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Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of our industry. Some of today’s firms seem a shadow of their former selves, having forgotten, or at least abandoned, the creation of emotionally impactful design.

I wonder, what exactly has happened to the design consulting profession?

Have we have become so enamored with ‘design thinking’ that we have lost sight of our profession’s original essence – ‘design feeling’?  It was Raymond Loewy, the so called “Father of Industrial Design’ who said “It all must start with an inspired, spontaneous idea.” Show me a leading design firm today that has the courage to say such a thing. Again this was Raymond Loewy speaking, the man who, along with Walter Dorwin Teague, reshaped the mass-produced world. Please note the emphasis here; mass produced, these men were commercial behemoths, not ‘one off’ vase designing creatives, but hugely influential designers that shaped American business and American culture.

Which lead me to speculate that the design firm of the future will in fact look like the design firm of the past. Let me explain.

Over the past decade the industry has undergone significant changes – largely very positive as we’ve moved to become more strategic, adopting new practices and processes to satisfy a more demanding and informed business and consumer culture, but recently it seems that in this quest to become “strategic” we have in fact become overly rational, and in some instances have altogether forgotten our emotional roots, aspiring more to McKinsey than to Mackintosh.

Design pioneers relied on an unwavering passion for their craft and unprecedented visionary thinking. They used these skills – the skills of the designer – to create business success for their clients. In the recent past many consultant firms have forsaken the creation of emotionally impactful design in favor of ‘process consulting’; akin to services we’d more likely expect from business consulting firms.

So what caused this transformation, and perhaps more important, what’s next for design?

The shift could easily be a result of firms deliberately turning away from design, potentially due to the current backlash against designers. It’s not rare that we’re accused as perpetrators of ‘fluff’ or more worrisome, creators of ‘landfill’. Add to that the occasional inflated ego and a homogenous fashion sense and we become an easy target to dislike.

It’s also very possible that the ‘Red Threat’ has contributed to the change. With the decreased value of design caused by Asian contract manufacturers essentially giving design away for ‘free’, and thus creating a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality that has resulted in design firms being forced into an upward curve that naturally leads them toward business strategy.

Or maybe consulting firms are simply ‘chasing the ball’. In an industry now dominated by the ‘Innovation’ word, and process oriented ‘design’ consulting, it is indeed hard for a design firm to select a positioning that doesn’t follow this trend. For example, in a recent article published by the UK’s Design Council it was revealed that 2,050 recently published books incorporated the “I’ word. Incorporating ‘Innovation’ into design consulting practices seems to have been lucrative for many design firms, but has also resulted in them shifting to a clear left-brained positioning. Innovation has consumed design.

Without doubt, all of these hypotheses have degrees of truth. But again, it’s what’s next that’s important. So could the future of design lie in the success of our past?

Ironically it could very well be this change that inspires a return to industry roots. Rather than abandoning our founding principles and cultural and emotional approaches for more rational, pseudo scientific ones – we could use our new strategic partnership with business as a vantage point from which to steer the course of design. Rather than compromising our creative soul, we can leverage our understanding and knowledge to appeal to business in a different way.

I feel the next movement in design requires a new form of leadership, one that guides business practice and captures consumer’s imaginations without sacrificing design as the core asset.

I’d like to see this type of leadership in the form of a high impact design firm that is soulful and emotional. A design firm that is creative. A design firm that has a well articulated point of view which they craft through cultural insights, empathy for people, clarity of purpose and sheer inspiration. A design firm that is business friendly, but not business emulating.

The design firm of the future, in that sense, will look like the design firm of the past. Now more than ever, businesses need design, real design.

We need to stop being embarrassed about being designers and embrace the power of creativity. As designers we need to set the agenda based on what we do best – use our intuition, empathetic skills, and clear vision to create powerful business success stories. We need to stop trying to emulate business people. Lets leave McKinsey to consult on business and process improvements, they do it better than we can, but we know (as indeed do they) that they can’t be successful without us. Our place is to create mass produced products that move people.

I’ll leave the final word to Raymond, “It’s a simple exercise; a little logic, a little taste, and the will to cooperate.”

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Discussion (6) Comment

  1. jayVisitor

    Even though I completely agree many businesses tend to be more attracted by any form of consulting that they can relate to. Design still has this creative and unstructured image for a lot of smaller or medium sized companies.

  2. JamesVisitor

    Industrial Design is becoming a fragmented profession – a good sign of growth. Just like accountants become specialized – so do Industrial Designers. Think – Shoes – specialized, Medical specialized – Automobiles – for years has been specialized.

    If you want to see the real value creators in design – look at the designers that are creating their own products and forming companies around them – This is design’s highest value future. The fashion industry figured this out decades ago. It just requires more risk and more organization.

    The move to business consulting is just a reaction to a reduction in normal product development business at consulting firms that occurred in 2002- It happened to correlate with a long term change in views by businesses that realized design is not an option – it is a necessity. Smart capable firms responded rationally.

    Innovation is not design – it may be part of it, but it applies to everything and is by no means the exclusive domain of ID.

    Lastly – we spent from the 1930’s to 2000 trying to convince people that design counts – they are convinced. The public gets it, business gets it. Now everyone wants to be part of it – what did we expect?

  3. jaywVisitor

    I think strategy-driven development will bend the odds of success in your favor if you all you want is a single or a double. In other words, it will tend to get a steady stream of relatively safe, incremental products. Nothing wrong with that in today’s high mortality marketplace.

    My sense is, however, that most home runs come from an inspired “gut” as Bob Lutz discusses in his book about his experience at Chrysler. I really doubt that the original iPod could have survived any kind of process-driven analysis. In fact, even the press laughed when Steve Jobs introduced a “$400” MP3 player.

  4. Sheldon PayneVisitor

    Couldn’t agree more. Without inspiration, there can be no “want factor.” Surely there needs to be an overall design strategy, but often it, like “unique selling points,” gets expressed in business jargon, usually comprised of empty platitudes no one can argue with. When that happens, nothing happens, and another ho-hum product litters the marketplace, not to mention the environment.

  5. clockartVisitor

    amen brutha!

  6. Abhinav DapkeVisitor

    Industrial design, broadening its scope from products to experience to strategy….. & might go on further. The reflection of which is evident in consultancy firms.

    I believe ‘Red Threat’ from others is a mere entry strategy from young designers for portfolio & relationship. These services whether they are free or value added will not sustain if they are not the best.

    The future of Industrial design consultancy domains will have overlaps over McKinsey’s scope & establishing connection with industrial design roots.


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