Moving from execution to strategy as a designer

Catt Small
6 min readJan 29, 2023

This is an adaptation of a talk I gave at the inaugural Design in Product Conference from December 2022. If you’d like to see the original slides, go here.

Designers often find themselves under pressure to focus on aesthetics rather than impact and outcomes. Let’s explore techniques to shift from an execution-focused role to a more strategic one. I will discuss the value of design-led strategy, explore the reasons why designers are often excluded from crucial product conversations, and share ways to increase design’s contributions to product strategy.

Why should designers be strategic?

A design-led strategy helps teams come up with innovative solutions, determine when it’s better to stick to predictable ones, and builds confidence that chosen solutions will have the most impact. However, companies often wait until they think they know the solution to a problem before engaging design. Teams continue to treat the role of design as a way to make solutions look pretty rather than empowering designers to contribute at a strategic level.

Too many companies wait until they think they know the solution to a problem then engage design … Now the designer is in the uncomfortable position of slowing things down to learn about the problem, push back on assumptions, and ask questions that may have already been asked.

- Sara Vesselov, Why UX Designers Don’t Feel Valued-and Why This Is a Problem for Your Business

The seat at the table is ever elusive. We’re getting locked out of crucial product conversations where we could be providing value. This can result in a focus on production that generates worse outcomes for customers.

I’ve experienced this personally, most strongly with my experience on the SoundCloud Go launch in 2016. We had a strong indication from customer research that a paid subscription service centering a major label music catalog wouldn’t be compelling to an audience that mostly consumed user-generated content.

No one comes to SoundCloud to listen to The Beatles’ catalogue

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Catt Small

Product Designer, Programmer, Game Developer, Artist, & karaoke ♥er. Bronx-born & raised. She.