Mind The Gap: The Space Where Design Strategists Live

By Ryan Opina

“Great concepts and great vision are not enough to make an impact.
Designers must recognize the challenges around implementation and deliver comprehensive prototypes with clear implementation plans.”

-Tim Brown – Designing for Social Impact

Grand visions of a breakthrough product. A service experience that will change the world. A video game that is immersive, entertaining and educational. Who doesn’t want to be involved in creating something along those lines? Coming from a background in design research, the purist, specialist side of me says to start with a clear and intimate understanding of the needs, motivations and behaviors of your users. Get that right and the rest will follow. Over the years however, experience has shown me another angle, one where the technology leads the way, not consumer behaviour. In fact, Donald Norman has recently published an article stating that design research is great for improvement but useless for innovation, while Steve Portigal provides a thoughtful reframing away from the term innovation and more to the identification of opportunity areas. It is here that I see ‘the gap’, the area that we as individuals in the MBA in Design Strategy program will find ourselves living.

Identifying the opportunity area is the key component to ‘the gap’. What does that opportunity area mean for the business? What does it really mean for the consumer? How does it manifest as a product or service offering? How do these different areas relate to each other? There is inherent tension between the three, each having its own priorities and objectives, but if that tension can be balanced, the outcome can be amazing. This is when the opportunity area becomes something tangible…and can begin to generate revenue for the business.

What is an example of a ‘gap’? Take for example the one that exists between a consultant and the firm that has hired them. “We need innovation, and we are going to hire the best firms in the world to bring that innovation to us!” Now don’t misconstrue this statement, there are design firms out there that do amazing work and have the portfolio of innovative products and services to show for it. In fact, many times this relationship is exactly what needs to happen for the firm to continue moving in the right direction. The gap that I refer to in this case refers to one of communication and transition. It occurs when the consultant that is developing the initial concept and vision of the product is out of sync with the firm that needs to produce said product. Perhaps the business and consumer understanding is aligned, but the technicalities of manifesting the opportunity area as a tangible product or service have been left out of the discussion. The tension still exists, and the gap between business and product stretches larger as a result.

The way I see it, this can be attributed to a few different things:

  1. Starting things is easier than finishing things…or at least it’s way more fun. This is the stage when creativity rules and constraints are for later.
  2. Early stage diagnosis of an opportunity and solution prescription is more lucrative for a design firm. The actual production of a concept requires a different mentality and skill set. Defining the experience vision versus understanding the technical needs to realize that vision are two different things at two very different costs.
  3. The individuals responsible for driving the concept and initial vision tend to be different from the individuals that are responsible for realizing the vision. This is critical, yet there is no common ground. Having the right communication skill sets in the gap that exists between the two phases plays a crucial role in achieving the vision.
  4. There tends to be a belief that innovation comes from a specific place, whether it is the consulting firm or the in house incubation team. The fact of the matter is that innovation can come from anywhere. As design strategists we need to broker the conversation and ensure the right perspectives are coming together at the right times to create something great.

Minding the gap is being aware of all of the above and enabling the right communication at the right time. Who is responsible for minding the gap? As future design strategists, the responsibility lies on us. A holistic ability to understand how the idea, the consumer and the business come together and being able to balance the inherent tension that comes from that relationship. That is the future of the MBA in Design Strategy.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.