Sorry folks, the strategic design gold rush is over.

7 min readFeb 19, 2024


Strategic designers have had a great time of things for the last couple of decades, and in particular the last one.

Consistently good economic times (short of a minor 2008 stumble), perennially low interest rates, consist high consumer appetite and lots of investment spend have all conspired to create boom times. At the same time, the adoption of digital technology has continued from the dot com era and through the mobile era to the point that digital isn’t really an era at all anymore — it just is. And software ventures have profited (if rarely ever made a profit) from this, taking on millions of funding, with billions of implied valuation to make everything a bit more convenient. And with this, they have placed new experience pressure on incumbents — Amazon ruined the perception of convenience, not only for retailers but pretty much every online business, Monzo made people expect more of their banking app… etc.

This era created a new hero — designers (digital ones at least). Able to grasp the shifting needs of customers, quick to point out competitors or “comparators” that are doing something well, great at creating pleasurable digital experiences. If there was ever an ally for navigating the shift from shonky analogue business to sleek digital one, then designers were it. This created massive growth in the design community, saw several now iconic design agencies form, led to the creation of big internal teams of designers, and ultimately to the consultants jumping on the bandwagon — dropping billions on acquisitions, to acquire design talent (because let’s face it, the ‘IP’ in these agencies is fantasy).

The ‘consultant era’ (2012 onwards) of design led to a new mutation of strategic design. Pushing for codified, pithy engagements, often in the context of much bigger programmes, the mainstream use of design as a consulting discipline pushed up barriers, as the design community reiterated that not anyone can be a designer (but also everyone is a designer), not knowing the outcome before you start is kind of the point and design isn’t purely an aesthetic discipline — all whilst fighting to get a seat at the table. The agencies that grew the fastest within their new parenthood embraced codification, repeatability and embedding into wider plays, which simultaneously created commercial joy and cultural misery — and ultimately to them getting a seat at the table, chaperoned by new consulting parents.

Tapped into the consulting hype machine, design and innovation finally became a CEO topic. Businesses spent billions on design in the quest for relevance, differentiation and future-proofing — a bank spent £20m on some future banking concepts, an insurer hired 200 service designers to become more customer centric, a retailer spent £50m a year on an astroturfed innovation centre full of design people, the UK government spent billions on projects leveraging its “new” (old, established, safe, academic) design toolkit and dozens of innovation centres, “garages”, “studios” and ventures lined the streets of Shoreditch. And a lot of design agency owners got very rich for the privilege (even if none of their work ever went ‘live’).

Fast forward just a few years, and the world is very different. Massive redundancy rounds, acquisitions of design agencies few and far between, some organisations completely removing design from the dictionary. Thousands of unemployed designers, grasping to reinvent themselves as “futurists”, jumping on the “circular” bandwagon, offering services as “design coaches” in the LinkedIn echochamber, lamenting or defending fallen/falling icons (see Ideo), becoming self-certified experts in hypetech (Gen AI being the latest squeeze), probably in a self-produced “podcast” or a substack newsletter.

It very much feels like music has stopped for strategic design, and not everyone got a seat. (And some people are taking it very badly).

“Design is about problem solving. If you don’t solve problems, at best you’re making art. At worst you’re wasting money.”

If you follow the same logic of the tide that came in for design, on the way out, you could argue economics played a big part — expensive cash, geopolitical unrest, a drop in consumer appetite, less investment dollar around. But, in my view, this misses the point.

A five minute conversation with a CEO about their world highlights the challenge for design folk. Most aren’t in the mood for open-ended diagnostic projects that lead to PDFs, concepts, roadmaps and posters but nothing “real”. And all are certainly not in the mood for a set of recommendations that ignore the commercial reality of doing business, much less see it as an inconvenience. The strategic design industry was built as an ally for boom, and, without the sort of reinvention it pitches its own clients, it is an irrelevance in bust.

There is a playbook for this. Just look at all of the other discretionary purchases that get put on the shelf in recessions. Like brand marketing — businesses cut their spend and don’t see much of an issue. They get the saving from not spending on big campaigns, but trading might not let off. Businesses can live without brand marketing. We know though that this sort of cutting, leads to long term issues — the reason why trading doesn’t let off is because it rides on investments of years prior. Cut for long enough, and price premiums drop, which means more discounting, more cutting, more drops, more discounting, more cutting and so it goes on. Lots of brands have died this way — Gap, Body Shop (arguably).

Whether or not the same will happen for strategic design remains to be seen. It hasn’t lived through a recession before. What we do know is that a lot of the businesses that have cut millions of fixed costs out of their organisation in cutting design aren’t hurting yet. In fact a few I know are happy for it, because they can get on with execution, having previously been overstocked on ideas, and understocked on execution. A rebalancing.

Strategic design is still fundamentally valuable, as a toolkit, a function, an industry. It can answer questions that “normal”, linear, inside-out thinking can’t. It can create enormous value by bringing the right perspective to situations, spotting unmet needs in people, solving problems in creative ways, creating movements, inspiring and aligning colleagues around a shared goal. But it has to reinvent itself.

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

– Eric Shinseki

The two prime currencies for business leaders today are commercial sense and execution (or “viability and feasibility” in design thinking speak). None of the toolkits, methods and artifacts of the strategic design toolkit take this seriously enough. They are afterthoughts or chapter headings, often seen through the lens of “desirability”. Lots of members of the cult of design will disagree, but it is so overwhelmingly true and evident in so many failed projects and products.

The attempt to bring some semblance of commercial sense to design processes was largely unsuccessful. “Business design” became a nothing compromise between strategy and design, focused on providing rationale to fairly fixed design concepts — and in some agency:consultancies, far more interested in justifying its own value than creating it for clients. The partisan battle between strategists, designers and technologists still exists in most teams, no matter how pure the intention to create a perfect blend (including at Class35).

The tension between the way that businesses make money, make decisions and quantify value is at odds with some of the key principles of design. Starting with a customer need is not always the quickest route to commercial success, and product economics can often defy the problems that design deems worth solving (as you can see with a lot of the “uber for x” failures in the start-up world).

It is still hard to quantify the £ impact of design. The various indexes that plot spend on design against business success attempt to show that designer-y organisations are more successful than non-designery ones, but often end up showing that successful organisations spend more on desiger-y stuff. They probably also spend more on summer parties, stationary and bonuses too.

If you spend any time with “mid-market” private equity companies, you’d see countless software businesses that have grown up serving a niche with a product — and building successful, profitable, growing businesses around them. And the real clincher is that many are truly ugly, sometimes clunky experiences — hearing-aid gray, minesweepery interfaces that you need a Computer Science degree to understand. But still they acquire and retain customers and charge them more money than it takes to maintain their product and organisation (hence profitable). The things they value, and make them successful, are at odds with the superficial things that too many designers value — entrenched use, service beyond the interface, compelling bundling / pricing / product architecture and above all genuine, deep-seated, detail-drenched utility. They understand their customers, not just at an experience level, but fundamentally grasp their domain in a way that a few rounds of research never will.

Similarly, the process of getting from a sound concept to a live product is still incredibly painful. Service concepts don’t always make good products. Quite often they don’t. What looks great as a concept, sometimes doesn’t travel through the phases very well — and getting a concept through the phases is a specialist skill. Using insight to get an idea, shaping a product that people are willing to pay for around that idea (or folding it into one they already do), surviving all of the compromise on the way through build planning, confirming that the product does what it is supposed to (addresses the original insight), being willing to shut it down at any time, understanding the interdynamics of pricing, operating models and other laws of product physics, being clear on how to get the product adopted in the real world — is hard. Very few teams in our industry know how to do it, very very few individuals know how to.

Unless design learns how to operate within the rules of business, and learns how to ship real products (not just shiny screens), it will always be a plaything for bored (not board) executives imagining away the banality or grimness of their day jobs. The customer-centricity gold rush is over. Maybe it’s time for business-centricity (again).

This may all sound frightfully right-wing to an industry filled with liberal, socially conscious people — many of whom are lamenting the lack of “planet-centricity” in business and positioning to solve it. But if design still wants a seat at the table (as a commercial discipline, not an art form) it has to learn the rules of the game.