and activity into a stream
  • Provide a way to build a representation of self as a “surround” to the actual content creation

And Now, We Draw

Now that we have a framework for judging success, design criteria, and alignment — a set of constraints — our team can sketch visions of the future. This is where many designers feel most comfortable.

We get to sit around a table and sketch lots of one-page vignettes, stories, and scenarios. As we draw, we discuss the ideas we’re envisioning, and build on each other’s visions. Each idea is grounded in the framework and constraints, and we constantly litmus test new ideas against our research participants. Is this an idea that would add value to their experience?

Over time — often two or three days — we develop as many as two hundred ideas with names, callouts, and other details that help bring them to life.

Then, we put them on the wall, discuss, and start to prioritize. Which ideas are most compelling? Which are most valuable? Which are just damn cool? We down-select to several dozen, and then up-sample the fidelity of those sketches. These are typically still drawings, but more refined, with real text and context. We often use frames of devices (like a laptop or phone) for digital products and start to show environments for services.

This process continues — refinement, down-selection, convergence, divergence — and an organic vision starts to come to life. Throughout all parts of this process, our client partners are involved. They often sketch with us, participate in down-selection critique, and are consistently aware of the progress being made. This part of the process is rational and methodical — and through it the vision of the future comes to life.

Revisiting Our Process

The creation of a design strategy moves from qualitative research, through argument, and towards a vision state. The space between data and vision requires a unique form of transition, and we’ve found that language is the most accessible way to bridge that gap by creating a scaffold for evaluation that supports an emergent vision of the future. Language becomes fundamental to driving alignment. Like any other skill, this can be learned — and this is an opportunity for design leadership to expand a team’s capabilities, so that they feel comfortable in a new (but very, very old) medium: words.

Jon Kolko

COO, Modernist Studio

Jon Kolko

COO, Modernist Studio

Jon is the COO, and a Partner, at Modernist Studio, and the Founder of Austin Center for Design. He was previously the Vice President of Design at Blackboard, the largest educational software company in the world. Jon has also held the positions of Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas, and both Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm.

Modernist can help you harness the power of design to transform your organization.

Want to start a conversation? Get In Touch