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.
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?