Three things you should expect from strategic design

By Philip Koh

Brand design starts with strategy but how can you tell if it will lead to a standout, real-world idea?

In the research stage of a recent project, we asked a new client what made them special. They stumbled in their response. What about what makes you different? Again, hesitation. In trying to get to the bottom of their story, we realised that even a basic question – what do you offer? – was problematic: the client couldn’t articulate if they were a product or service. It’s not that they didn’t have a compelling story to tell (they very much do), but when your starting point is comparisons to existing brands in the market, you’re barely scratching the surface. Later, when we asked them why they chose us as an agency, they said: “Because you’re thinkers.”

We decided to share this story because it’s an example of nuance in the broad church of brand strategy. “Strategy” means different things to different agencies. To some clients, it comes with the baggage of consultancy: sector, competitor and customer analysis (all good things), but with big fees and no end product. It’s the leap from data and insight into original ideas and tangible solutions where the magic happens. “People often don’t know exactly what they want until you put it in front of them,” explains Without’s director of strategy, Philip Koh. “We give clients the most valuable of things, unlocking – together – what’s already there that makes them special. For us, that is the whole point of creative brand strategy.”

So how do we do that?


When Third Space chose to work with us back in 2015, it wasn’t because of our portfolio in health and fitness – we didn’t have one. When you come into a project with no preconceptions, you bring curiosity, a fresh perspective and cross-industry knowledge. An outsider – to the sector or organisation, as agencies often are – assumes the role of challenger.

“Being nosy, wanting to understand why things are the way they are – this is what I associate with being a brand strategist,” says Ela Berksoy, senior strategist at Deloitte Digital. “A lot of analysis goes into the work, but more broadly, it’s reading, it’s being tuned into culture, it’s understanding what drives our emotions. It’s about having a point of view and having the confidence to lead with it.”


For our rebrand of Wok to Walk, the strategy involved a deep dive into Eastern culture, drawing on the neon colour scapes of Hong Kong and cinematography of Wong Kar Wai, to the animistic Kami spirits central to Shinto beliefs. This research was fundamental to informing the new logo, packaging, photography art direction, staff uniforms and custom ‘Lightning headline’ typography. It even inspired the creation of a mascot, Woki, a rebellious, mischievous spirit to keep the flame alive.

The idea for Woki came, in fact, from one of our design directors, not strategist. But that’s when that magic happens: in the collaboration of every stakeholder, from start to finish.

There’s a danger when strategy and design are siloed in brand agencies. “That happens, and it’s a weakness,” says Ben Maxwell, brand strategy director and former Wolf Ollins senior strategist. “It’s crucial for strategists to be involved throughout the project – not just at the start. We want to make a difference, to contribute to making people’s lives better, to help a business deliver growth. A strong idea and strong creative – it’s fundamental that those two things are aligned.”

More dangerous still is when the client isn’t part of the solution. The good stuff is already there, within the brand itself; a good agency helps you to find and show it. “So strategy is about bringing people together,” says Philip. “And the solution is a shared one because, ultimately, it’s the client who is on the ground, inspiring staff, rallying teams around a philosophy.”


To us, strategy isn’t theory. It’s not enough to find the differentiating idea. Strategy solves the problem of how to express that idea in creative, real-world outcomes.

When we first started working with Pure, they were offering some of London’s most delicious food-to-go because they had on-site kitchens (unlike its competitors). Among the creative executions of its difference was an alternative “about page” on the website. Instead of the expected prose, strategy inspired an animated timeline of the day in the kitchens. At 5.15am, the smell of baking; at 7.30am; the blending of smoothies; at 12.30, the mixing of dressings.

Strategists are also great writers, able to communicate a unique, rallying idea in just a few words. Generic taglines have no place in our work. We prefer “More Home Than High Street”; “Born in the East, Raised in the East End”; “Cooked with lightning” (the brainchild of one of our designers – see: collaboration, again). All phrases conjured by strategic creative thinking, with clarity and feeling.

In brand design, the role of strategy hasn’t always been clear, with some people suspicious of its value. But it’s strategy that challenges, that shapes an idea. Strategy gives a point of view. It’s more than data and numbers; it’s nuance, the human touchpoints behind the science. It’s problem solving through a deeper level of meaning. It’s what drives change for our clients. And the proof is in the pudding: we’re proud to have won numerous DBA Design Effectiveness Awards for clients including Third Space and Sodexo (where we also picked up the Grand Prix prize). So we’re always looking to add more strategists to the Without team. If that’s you, or you know a good one, we’d love you to get in touch.