Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary (Hill, Dan)

This book crystallised many of the things that have been floating around my head during the last few projects I’ve worked on. Dan Hill provides a vocabulary that enables discussion of strategic design not only with others, but, for me at least, with ourselves. As a result, I’ve come away from the book with a much clearer stance on the role of design, the opportunities it allows, and my place within design and the context in which it operates.

Towards the middle of the book, Hill invokes Eliel Saarinen:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan (Eliel Saarinen)

This is a perfect quotation, and it brings together a few of the key themes of the book: that design is too often focussed on the most visible 5% of a problem (the chair), and not on the most valuable 95% (the city); that designers ourselves are at least partly responsible for this lack of attention to the relationship between their work and their context; and that design at the strategic level – and, I’m going to suggest, the more effective level – requires this ability to zoom between what Hill calls the ‘matter’ (the chair) and the ‘meta’ (the city in which it exists).

This basic idea, zooming back and forth from matter to meta, and using each scale to refine the other, is core to strategic design. There are several emerging ideas — again, a vocabulary as much as anything — that we can use to organise our approaches to this idea. They are described as “plays”, as in a football playbook, to suggest they might be adopted and altered, and deployed elsewhere.[loc. 547–550, 1]

This zooming most obviously applies to the kinds of strategic design on which Hill spends most of his time – large-scale urban and architectural projects – and I was initially too quick to disregard its relevance to my work as a product designer. I create products that exist in private homes on devices I don’t control. And that’s where the titular Trojan Horse comes in: though I work on video products, my work is affected by several overlapping contexts: space, whether at home, in public, or moving between the two, time and resource availability, energy-levels, awareness. These are all facets of the content discovery process in which my work exists; I’m certainly influenced by them, but I can potentially influence them myself, dial up certain behaviours and dial others down.

As an example: in London, we’re all on our phones during our commute, but we’re rarely online. Today, most video services on mobile are set up for watching, but what if they made more of this blacked-out interstitial time? What if the mobile had an offline catalogue and went into a kind of planning mode? What if it knew when it was back home, and turned into a second screen? What if it became a sort of emergency viewer, and recognised when you weren’t going to make it back for the start of the game? These are the sort of contextual questions that we’re not thinking enough about, and that provide us with huge opportunities.

For me personally, though, the most relevant and most valuable thread of the book is the one that treats the role of design internally. The earlier part of the book discusses design in terms of artefacts and their contexts, and argues that design’s core value of ‘addressing genuinely meaningful, genuinely knotty problems by convincingly articulating and delivering alternative ways of being. Rethinking the pig altogether’ [loc. 318, 1] should play a more meaningful part in that relationship. Later, though, Hill’s gaze starts to turn inwards, to the ways in which design can function within organisations.

There is a hugely entertaining aside on the limitations of design thinking - What is the problem with design thinking? [loc. 1252, 1] - that brings out the question of how design and design strategy should operate within the context of a business. It’s about far more than somehow enabling leadership to think like designers; rather, it’s about deploying a design team simultaneously as a kind of external observer and an internal steward. The core value of delivering alternate ways of being is one that relies on a designer’s skill to look with new eyes, to ask the stupid questions and pull into focus the assumptions that have burrowed into the decision-making structure. In my mind, this positions a designer almost as a membrane between the business and the customer and the context in which it operates – a kind of outside-looking-in – and it enables the designer to synthesise these inputs into a far more valuable decision than the too-frequent ‘that’s how everyone else does it’. Hill writes:

Design, an integrative discipline, is well suited to hovering between things, understanding intersections and edges, assembling through synthesis rather than funneling through analysis.[loc. 1550–1552, 1]

But this external position needs to be balanced with a deeply internal one. Design, as Hill says, is integrative, perfectly positioned not only to shape an inclusive direction, but to guide it to implementation.

It is not enough to just have the idea. Strategy must be connected to delivery, and it is design that enables stewardship.[loc. 1485–1486, 1]

I’ve found that designers often play this role by default when project management dissolves in the more agile environments I’ve seen, but it’s rarely been an explicit and acknowledged function; if we are to lipstick the pig, we often end up requesting the pig, tracking its delivery, ordering the lipstick and ensuring that the lipsticked pig is safely transported to its display case. But we’re far more useful if our stewardship is elevated to the leadership level, if we can influence decisions and directions, and if our ability to question the need for a pig is unleashed.

I’ll close with one of my favourite passages, one that illustrates the scope and centrality of strategic design (and one that I tend to apply to design in general):

Strategic design tries to ally pragmatism with imagination, deliver research through prototyping, enable learning from execution, pursue communication through tangible projects, and balance strategic intent and political capital with iterative action, systems thinking and user-centredness[loc. 1920–1922, 1]

If you’d like to see how a highlight-happy English grad treats a book, you can download my clippings file here.

And you should definitely get the book.

  1. Hill, Dan. 2012. Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary. Moscow: Strelka Press. Kindle edition.

Sam Dobbinreading