We all know ideas have to come from somewhere. It’s how the creative process works. Yet mere mention of the word ‘strategy’ is enough to instill fear in both the most imaginative and the most process-driven minds out there. But the sweet spot between strategy and beautiful design work does exist.
Just ask Rob Nudds, Head of Strategy and Business Development at Studio Round. As managing partner alongside Michaela Webb (revisit her presentation at our 2014 conference here), and with 13 years experience delivering brand communications, he sits at the helm of devising and delivering solution-driven outcomes. Or, as he likes to put it, “I’m driven by the business of design to ensure that our creative endeavours are directed at achieving both commercial and cultural outcomes.”
Since establishing Studio Round in 2002, Rob has overseen the strategy development, account management and delivery of projects from a tight-knit group of design professionals, covering sectors including arts and culture, retail and hospitality, property, finance and manufacturing, amongst a host of others.
“My role is all about working with people to define brand culture – that includes vision, purpose, customer cause, values, positioning and personality – and to align it with the product and service offerings, so that it shapes the way communications are shared and experienced by people,” he says. “Essentially, to make sure that our clients matter to the people they need to engage most of all: their staff, and their customers.”
Studio Round’s strategy stems from an understanding of what brands excel at and a desire to align those capabilities with human needs. It’s what Rob calls an ‘inside out’ approach.
“Defining brand culture, articulating a certain position and ensuring that the product offer and communications are aligned are the core aspects of shaping brand strategy,” Rob explains. “Saying this, we’re also committed to seeing things from the customer’s perspective and understanding the way people experience brands.”
In this sense, it quickly becomes clear that strategy in design is not too far off from the actual design process itself, in a number of ways. Rob explains that he works closely with Round’s clients to identify the real problems that need solving.
“We always start by finding out what organisations are really good at, and matching those strengths and competencies with the needs of their customers,” he says. “It’s about uncovering truths, and getting agreement around a vision for where the business wants to be, what it wants to be known for, and how it engages and connects with people to help it get there.”
As initial ideas from the client are collected and connected, these lines of thought are then transferred to the studio environment where direction starts to take place.
“Once the strategic direction is set, the challenge is to express the ideas in ways that engage people, and to design the communications and experiences in ways that are coherent and believable, whilst still being unexpected,” Rob says.
Here’s where the relationship between strategist and designer takes place, and continues throughout the process of a project.
“[At Studio Round], we see ourselves as brief makers, not brief takers,” he explains. “This requires us to combine strong strategic thinking with great creative execution – they’re intrinsically linked.”
He’s also resolutely clear, if not philosophical, about the importance of making sure strategy and design work symbiotically in the studio environment.
“Good strategy with poor execution doesn’t really do anything, because it rarely gets the traction it deserves,” he says. “Good creative without sound strategy might look beautiful and be instantly gratifying for the aesthetes amongst us, but solutions driven by style tend to deliver short-term results.”
It goes without saying, then, that the team at Studio Round is a true band of arms.
“We all have our own individual strengths, and ultimately we’re all thinkers and creatives in our own right, but we work closely together in everything we do.”
This means – surprise! – that designers themselves are also involved in the strategic process from the outset of a project.
“I lead the front-end of most strategic relationships, but we approach each engagement as a team, and work hard to make sure there is a strong, but nimble, cross-disciplinary group working with each client,” Rob explains.
“Designers, strategists and design managers all work together to deliver outcomes. The nature and input of the distinct roles changes as the journey progresses, but we make sure there are different minds brought in to solve the challenges throughout the life cycle of each project.”
“We want our clients to experience a journey where our insight and knowledge is shared and built on as we progress – keeping designers out of the initial conversations would be counter intuitive to that.”
And what does that mean for the composition of the studio itself? “We’ve got a clear process and defined structure, but the team composition varies a bit depending on the scale of the strategy and communication needs of the client. The industry that the client comes from also impacts the makeup of our team.”
Rob’s own day-to-day varies from a lot of writing – proposals, briefs and obviously, strategies – to client workshops that the studio hosts to kick off strategic engagements and present proposed plans.
“Of course, while there are always plenty of meetings,” Rob adds, “It’s important to make sure I also spend a bit of time sharing information and inspiring our team about the challenges and opportunities inherent in future projects as well.”
Whilst he says that if he wasn’t in the design business he’d get a job brewing beer, when asked for the most fulfilling project he’s contributed to Rob manages to “distill it down to a couple”, listing Studio Round’s work for Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and Australian furniture brand Tait.
“Making your clients cry isn’t normally a good thing, but we had tears of joy when we presented our strategy to Susie and Gordon Tait. They were pretty happy we’d managed to capture the emotions and ideas that were in their heads and hearts, but ultimately had not shared with their team or customers.”
“For me, it’s a meaningful role because it can really make a difference in people’s lives. In the way our clients think about who they are, what they do, and the role they play in the lives of their customers. It resonates with people and it drives change.”
Strategy, then, is highly important to the work that Studio Round does. It is also highly important to the design process itself, championing the concept that ideas aren’t the responsibility of one person, and nor do they happen overnight.
“Strategy provides us with a direction to follow, and a destination to aim for,” says Rob. “It challenges us to think in new ways.”