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Off the Hoof

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Until Gotham No Longer Needs Batman

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Within the context of this piece, interactive design refers to the practice of conceiving of and creating useful, usable objects, services, and systems that people (users) experience through a digital device. Branding and graphic design are typically involved. A designer is a practitioner in this field who may specialize in any of several sub-disciplines.

Whew, I got that out of the way.

Recently, several designers I respect have celebrated their decision to join or start a Product company—a company that makes services or systems on its own behalf rather than for others—in the form of an obituary for Client Services. This declaration has cropped up in personal conversations and public writing. No longer a viable professional path or a model of creating value, the agency is dead. Ownership and the “creator economy” are the future. Excelsior.

As a survivor of the first New Economy (and the subsequent Return of the Old Economy like Jaws on the fourth of July) absolutist pronouncements make me itchy.

Also, such pronouncements are absolutely wrong.


I totally understand the appeal of ownership, especially for skilled, thoughtful designers who have earned their Decade of Service badge. Client services, while incredibly rewarding in many ways, requires accommodating people and practices from other professional cultures. This can lead to painful personal interactions, and a gnawing feeling you are spending more time debating than designing.

As a designer you trade control for variety, opportunity, and adventure. On good days, it’s exciting and stimulating and will push you towards greatness in the service of worthwhile objectives. On bad days, it feels like Dante’s fourth circle of Hell (unceasing fisticuffs while attached to boulders). And on the worst days, you see something you have poured your energy into for months or years corrupted by neglect, ignorance, or competing agendas because you are not the ultimate owner.

So, yes. An experienced designer might very well cry “Enough! I am going to do it my way.” And bully for them. Because of recent developments in technology (availability of low-cost infrastructure) and the economy (availability of early-stage funding), there is a lot of opportunity.

But what is true for individuals is not true for industries. And the opportunity for ownership for some is not the death of services for all.

In terms of a career choice or offering, product vs service is also a false dichotomy. It is frequently more a case of emphasis, emphasis that can shift over time. Many product companies in virtually every industry offer consulting, design, development or support services, and many service agencies make products. Whether the relationship is on-the-side or side-by-side can shift.

The traditional model of design services rests on the notion that a design studio or agency offers a unique value, a set of highly specialized skills and competencies that their clients do not possess and cannot nurture within their own organizations.

Khoi Vinh, The End of Client Services

This is true. It’s still true. It will never not be true.

I would love to be able to snap my fingers and reorient every company on this planet around user-centered design, while simultaneously sowing horn-rimmed glasses to reap an army of designers. Ain’t gonna happen.

Many companies are not solely digital product companies, but need a digital experience as part of their business. Many companies who might benefit from design might have a culture that is antithetical to design work. There are countless reasons why clients doing worthwhile, interesting work don’t have, don’t need, or can’t build in-house the level of design expertise they require, even for their core products:

  • There is no substitute for an outside perspective, when needed.
  • The need for top-flight strategic design may be occasional, while a competent production team serves perfectly well in the interim.
  • The advantage of design to the business outweighs the appeal of the company to designers.
  • Talent is scarce.
  • Internal resources are consumed by core products, when an opportunity to innovate or expand presents itself.

And there are just as many reasons why a designer would want to work in client services:

  • The give and take with great clients pushes designers to perform.
  • It’s possible to have a small-organization lifestyle with large-organization impact. (Sure, start-ups are small…at first, but not after they’ve been acquired.)
  • Solving problems in many contexts is designer cross-training.
  • Constant critique from peers and clients sharpens thinking and skills like nothing else.
  • Completing a project with agreed-upon goals, scope and timeline is very satisfying. And helping people is awesome.
  • External designers are often offered more leverage and leeway than a member of an internal team, as long as they deliver what they promise.

Yes, the work can be difficult to scope and manage, because work of any complexity is a challenge to scope and manage, particularly when you are bringing two different operational processes into sync.

And just because a client hires people from the outside is not a guarantee they’ll meet their goals. The designers might be bad or self-indulgent (watch out for overuse of the word “creative”), or incapable of pushing back. And the idea just might be stupid, so fundamentally flawed or unnecessary, that no designer can save it and they should have told the client that in the first place.

But here we are at the bottom line, which is:

The designer-client relationship remains one of many ways to accomplish great things. And it’s one of which we are quite fond.

About Mule Design Studio

Mule creates delightful interfaces, strong identities, and clear voices for useful systems and nice people.
Also, We are funnier than all other designers.

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