Survive and Thrive - Five Recommendations for Mid-Size Design Firms

Survive and Thrive: Five Recommendations for Mid-Size Design Firms

by Ted Leonhardt

I've been visiting independent design firms and talking with owners and managers for several weeks now. I'm definitely not the first to say it, but it was really brought home to me during these meetings that we're going through the biggest change in human history since the birth of mass agriculture. And it's causing huge changes in the design business just like every other.

During my travels, I met with Alexa, the CEO of a big-city firm with about 100 employees. About a decade ago, they designed a line of products so successful that the firm was featured on magazine covers. Those framed covers hang in the firm's lobby, but at this point, they're gathering at least figurative dust. Past successes can trap you. Clients and potential clients want to know what you can do for them now.

Alexa presents a professional, competent exterior and the firm's offices give a first impression of productivity. We were a few minutes into our meeting about her firm's move from consumer and industrial to digital design, before my ears started to relay more accurate reporting.

"We aim to bake in multiple bespoke design options," Alexa claimed. "We're goaled to be best in breed as we move from bricks to clicks." Okay, it wasn't quite so heavy on the buzzwords, but Alexa's tendency in that direction snagged my attention. In my experience, sentences crammed with jargon are the sign of someone trying to prove mastery when they feel less than masterful.

The office had an open floor plan, and we were seated on sofas near its center. What struck me when I paused to listen was the silence of the place. The most successful firms I know are a pleasant mix of talk, laughter, and engaging interaction. Carola Salvi, PhD, advises my company on the neuroscience of creativity, which she researches at Northwestern University. She points out, "The best recipe for generating creative ideas involves mind-wandering as you engage in trivial tasks. And talking to others helps in overcoming the functional fixedness that keeps people stuck in the same rigid vision of a problem." The creatives in this office were deadly silent in front of their computers.

Alexa finally let her guard down, and let me in on her real worries. "Our concern is keeping a steady flow of work in spite of the boom-and-bust cycle." That's still code, but it was code I could break: Work flow is cash flow, the perennial worry of senior execs the world over.

The Changes

Here are the sea changes specific to design firms:

- The world is changing so fast that past successes are no longer relevant.

- Large corporations are buying up creative agencies of all types. In doing so, they are creating new competitors for independent design firms.

- Big in-house creative groups now rival independents in quality, experience, and skills.

- It's nearly old news at this point, but worth repeating: Digital everything continues to disrupt existing practices. In fact, today's digital developments are rolling over yesterday's.

- The demand for speed and instantaneous results requires new skills, flexibility, and an overlapping of traditional disciplines.

- Success requires deep empathic connections with clients and their customers, yet the demand for instant results sabotages efforts at making meaningful connections.

- Competition has never been more intense and the purchasing pros are working you against your competitors like never before.

And then there's the bottom line: Design firms are cash flow businesses. Talent is the biggest cost, and it should be. But without a steady flow of cash from clients, maintaining a happy, healthy creative culture for that talent is impossible.

These challenges do feel overwhelming, but you can tackle them one step at a time. What you have to commit to is creating new reasons why you and only you can offer the vision for how your clients can succeed in this new chaotic world.

Here are five challenges to help you think forward and propel your firm out of the day-to-day scramble. Pick at least one and learn to use it to help yourself and your clients.

Include everyone

People feel left out. The rise of Donald Trump and interest in Bernie Sanders show that many feel hurt and abandoned. Find ways to include more people in your information-gathering processes. Use the results to create inclusive design solutions in everything you do.

Improve your own design

Ironically, design firm websites are looking more and more alike, commoditizing themselves in the attempt to create usability. All UX sucks on some level, including your own website. Start from this belief and redesign your website accordingly. Discover what clients find interesting and valuable about you. Build your site around that. Then use your site to show off your interface intelligence.

Big data

Learn how to interpret your clients' data troves and predict ways to meet their customers' needs by identifying trends and patterns, and finding relationships. If you can't build an in-house data mining or predictive analytics team, find a compatible firm and partner with them.

Embed your people into your clients' operations

The client relationships that really last have people from both sides sitting in each other's offices every day. They learn from each other, form lasting bonds, and do better work as a result.

Share your insights

Sure, your client work is confidential. But the insights you gain on how we live and work, hope and fear, struggle and survive, can be used in your outbound communications without compromising anyone. Build your insights into stories that we can all learn from and your public will love you in return.

The design firm model we use today was created to sell industrial products to the masses. We've already arrived at a future of one-to-one marketing-check out how Betabrand makes clothes and how Red Clay supports on-demand industrial design. Tomorrow's successful design firms will use creativity to connect us all.

Ted Leonhardt