I have a guilty pleasure. I am addicted to the year-end lists: the round-ups, the best ofs, the tops, the bottoms. The decade turn has been especially delicious, though the debate over what to call the first part of the twenty-first century is endlessly grating–who thinks the riff on the aughts as “the naughties” is actually funny?
But those lists do have value. They prompt us to reflect on progress (or lack thereof), and shifts in thinking (our own and in our culture). This year, as I started my own practice, I began to think through what the right formula might be for a new type of creative organization. What kind of structure could best cultivate the type of design and critical thinking skills that we need for the complex issues we face now? An MBA student interested in creative strategy and social impact recently asked me to recommend a standout firm in that area, and I honestly couldn’t do it. Yes, I rattled off the usual suspects, but her guilelessness made me stop in my tracks. Stop marketing, I told myself, and start thinking.
There isn’t one firm which is good at everything, and despite our great sophistication in branding, we use a startlingly slim vocabulary to describe our services: design, innovation, strategy, consulting, and often incomprehensively esoteric terminology to describe our organizational make-up and processes. (I’ve known some firms to spend half a pitch describing their internal structure. Here’s a short cut: “we collaborate.”)
It’s certainly easy to observe that over the last ten years, many firms have grown to unwieldy sizes. Studios now have small armies of business development people working around the clock to bring in new work to support large operational budgets. And it’s recursive: the more work we do, the greater need for growth, the more we grow, the more work we need. The collateral damage of this cycle is lawyer-like bill rates of leadership. This means that teams of freshly minted undergrads get less time with senior talent and their projects are often unchaperoned–which can be a good thing, but not when dealing with experienced clients. We also tend to take on project work that may more closely match how we describe what we do, rather than what we actually can do. Again, this may push us, but likely not in the right direction when dealing with experienced clients.
Size can provide terrific scale and reach. But how many projects actually take advantage of the geographical spread and sheer numbers of bodies? A typical design team model, for example, has three core members working in a semi-permeable shell, with advisors and specialist moving in and out at different stages. Teams expand and shrink. Whether your studio is 30 people or 300, the team makeup is fairly consistent, but the fee is drastically different: a few zeros separates working on a new startup concept and an internal corporate initiative.
An analog to the infamous “too-big-to-fail” moniker of corporate America might be that some industries are “too-big-to-change.” One case-in-point from the design industry: I attended the Aspen Design Summit in November, and representatives from various foundations described their greatest problem in working with consultancies: 1) cost, 2) lack of racial diversity, and 3) the parachuting in of designers to various developing countries to do field work, followed by the quick exit. Even the scheme of the endearingly cranky Larry Keeley to get design firms to do foundation work at lowered rates misses the point that the time-and-material, “coin-operated” firms are simply not structured to do this work successfully.
I don’t have an answer for what the ideal formula is yet, but I was recently inspired by a short piece in Harvard Business Review that explored why corporate innovation projects, and those who lead them, often have a challenge in succeeding. Authors O’Connor, Corbett, and Pierantozzi outlined three phases of innovation: Discovery (coming up with fresh ideas), Incubation (shaping those ideas to make them viable), and Acceleration (growing and maintaining a real business). The rub is that each stage of idea development requires a very different skill set. Graduating leaders through these phases actually sets them up for failure. They suggest that instead, people with skills compatible to the very specific challenge at hand should lead the effort at that particular juncture.
There is a lesson here. In my experience, as a professional and through my work in the Designers Accord, I have never seen a firm strong in all of these phases. The firms I’ve seen do the best–and the best work–know in which part of the triptych they reside. Perhaps the difficulty our industry faces in taking on more complex challenges may not be mishandled growth or the time-and-material mentality, it might just be a general lack of self-awareness.
We all know the phrase: You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Firms who want to create impact can do anything through the combination of a strong sense of self and a diverse set of partners. We rely on the network, now we have to start behaving like one. Firms that learn to articulate their real value, and share that with clients and partners alike will be the next leaders.
If the last ten years in design was marked by autonomy, the next ten years will be about interdependence.
Valerie Casey is a globally
recognized designer and innovator. She works with start-ups,
governments, and companies all over the world on challenges ranging
from creating new products and services, to transforming organizational
processes and behaviors. Valerie is the founder of the Designers
Accord, the global coalition of designers, educators, and business
leaders working together to create positive environmental and social
impact. Valerie’s work has been highlighted in multiple publications,
and she has been named a “Guru” of the year by Fortune, a “Hero of the Environment” by Time, and a “Master of Design” by Fast Company.
Valerie lectures on design throughout the international community, and
is an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts. She holds a
master’s degree in cultural theory and design from Yale University and
a BA from Swarthmore College