Is The Design Firm an Endangered Species?

Almost all clients claim that they do not follow design consultancies on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This quote jumped out at me as I was reading Jonathan Kirk’s report for the UK’s Design Business Association (DBA) on What Clients Think, a summary of 455 client interviews that Kirk’s survey firm Up To The Light conducted on behalf of UK design firms.

I was surprised by it, then I thought “Of course clients don’t follow design firms on social media – why would they?” I suspected however that many of these clients follow a small number of experts who know a thing or two about marketing or communicating or building whatever it is that they (the client) markets, communicates or builds. I also suspected that some of these experts are trained in design or use design as a tool but do not identify their businesses as “design firms” in the more traditional sense.

I imagined that there is a line among design-based businesses that separates those who see themselves as in the business of design from those who see design as just one of the tools they use, in the service of whatever business they are really in. I wondered if this line was moving, squeezing out the traditional design firm.

Amidst this contemplation, a designer I do not know emailed me the question below, copied verbatim. The question itself isn’t new but his context, also reprinted word for word, explains the state of design firms today. Do you identify with it?

Question: Where should a design shop focus their energies to remain viable and financially stable in the present climate?

Context: It’s not a new problem, but it feels more intense: budgets and clients are dwindling, the value on design and messaging fading, cheap design is a click away, “media” is driving design decisions, and everyone is deemed a designer. Google wants to replace us with artificial intelligence. It is difficult at best to convince clients to pay anything for design. I fear design is going the way of printing, prepress, photography, music, and other pursuits — “disrupted” and devalued.

What follows is my response to this email, against the backdrop of Kirk’s findings that clients do not seem to see enough relevance in design firms to follow them on social media.

You Are In One Of Three Businesses

Designers start design firms because they want to design for a living. Sustained financial success however comes to the design firm owner who is able to let go of the idea that they are in the design business and accept that design is a tool they use to a greater end. That greater end is the real business they are in, not designing. There are three main types of businesses that use design as a tool, therefore three types of businesses that design firms might really be in if they are not in the business of designing.

1. Marketing

The first is marketing. A marketing firm is in the business of helping their clients match their products, services or expertise to a need in the marketplace, at a profit. More simply, marketing firms help their clients sell by creating and sometimes facilitating communications between the client and their customers and prospects. Most design firms are in the marketing business and they should say so. To themselves and to the outside world.

2. Communications

The second business type that leans heavily on design as a tool is a communications firm. Communications firms help their clients to communicate messages to non-customer audiences. Examples of such audiences include employees, shareholders, analysts, legislators or regulators and other special interest groups. Communications firms typically, but not always, specialize in one of these audiences or a small number of closely related ones, such as shareholders and analysts. The expertise these types of businesses possess is usually expert knowledge of the market (their clients’ audiences). “We know how to engage with employees.” Or investors, etc.

3. Product Development

The third type of business a design firm might really be in is product development, where they design the actual product being sold. That product could be a tangible one designed by industrial, interior or landscape designers, or it could be software such as an application or interface designed by an application or UX designer. Service design companies would also fall into this product development category. Product development firms are most able to refer to themselves as design firms without confusing their market, but they too need to see themselves as in this business of making a product.

So, What Business Are You In?

I’ll estimate there’s roughly a 90% likelihood that your design firm is in one of these three businesses, and approximately a 10% likelihood that you are in some sort of blend of two or more of the three. The split might be different than 90/10 but I assert that more than 99% of design firms are in one or more of these three business. The remaining less than one percent I address in the caveat section below.

If you can get your head around this concept of being in one of the above three businesses then you are one step ahead of the forces of disruption and commodification identified by our designer friend in his email to me. I think design is one of those great human skills that becomes exponentially more valuable when you can pair it up with another skill, discipline or tool. (e.g., coding, understanding certain audiences or users, facilitating group consensus, selling, etc.) The combination of no real barriers to entry and a globalized world means there’s just too much supply of inexpensive (and sometimes quite good) raw design for all but the very, very best to make good money from it, unless you view it as a component of what you do and work to add other components. By viewing design as a tool, component or ingredient rather than the thing itself, you make your whole offering not just greater than the sum of those components, but also safer from copycats and the advancing AI/robot hordes.

If you refuse to accept that you are in one of these businesses and are still holding out some design school ideal of selling design or design thinking, I suspect stability, and maybe even survival, will elude you. All while wondering why the only people following you on social media are other designers.

Wait, Did You Just Throw “Design Thinking” Under The Bus?

I’m not saying that design thinking isn’t valid or valuable (I think it’s both). I just think that unless you’re IDEO, putting it forward as the thing you do or the business you’re in is a tough sell, and I’ve known dozens of firms that have tried.

Designing thinking is a model – a way of looking at the client’s world that implies some approaches to problem solving. And while it’s in the public domain, the reality is that IDEO owns it. By that I mean they dominate it. It is effectively theirs. Google “design thinking.” Does your firm come up? Nope. IDEO and the odd nod to top level firms like Frog. That’s about it. If you’re in the design thinking business then you’re in the business of doing IDEO’s marketing for them.

“We’re In All Three Businesses: We’re A Branding Agency”

Because branding firms don’t fit neatly into one of these three categories it doesn’t mean they’re the magical exception that transcends the categories or is a special mix of all three. That’s just delusional. (The “we’re a branding firm” delusion might be the most persistent one across the entire design profession.)

Interbrand is a branding firm, as are Landor and Futurebrand and a few other large, geographically diverse firms that have the chops to a) do the work b) sell it internally across cultures and even languages, and c) roll it out to customer and non-customer audiences. Very large companies that do business in numerous and different markets need a branding firm. The rest use a marketing or communications firm that also does branding, and that’s the worst kept secret of the design profession: everyone “also does branding.” All 46,000 of you. For all but these few large, true branding firms however, putting branding forward as a specialization is like a fish claiming to specialize in swimming.

Caveat: The Rock Star Designer

I accept that some designers are so good they rise above all others, even transcending disciplines, designing websites and magazine covers one week, restaurants and toilet brushes the next. These “rock star” designers are not just very good, they are famous. Highly coveted clients come to them because of their reputation, offering them the juiciest assignments.

I know a small number of designers in this group and another small number that have the talent and personality to possibly get to this level, should they figure out how to cultivate the fame, but these people are the exceptions that prove the rule that design is a tool. This small cadre of elites can be thought of as designers who sell design, and the only boundaries on the application of their designs are the imaginations and risk tolerances of their clients. They are where every designer wants to be, and I do not begrudge anyone for aiming for this elusive goal.

Part of me, however, would like to say, “There comes an age when a designer needs to be realistic…” but that wouldn’t be fair, either. I love people who think big, act bold and inspire us to aim high even against long odds. If you want to continue to try to crack this elite market even into your fifties, I say fill your boots. It’s your business, it’s your dream – don’t let me talk you out of it.

If, however, like the writer of the email above, you lament the state of design or worry about how to carve out a niche and earn a good living from your craft, then go ahead and take your creative inspiration from the rock star designers of this world, but follow my practical business advice: get real about what business you are in, view design as a tool and over time acquire some complementary tools that allow you to become a specialized expert in a niche within marketing, communications or product development.

It’s Just The Label That’s Endangered

In short, I don’t think design-based businesses are endangered. I do think the label “design firm” will continue to become less relevant even as design as a tool becomes more valuable. I think most firms will continue to evolve, to align their offerings more with their clients’ business needs, while viewing design as a valuable tool to help them do what it is they really do. The ones who continue to think of themselves as “design firms” but who never gain entry to the rock star designer club – these are the endangered ones.

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