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Designing from the Middle

What's happening to design firms?

The common bell curve is a helpful model to visualize a distribution of some metric, highlighting the popular middle compared with extremes.

Designers like using bell curves to help illustrate points for clients, but they also can tell us something about ourselves. As our profession has gone from being a discipline to a more formalized professional practice, a popular middle has emerged. As design has matured, the profession has shifted from focusing exclusively on craft toward a greater focus on user and societal needs. Design firms from the 1970s to the 1990s had a relatively clear sense of purpose and congruence based on the trajectory of modernism and designing for the industrial era. The extremes might have been marked by firms that specialized in production or strategy, but most design firms did some of each.


The 2000s and beyond, however, are shaping up to be different. Just as photography changed portrait painting, communication and production technologies have forever changed the design landscape. Thanks to PowerPoint, blog platforms, and 3D printers, many design skills have become democratized, commoditized, and (eventually) devalued by design buyers. As a result, clients expect to get more and/or pay less.

It's hard to know what the impact will be over the long term, but for years we have speculated that there will be a migration from the middle to the extremes. In a recent APDF Exchange, industry consultant David Baker echoed the same trend.

Template-based and distributed labor production shops will become more available with attractive pricing models. Consider the crowdsourcing movement, where clients can pay a fraction for what used to be the key projects for design firms.

Other leaders in the production area will revert back to craft, focusing on lower volume hand work, unique styles, illustration, and careful typography. Individuals can thrive here if their styles are sought by clients. These services may look more like illustration or photography, where the work products are components of an overall design rather than ownership of the whole process.


On the other extreme, design strategy firms may begin to look like management consulting firms. Early leaders on this end are Doblin and now IDEO and others. Today, Doblin is part of a larger consulting firm and no longer resembles a design firm, and IDEO is famously populated by as many d.school MBA graduates as traditional designers.

There will be fewer survivors in this "design thinking" space, for a variety of reasons. First, there is a lack of design industry agreement as to what "design thinking" really is and doubts about its efficacy and staying power. Second, consulting firms that don't have a traditional design background are aggressively moving into this space, creating competition for design strategy firms. Third, as IDEO founder and director of the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Bill Moggridge plainly told us: It's hard.

There is room for innovation on either side of the spectrum. The first step for many firms may be to choose where they want to play. The bottom may have fallen out of the middle, or, to put it another way, it may be harder to be a design generalist. This is a hard pill for many designers to swallow, given our ADD creative nature and world-changing aspirations. Great designers will always rise to the surface, but I expect many designers will explore new dimensions and migrate away from the middle.

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