Design has always been a nimble field. We’ve remained important—despite the march of time and fickleness of the technologies, fashions or politics around us—because our process for solving problems is based on a way of thinking that is effective in its beauty, simplicity and relevance.
Even though the design industry is rapidly changing, for the commercial world, the inherent value of design thinking is not. We observe changes in behavior, ritual, culture and technology, gathering insights and converting them into tangible, purposeful experiences. We serve by prioritizing the needs of the consumer over the needs of the client, a valuable commodity that lies at the crux of design’s economic appeal.
Looking ahead, to create the ideal studio in 2015 and beyond, we must apply this rigorous problem-solving methodology to our own design practices. We must observe what’s happening with clients—our “customers”—and understand their problems in order to optimize our organizations accordingly. Prophet, where I work in the design practice, has evolved from what was primarily a management consultancy to a more holistic brand agency by adding expertise in design, business analytics and digital and innovation strategy, in part due to clients’ desire for continuity when activating our strategic recommendations and brand ideas.
There are universal macro trends within the commercial world that have a huge impact on the daily operations of a potential client, which in turn impacts their needs, behaviors and motivations for patronizing a design studio. Some of these changes include cultural awareness of design thinking, a proliferation of consumer touchpoints and the growing importance of long-term partnerships. All of these issues impact the design studio in both the short- and long-term.
Awareness of design
The permeation of design conversation in the traditional business world has made our profession highly topical, resulting in greater awareness of who we are, what we do and how we can impact commerce. This gradual assimilation of design into business parlance has been steadily gaining steam over the past decade-plus (somewhat conspicuously aligned with the rise of Apple and its influential brand aesthetic, which provided a highly visible case study for the possibility of design-centric thinking in business). The results have been somewhat varied. Primarily, I believe there is an unprecedented opportunity—and, I would argue, obligation—for design studios to elevate the standing of our profession within the broader professional community.
The language of business is traditionally one of words and numbers, writing and arithmetic, and rational decision-making based on quantifiable fact. Although design thinkers have always been comfortable basing key business decisions on emotion and intuition, the rest of the business world is just waking up to this approach. As the importance of creativity in commerce gains visibility and more of the marketplace values our expertise, the louder the voice of design in the boardroom. And, ultimately, the greater the impact we will have on the future of business and society at large.
Conversely, the internalization of design in business thinking can have unintended negative effects: the most dangerous being potential commoditization of our profession (meaning design becomes “just another lever” to be pulled by the numbers-focused business machine, rather than acting as a driving influence behind decision-making based on consumer need). This perspective has a tendency to reduce timelines, interfere with creative process and subject design work to validate its ROI just like any other business function.
In order to continue our mission of making impactful work for clients while raising cultural aesthetic sensibility, the design studio of the future must be aware of these dangers. Designers must remain vigilant about the importance of creative process, reinforce the notion that great work takes time and remember that making memorable consumer connections often requires calculated—but usually not quantifiable—risk.
The proliferation of consumer touchpoints
Patrons of design work, whether a Fortune 500 CMO, small business owner or nonprofit organization board, face the challenge of a convoluted, ever-fracturing consumer base who demand to be in control of the conversation, and who have little patience for ideals that do not line up with their own. A dizzying array of consumer touchpoints—brick and mortar, digital, mobile, social—exist where perhaps just one or two did before.
In response, many larger clients are separating brand from marketing by establishing internal design competency or bringing on chief brand officers (separate from traditional marketing functions) to tackle the higher-order work of building and maintaining a brand across the communication landscape. These increasingly design-savvy clients, buffered by the transparency and accessibility of the internet, have the ability to discover what studio or individual practitioner is behind the projects they admire or the style they desire.
For better or worse, this has implications for the way that agencies brand, position and market themselves. Specializing with a bankable skill set or style can be a valuable commodity, but it can also be limiting from a creativity and innovation perspective, especially if work is briefed based on intended outcome (We want it to be like this.) versus process (What’s the best way to do this?).
As some studios specialize, inspired to develop expertise and depth within a given design discipline, others will do the opposite, becoming architects of brand strategy, positioning and visual and verbal identity to create core brand assets and an actionable brand framework. A network of specialists or the client’s in-house team is used to ensure consistent, unified brand experience across the spectrum of consumer touchpoints.
My prediction is that agencies that aspire to be truly full service, while reaping the benefits of housing the spectrum of design disciplines under one roof, will also face the greatest challenges in our rapidly expanding communication landscape. Studios that swell their numbers to acquire new competencies require highly complex internal organizational structures that are difficult to effectively manage. The resulting bureaucracy and compromised efficiency can negatively impact the quality of the design product, while driving up overhead and affecting return on investment for the client. This ultimately harms the solvency of the studio in the long term.
In whatever discipline a design studio operates, the explosion of new ways to interact with consumers has a massive effect on the evolution of their structure, hiring practices, equipment, facilities and communication. In the same way an agency like Prophet would recommend that clients adjust their communication strategies, clarify their brand message or even change their fundamental organization to best serve the needs of their consumers, the studio of the near future will need to look in the mirror to make sure they’re positioned to address the needs of clients while remaining creative and profitable.
Relationships and evolving the design business model
Designers are perpetually caught in a gray area. We are at our most effective as thought leaders, developing insights-driven ideas for communications, products and experiences that address a basic need—and doing it beautifully. However, in practice, our profession operates largely on a service industry model. We are often hired guns brought in sporadically, as specific needs arise. Ultimately, the best design work is born of one of two situations: purely autocratic organizations led by a rare visionary, or symbiotic partnerships between commerce and creative that are built on a foundation of trust, exceptional communication and healthy tension.
In the coming years, if not already, I suspect that the quest for these rare partnerships and their powerful outcomes will see a few visionary studios entirely reject the notion of “design as a service.” That model, with its fitful, sporadic, often one-way dialogue and limited periods of engagement, is not an ideal path for developing strong working partnerships. I believe there is opportunity in looking at models from other creative industries such as photography, advertising and illustration, in which retainer-based relationships, equity partnerships or intellectual property preservation are common. These models, with some alteration in their application to design, could be more beneficial to both parties, as well as the work that gets produced.
Finally, many traditional studios are beginning to experiment with entrepreneurial endeavors, using their knowledge of behavior and culture to concept, develop and execute self-authored products and services. Taking ideas from napkin sketch to tangible experience is a process we designers are uniquely suited to. Right now, these activities often takes the form of promotion or creative outlet, but over the next few years—aided by growth in content platforms for digital products, 3-D printing and other democratic manufacturing techniques—I believe design studio entrepreneurship will emerge as a method for diversifying revenue streams, reducing dependence on individual clients in a fickle economy, while simultaneously creating a stronger studio culture.
In the past, it has been the task of the design studio to make risk-averse, rational business thinkers confident in investing the necessary resources to bring our ideas into reality—ideas we have developed through irrational, emotional and intuitive creative processes. The design studio of the near future will also need to be confident enough to invest in some of those ideas for themselves.
This essay is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. The piece was originally published in October 2013 on AIGA.org.