Shopping for Innovation: What you need to know before hiring a design firm

This guide was written for Core77 in late 2006, co-authored with Steve Portigal. I was looking for it today, as I wanted to share the distinction between a Vendor of innovation and design services and a Partner who goes beyond the requested task to discern and perceive the real challenge to be solved. I couldn’t find it online, Core77 having redesigned their site from the ground up, so I’ve reposted it here from the Wayback Machine.

Getting Started
You’ve read all the articles and can’t possibly stomach one more column on the iPod. It’s clear that design+innovation is the hot topic for business—with businesspeople taking more active notice of the design scene, and designers focusing more on strategy. (It’s not like business and design were so far apart to begin with, of course.) But what about those new to the conversation? If everyone is telling you that design is the differentiator, how do you get started? What are the considerations when bringing on strategic design services?

There are many things you need to consider before hiring a design firm, but we’re going to start with three: The Problem (defining your needs), the People (who the players are), and the Partnership (the nature of the engagement). Design firms are businesses, but with unique perspectives and unique work processes. Understanding a bit of the industry culture will go a long way in helping you to establish a successful engagement.

The Problem: Defining your goals
As with any initiative, you first need to define your problem and your goals. Having these goals well-articulated and written down on paper as a starting point for the discussion is crucial. You may find that your reasons for bringing in design services differ from others in your organization, so you need to get your story straight before you begin talking to creatives. You should also understand that that story is likely to be pushed and pulled.

Design can be brought in as a service, but it’s important to remember that it’s a creative service. Designers are smart and talented people who typically do “think out of the box” (a phrase more derided inside the design community than outside, yet still requested in more initial meetings than you can imagine). So although your desired outcome may be very specific, the designer’s process to delivering your outcome will inevitably involve challenging its very foundations. Here’s an illustration:

Q: How many designers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Does it have to be a light bulb?

In real terms, this can be the difference between asking a designer to create a new vase, versus asking for a new way to display flowers in the home. The first problem statement already converges on a solution—perhaps prematurely. The second opens up new design opportunities, new target markets, and ultimately potential new revenue streams.

So though you’ll want to define your problem as clearly as possible to begin with, you should also be willing to engage in discussions with designers in order to craft a more open-ended, innovative, and ultimately actionable problem statement. This is the way designers think, but being prepared for this potential frame shift can be a tremendous challenge. You are likely to learn things that you didn’t want to know, that you aren’t even prepared to know, and that challenge your closely-held beliefs. (On the flip side, you should be aware that designers have a healthy skepticism about just how much “paradigm-busting innovation” a given company is prepared to make. The design consulting bar-tale of the client who proclaims, “I want something completely innovative, but I want to keep making my stuff exactly the same way I do now” is legendary, but it’s also true.)

Nevertheless, it is often difficult for clients to think like the designers they hire, and to not see them as threats. This is something you need to consider when you’re bringing in a design consultant: you’re hiring someone to tell you something you don’t know; to provide you with something that you don’t have. But will you be ready to take their advice?

Dave Pollard, a Toronto-based innovation and knowledge management consultant, recently posted a quick-and-dirty piece entitled, Why is Innovation So Hard to Sell, outlining four reasons companies are resistant to change. He states, “There’s great skepticism that innovation consulting is a real discipline. An innovation ‘facilitator’ may be acceptable, to provide some structure and process to the company’s efforts to solve its own problems, but what outsider would be arrogant enough to presume they could tell a company how to transform itself into something very new and different? It’s like bringing in someone to teach your kids about sex or to advise you how to get your personal financial affairs in order eminently logical, but embarrassing to admit you need outside advice to do these things well.”

Once you’ve come to grips on the power and limitations of defining your problem statement, you’ll need to understand who provides design services, and how they function?

The People: Understanding the archetypes
Relationships that companies have with design consultants break down into 3 key archetypes. (Of course, let’s acknowledge right up front that the relationships between groups of people are naturally diverse and varied, and that any real-world example will stray from these archetypes in some manner.) Let’s call them “BigBox” design firms, “Boutique” design firms, and “DreamTeam” design firms.

Archetype 1: The BigBox Design Firm
The firms represented by this archetype are large—say 50+ people—and are well-staffed in a broad range of services. They may have armies of model-makers or production people, or they may have specialists that you wouldn’t expect (cognitive psychologists, for example). They attract strong talent, and often have detailed, rigorous work processes, since the logistics of operating a large business who’s métier is creative can be challenging. As larger firms themselves, they “tend be more familiar with the operating practices of large businesses,” suggests Ken Douros, director of the User Experience Lab at Motorola, “including the occasional mid-course corrections that go along with that, and tend to be both more flexible and more accommodating.”

If you’re looking for a firm to provide design services on a global level, a large consultancy may have some obvious advantages. And while it’s not a given that large companies prefer working with equally large multidisciplinary design firms (and will often select a small firm based on the specifics of the project at hand), large firms often have the experience, expertise and ability to manage and work with the sometimes bureaucratic and rigid requirements of corporate behemoths, establishing credibility in executing across multiple platforms and geographical locations. Shane Brentham, Senior Director of Brand Services at Autodesk, comments, “I’ve seen that smaller firms can struggle when working with a global company like ours. They also have less experience in dealing with the issues of a large multinational organization such as formal design reviews and how to gain consensus from all the different departments and constituents involved in the branding decision.”

These businesses can also offer their clients a broad range of services, but be careful of the temptations. Cautions Douros: “Here, the advantage is that it’s one firm being hired (as far as an internal sourcing department is concerned), and it does establish a prior work history, even if the projects are wildly different. But surprisingly, the benefits largely stop there; I’m not sure that it always achieves the cross-disciplinary synergies intended by that massing of talent, since the different groups within the agency are often better able to coordinate efforts than the different departments within the larger company.” But even if most clients don’t typically engage in projects that require multiple services from their design firm, they may still feel a vicarious comfort in the potential to pull in those different disciplines should the need arise.

Archetype 2: The Boutique Design Firm
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Boutique design firm, a smaller, often-nimble group—say 10 people—who are accustomed to highly creative, demanding assignments, and thrive on a compact organizational structure. (Many of the designers at these firms are attracted there in the first place because of the promise of leading-edge creative work.)

Denise Lee Yohn, previously VP of Brand and Strategy for Sony Electronics and now running an independent marketing practice, reflects that “the smaller shops I’ve worked with tend to bring expertise instead of process, ways of thinking instead of methodologies.” Brentham adds that “the smaller firms are often more willing to push the envelope a little creatively.”

Boutique design firms can often possess specialized skills (such as user research, or ergonomics), or they may have a lot of experience in a particular product/service category (medical device design, for example, or user-interface design). (This second point can be comforting, or even irresistible: Clients often want to find firms large or small that have done similar work to what they are looking for, but designers are often frustrated by this request because they see each problem as unique, and see their own skills as more generalizable.)

Beware that many small firms market themselves as full-service, however, and you need to be diligent is accessing their real competencies. “A jack of-all-trades is someone that does 3D, graphic, brand ID, and in-store design and architecture,” comments Steve Davis ( not his real name), a design manager of a large consumer products company. “I actually get a little annoyed when someone starts out a conversation that way. I used to hear them out. The people I’ve seen who can do that are the really seasoned firms; those that have the range and quality of people that can do it, the Landor- and IDEO-sized firms.”

But the corollary holds true as well, as Brentham observes: “When it comes to services like user research, I prefer to rely on a specific person’s expertise. Many design firms offer research as part of their service offering, for example, but I tend to shy away from that. I believe that specialist firms in user research, for example, bring more credibility to the table—as that’s their chief focus—unlike many design firms where the research aspect is one part of the design service, and design is their chief focus.”

There may be other advantages to working with a smaller firm: A more intimate connection with the designer, less insulation by account managers from the “talent,” a personal connection and consistent hand-holding—designers who pick up their own phone. These are the kinds of things that can make working with a small design firm more personal and satisfying. Boutique firms can be faster with change orders, and turn on a dime (though they may not want to); redirecting a BigBox may require communicating your wishes—through an account manager—to many layers of participants.

Archetype 3: DreamTeam
Not quite a hybrid, but pulling in some of the best of both worlds, is the DreamTeam, or Hollywood Model. This is where a team of specialists—often including employees of the hiring firm, the design firm, or experienced outside freelancers—are put together to take on a specific project. Collectively, they possess the expertise appropriate to the design challenge, and are handpicked in a very calculated way. The idea here is that you assemble the best on a project-specific basis, and when the project’s done, they’re done (with the implication that you may reassemble the team together on another project if the results were successful). This approach (not for beginners!) is very targeted, and recognizes that as design moves up the value chain and integrates more and more with corporate strategy at the core level, it becomes a specialty, not a commodity. And as product and service offerings become more complex, you may find that the best route to innovation is a customized route. Specialty areas can include research, new product definition, innovation planning or the application of design thinking to business processes.

Davis has had great success with this method, thinking of the design concern as “design groups” as opposed to “design firms”: “I will find an individual designer who has expertise, and say ‘I’ve got this work, you’re an expert, how much would it cost for you to assemble a team and get you into our offices?’ It’ll be one invoice to the main contact. This approach is extremely non-traditional, but I feel confident in it.”

Indeed, you may be working with a DreamTeam without even knowing it: Often a design firm will have freelancers (or outside expert consultants) on staff, attending pitch meetings and concept presentations as if they were full-time staff. This isn’t necessarily disingenuous, however, and may benefit you and your project substantially, in that these ringers are there for a reason: they’re good.

Also, (and particularly with larger design consultancies), don’t assume that the people who are pitching you are the ones who will be working on your project—the dreaded “A-team/B-team” scenario. Brentham has some good advice here: “Ask to see the individual portfolios of the design team assigned to your project, as the portfolio you may be shown could be of past work by other teams, or of the firm as a whole not the specific designer or team on your project.”

The Partnership: Anticipating the relationship
Are you looking for a “partner” or a “vendor”? This is a critical question to ask yourself before you begin searching out particular design firms, but its answer is something that may change once you start meeting some.

Here’s a useful way of defining the two kinds of relationships: A partner is a firm to collaborate on jointly developing a new product or service offering. It’s a relationship that places as much focus on the means as the ends; on the process as the product. The ultimate deliverables may be fuzzier in this kind of relationship, but through a rigorous review process, both parties work toward agreed-upon goals.

A vendor, on the other hand, can be thought of as a firm you hire when you have a specific product to be designed with predefined criteria. You’ve done your homework; you understand your market. You need good thinking, but you also need a pair of hands to actualize your wishes. Vendors don’t challenge your business proposition; they fulfill it.

An aside here: Be aware that many design firms label their core services as “product development,” which seems to want it both ways. David Miller, Director of Brand Strategy at Phinney/Bischoff Design House, writing last year in Communication Arts Annual, states that “with the further Wal-Mart-ing of business, [there is] pressure on designers to either be cheaper and faster—or to be exceptional. In a figurative way, the market is asking providers in the creative services sector to decide whether they are ‘Architects’ or ‘Bricklayers.'” But from the designer’s perspective, it’s not so clean: “When presented with these paradigms, designers have said ‘We’ve always been strategic,’ and ‘We’ve always had tight schedules and lean budgets,’ but clearly the markets are demanding more. And while the initial reaction is to claim the high ground—’Well, we’re certainly not bricklayers’—ultimately this designation rests with the perceptions of clients. And they will choose partners and pay accordingly.”

Another consideration: What are you intending to build with your design service provider, and where are you in the product development cycle? Sometimes a design firm is brought in to fix a problem; other times a design firm is brought in to provide strategic design services and to really take a look at what the company is about, where their legacy is, and to help shape their aspirations for the future. Are you looking for this kind of long-term, strategic partnership, or are you looking for someone to build a working prototype and bill you for it?

In the end, of course, finding and cultivating a successful working relationship with a design firm is an emotional process—you’re looking for chemistry. It is a very competitive field, filled with many highly competent, qualified companies. The best thing to do is to go out and meet all kinds of shapes and sizes; only then will you have a better idea of how you feel around these people and their organizations, and what kind of designers you’d like to work with. (They’ll also give you a ton of free advice when you’re talking to them about a potential project—they can’t help it, and it’s good strategy for them to hook you with.) Do your homework, make a short list of companies, and then meet them. If you’re shopping for innovation, be a smart shopper. As famed discount clothier Sy Syms says, “An educated consumer is my best customer.”

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