Why We Look Forward To The Death Of Design Agencies

Image via soundsystem3104.com


Part 1: Empathize

Several years ago, when we first started Myplanet, “design thinking” was but a whisper of an idea for most people.

In our own offices, of course, it was an ethos: a way of operating and creating that we understood so wholly, we couldn’t imagine working any other way.

It was what drew some of our earliest hires to us — the opportunity to work in a new way, without the established hierarchies and formal structures they were used to, but instead in a way that drove solutions and empowered real change.

A sad, abandoned design desk agency desk? We may never know. Image via nerdydog.it

And though few of our clients and customers had ever even heard the term, let alone understood what it meant, once they experienced the difference it made, they were on board too.

We’re not strictly a “design” shop now—and we weren’t then, either—but it’s a big part of what we do and design thinking influences so much of what we do it’s inextricably linked to how we identify.

Things have changed considerably since our early days, and in the intervening years design thinking has become more widespread and much better known. But it’s still something of a rogue idea to most businesses outside the tech and digital spheres.

We hope, however, that will change.

Because our stated mission of making everyday experiences better for people is actually in service of a larger, more impactful goal: that one day, design thinking will be as common to businesses as charging customers for goods and services is. We know that when that day comes, everyone really will have improved experiences.

And we’ll be out of work.

“The user centric orientation of design thinking will help to create new products, services and business models, which have more meaning for the consumer and the marketplace” — Christiane Drews, Product Designer, Virgin Atlantic Airways


Part 2: Define

There are many ways to talk about and define design thinking, and the diverse explanations for what it is are partly because of what it is. That sounds circuitous, but bear with us for a moment and it’ll become clear.

Design thinking stresses, by its nature, that there is no one right way, no one perfect fit. Design thinking relies on the untangling of complex ideas and finding the right solution for the problem at hand — not some one-size-fits-all answer.

As a result, design thinking itself is complex and incorporates a number of different ideas and concepts. According to the designers at Stanford University’s d.school, design thinking can be broken to these basic elements:

Empathize — Observe the customer’s needs and motivations.
Define — Define the problem that you want to solve.
Ideate — Come up with a variety of solutions, without judging which are good or bad.
Prototype — Make models of the most promising possibilities.
Test — Test the models.

But that shorthand leaves many design thinking advocates feeling a little cold. (In our own work, for example, that foundational definition has been adapted and tweaked to suit our needs and those of our clients.) So while it offers a clear and specific outline of design thinking, that five-step recipe ultimately feels incomplete.

Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work, describes design thinking this way:

“Design Thinking is a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems, and find desirable solutions for clients. A design mindset is not problem-focused, it’s solution focused and action oriented towards creating a preferred future. Design thinking seeks to build ideas up, unlike critical thinking which breaks them down. Design Thinking draws upon logic, imagination, intuition, and systemic reasoning, to explore possibilities of what could be, and to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user (the customer).”

Harder to pin down in details, but much more inspiring.

Of course, neither of these definitions is full or complete, but the beauty of design thinking is that it allows for flexibility. We can iterate, improve and redefine what it is as the process continues to gain traction and enters the enterprise business world in earnest.


Part 3: Ideate

All businesses are looking for ways to improve — they want to gain efficiencies, grow their offerings and above all, to boost the bottom line. But as the old methods of nudging incrementally towards something better offer diminishing (or no) returns, CEOs are looking to new ideas and processes to help move the needle forward. This is where design thinking comes in.

Though much has been made about the future of the industry and of design thinking within it, most businesses outside the digital services sector are just being introduced to the concept.

Ask not for whom the design agency bell tolls, it tolls for thee… Image via regiocompas.nl

In fact, despite the proven success of tech companies like Apple — who have incorporated design thinking so seamlessly into their work that they are known as much for design as for tech at this point — most enterprise organizations and major corporations have yet to fully embrace design thinking at that level.

There are plenty of places design thinking can (and will) go, so we’ll set aside the hand-wringing for now to focus on the wide-open future at our feet.

We relish the opportunity we have to share design thinking with our clients every day, but our real dream is to see design thinking be a part of the daily operations at every company.

“Design-led companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble and Whirlpool have outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 10 years by an extraordinary 219%” — Linda Naiman

We recognize that’s a lofty and some might say overly-ambitious goal (more’s the better for us, too, or we’d quickly be out of work). But Fortune 500 companies like the ones we work with have an opportunity to make huge strides forward by incorporating design thinking into all aspects of their process.

“From the beginnings of modern business education, managers have been trained to think analytically about their strategy. This dispassionate approach works well in a lot of ways, but ignores one important fact: the biggest gains in value are often not the result of bottom-line management.” — Bennett Voyles


Part 4: Prototype

Forget the anecdotal success of Apple or Nike and the seamless ways they blend cutting-edge technology and high-level design. There are studies. There is support. Design thinking really and truly improves your work, which improves your sales, which improves your bottom line.

And even if you don’t trust the studies, we’ve got Facebook to back us up. Are you going to be the one to tell Facebook they can’t see a game-changing trend coming?

Formerly a digital services company and major player in the consultancy space with international recognition to their name, Teehan + Lax somewhat suddenly shuttered their doors nearly two years ago when their three senior partners left to join Facebook.

Facebook, not for the first nor likely the last time, brought innovative, forward-thinking designers to their team in a major way. But why? Because design thinking and processes matter — especially in the digital world — and even Facebook needs to improve, to grow, and to increase its bottom line.

Facebook identified an area they lacked expertise in, knew it was vital to shore it up for continued success, and recognized bringing those skills into the fold (as opposed to hiring external resources on an ad-hoc basis) would reshape their process and culture in ways that were perhaps more important than any one project could be.

Has this design agency already been abandoned? Or merely acquired? Image via kranjang.com

And they’re not the only ones. In fact, according to a presentation given by John Maeda (former President of the revered Rhode Island School of Design, now a partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) and reported on in Wired Magazine, “Since 2010, 27 companies founded by designers were acquired by bigger companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Adobe, Dropbox, and LinkedIn.”

“Design thinking proponents believe that anyone can be trained to become a creative problem solver.” — Bennett Voyles

That’s a lot of Fortune 500 companies investing in design expertise. But the ones he lists are technology and digital organizations. What about other businesses, with more traditional product offerings? They’re getting on board too, albeit at a much slower rate.

CapitalOne, the financial services company you probably know best for its credit cards, is often noted as a leader in design thinking. Yes, you read that right. A credit card company routinely gets praised for being at the forefront of design thinking.

Credit (pun fully intended), however, goes at least in part to Adaptive Path, the design firm CapitalOne acquired and brought on board in 2014 and to Monsoon, a mobile development shop they acquired in 2015 as part of their ongoing effort to usher in a new era of success.

“Any company that is willing to commit to labor and toil of providing awesome, endearing experiences can do so… you have to invest in experience and design.” — Erik Flowers, Principal Experience Designer, Intuit

CapitalOne identified several years ago that theirs was a business in need of serious, critical, and creative new ways of thinking, and took the leap of faith that a strategy that incorporated design thinking would be the best way to get there.

We believe we’ll see more of this at big companies like CapitalOne. From financial services to consumer goods, design firms being acquired and design thinking established as part of the internal core of the company will be an increasingly common occurrence. And that’s a good thing.


Part 5: Test

So where do we see ourselves in this process? Where does that leave us?

When you devote your work to creating meaningful experiences that improve people’s lives, you know that every day is going to have its challenges. Ups, downs, learning opportunities — it’s exciting to feel the constant thrum of new, exciting, demanding work.

“Design thinking is particularly useful for resolving extremely complex issues” — Bennett Voyles

We love sharing that knowledge and experience with our partners. Bringing innovative approaches and upending staid systems in favour of more streamlined, design-focused processes to major organizations is one of the things we really, truly love about what we do. For us, it’s not just creating a great thing, but finding a way to bring the concept of making things better to an organization that’s thrilling.

On good days, we feel a sense of pure and utter almost parental pride as we see someone start to get it, start to see the value of design thinking and its inclusion in the process from the beginning.

There are still the bad days, when we find ourselves explaining over and over how this way of working positively impacts the bigger picture, but they’re fewer and farther between now than they were when we started.

In the end, the parental comparison is apt: we’re trying to pass on enough wisdom, impart enough knowledge, and share enough learning that we’re not necessary anymore.

In kind of a grim, backwards way, we’re planning our own obsolescence. It’s still a long way off, but we look forward to helping our clients get there.


Think we’re crazy for working towards our own demise? Can’t believe we’d celebrate it? Love everything we’re aiming towards? Let us know in the comments and share the article!

Written by

Leigh Bryant

Leigh Bryant

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