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The Evolution of Client Services

Recently, ex-New York Times Design Director Khoi Vinh wrote a solid point of view on why he's moved on from client services to designing a product. While I agree on a lot of things he writes about, I think there a shades of gray here that deserve to be pointed out.

by Sami Niemelä Creative Director, Nordkapp

Categories Design Strategy

There is no denying that design industry as a whole is in flux. Partly it’s the nature of the business—an eternal catchup with the most current “revolution”, fads, gadgets, technologies and their uses. In any case, as the internet technologies will get more and more commiditized and platformatized, there will be significantly less money to be made in designing one-offs without a clear strategic intent. And when you take the turbulent economic conditions into account, there are dark clouds in the horizon for any agency or consultancy. Khoi argues this quite well, too:

For most design companies, and for most part of the actual history of the design industry, that unique value has been storytelling. The client makes a product or service and then turns to the studio or agency to help them tell the world about it.[…] Basically, to create anything meaningful in digital media, you need to think in terms of a product, not just a story.

And this is exactly why a lot of players are failing now. Either the stories they tell are irrelevant and shallow, or what’s worse, the products they venture are the same. Converting your marketing campaign to an iPhone app just doesn’t cut it. Times-they-are-a-changing, and building your own product is more tempting than ever.

Looking in from the outside

Khoi: If a company is not able to design, develop and maintain their own products without outside help, then what kind of future does that company have?

Possibly very prosperous, still. The nature of our industry is that at any given time, there are several micro-to-macroscale disruptions in action. Tapping into this most current new is not easy, and requires a lot of ongoing research and synthesis to simply to stay relevant. The point for designers is this: products and services can be very complex systems and there is no reason why a corporation couldn’t outsource a part of this successfully. Architects still design buildings, engineers design complex electronic products. Interaction designers are needed to design products and services for people to use.

What does this have to do with client services then? Absolutely everything— allow me to explain;

Obviously, clients are most often experts in their own businesses. They own it, at least mentally, and understand the ins and out better than anyone fresh from the outside. But sometimes this leads them stuck simply because they see it too close. One answer to this is a model originating from car manufacture called “advanced design“, meaning a subset of design resources that is set aside to work on projects that the core team cannot. The important point to understand here is that the “advanced” can simply mean a fresh outsider point of view, and it can be a consultancy as well. Working this way requires throwing the usual subcontracting model aside, and replacing it with fair amounts of transparency, mutual respect and trust. For the client side, the catch is that in order to make this relationship work, they have to give a partial ownership to the designer. In return their investment will potentially multiply through a committed team of professionals fighting the good fight with them.

Time, trust and commitment

The most critical time for designers to be involved in a digital product is all the time, but it’s perhaps most important for them to stick around after the launch, when they can see how a real user base is using it, and then amend, refine, revise and evolve it. But it’s at just about this time that most studios are preparing invoices and shuffling their staff on to other clients’ projects.

This is very true, but it doesn’t have to be like this. First, this is a question of initially doing less, but better, and to understand the journey is as important as the end result. The final product which the customers will see might be just a fraction of the actual work: the common ground to make it work is built from the day one in the project, even before. And what’s important, it has to be built together. This way clients get more involved, energized and motivated because designers’ input makes their initial vision tangible, and even better. In return, the designers actually get partial ownership of the product and are allowed to pour pieces of their heart into it, without seeing it completely destroyed the moment they let go.

At best, this relationship extends beyond initial projects into a symbiotic co-existance in the form of longer lasting business relationship. This might somewhat resemble the account relationship in marketing communication but it goes deeper than that—to success stories such as Nike and W+K that have worked together for 30 years, IDEO and Steelcase, Yves Behár and Jawbone to mention a few.

However, it would be naive to assume this works for everyone. The designers have to be experienced in their craft, and be able to act as a sponge to significant amounts of knowledge in short time through framing, immersion and curation. There are many, many great designers I know that enjoy drilling deep on a single topic at a time, and spending months, or even years on building their vision into reality. If you feel like doing this, your place may be in at client side, in charge of a company developing single product. However, if you are anything like myself you’ll actually enjoy rapidly changing challenges on wide variety of topics— and this means either finding a company large enough to have and internal advanced design team (Nokia, Microsoft, Intel etc) or jumping ship into the product design consultancy world either as an employee or an entrepreneur. (The last option naturally opens up a whole new can of worms which I am not going to go to here.)

There is a lot of interesting work to be done. Don’t waste your time on selling more sugar to small children. Client services and entrepreneurship will continue coexisting despite landscape and their form is changing. Maybe you’ll be able to do both with the right group of people. Do what’s meaningful to you in the long run, do not be afraid of being an idealist. As Gandhi said, be the change you want to see in the world. Start today.

1 Comments

  1. 18.08.2011 at 12:58
    Pingback: Weeknote 204–205: We are back! | Nordkapp Blog

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