The End of Client Services

Last week, I marked a year since my departure from The New York Times by starting to talk a little bit about what I’ve been doing (see this blog post). Today, I’m going to talk a bit about why I decided to jump into a startup, one in which we’re building a product of our own, rather than starting another design consulting business.

Some longtime readers will remember that about ten years ago I co-founded a design studio of my own. In fact, until I went ‘in-house’ at the Times, I had spent the entirety of my career in the design services industry, working with all sorts of clients doing all sorts of projects, and generally enjoying the variety of challenges and the exposure to many different kinds of businesses. But in the long stretch of months leading up to the day I resigned my position at the Times, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t return to that kind of work.

There were lots of reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that I think the design industry has undergone a significant and meaningful change, one that opens up opportunities that are not to be missed.



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.

For most design companies, and for most of the 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. Look at the portfolios of most design companies and you’ll see that they’re full of works that are essentially marketing narratives — graphic solutions intended to communicate a story about a client’s product to the world.

Digital media requires something different, though. It’s not sufficient to just publish a narrative to the Internet. You have to build an experience around it, a system that lets the user experience the narrative but also one that responds to his or her inputs and contributions. Basically, to create anything meaningful in digital media, you need to think in terms of a product, not just a story.


However, it’s very hard for a design studio to create digital products on a contract basis because the messy timelines and continual course corrections that are required to launch a truly effective software product are anathema to the way clients like to be billed. No matter what a design studio promises, it’s very likely that in its first iteration a digital product will take longer to complete, will cost more, and will be less effective than originally promised. 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.

I had this experience when I was doing services work, and I knew so many other people who did as well. The familiar refrain was, “We designed a great first pass, but our contract ended and we weren’t able to stick with the product. Now the client has gone off and made so many changes without us.”

What’s more, it’s not as if the services model works so well for clients anymore, either. It’s one thing to manufacture a widget and turn to a design studio to create a logo, a package, a brochure for it — to basically tell its story. But more and more, every business is becoming a digital business, is responsible for digital products. 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?


Basically, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to design great user experiences then that old model of being a design contractor or a studio or an agency would not work. Instead, it’s necessary to be a part of the company that owns the product, to be in a position where I can continually work on and improve the product without the artificial constraints of a services contract.

Had I reached this conclusion a decade or so ago, the obvious next step would have been to join another company, but the Internet has changed so much since then. Today, the cost of starting a new digital business has plummeted, and the support infrastructure for first time entrepreneurs has become incredibly robust. There is no shortage of advice and experience freely available for people, like me, who are jumping into the entrepreneurial pool for the first time. Why join a company when you can be the company?


More than that, though, the fabric of opportunity has changed, too. A few months ago I wrote about what Paul Saffo calls the creator economy. He describes it as a new economic paradigm in which the act of producing and consuming are one and the same, and he believes it’s upon us right now. I subscribe to this theory, and I believe its most fascinating expression takes the form of social software, in which there is no consumption unless its users produce, and there is no production unless its users consume. The secret sauce that starts this virtuous cycle is not just technology, but also user experience design.

We use the term ‘startup’ and ‘tech startup’ interchangeably, but the latter is becoming less and less fully accurate over time. Many recent startups are powered by design as much as technology, because the technology has matured so greatly that the difference-maker is design. Design is playing a key part in the success of Tumblr, Instagram, Flipboard, Groupon, Kickstarter and many, many others. These are the great new design companies, not the studios and agencies you read about in the design press.

There is so much that remains to be resolved in the digital landscape, and so much of it will depend on great design. In my view, the very existence of this opportunity alone has changed the design industry, because it presents an amazing alternative to the client services model, and will hopefully unleash a torrent of creative energy and invention that clients never would have brooked. When I realized this, I decided that I had to take part in it.

Addendum

While I was drafting this post, two highly related blog posts from authors I greatly respect popped up on my radar.

The first was “Will Ford Learn That Software Isn’t Manufactured?” by Alan Cooper. As the founder of a premier user experience design consultancy, Cooper might disagree with me on the viability of the design services model. But I found myself fully agreeing with him when he says, “Automobile manufacturing companies like Ford need to acknowledge that they are no longer making automobiles with attached computer systems. In reality, they are making computer control systems with attached motion mechanisms.” This is a sterling example of my contention that, more and more, all businesses are becoming digital businesses.

Second, there is this article from Ben Pierrat of Svpply, titled “Dear Graphic and Web Designers…” It᾿s a much more succinct version of some of my thoughts here on why the most interesting opportunities for designers are not necessarily with clients.

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32 Comments

  1. Great insights. I’m excited to hear what the startup might be. My shop has the same issues in helping clients create web & mobile apps. If the client does not intend a long-term “design” relationship, there’s a good chance we can help them quite a bit less.

  2. excited to see what you are working on. Too many “startups” are working on the “problem” de jour while not really looking at the hard problems we face as society or a planet which technology may be making solveable.

  3. Very interesting to read your thoughts on this… and yes I agree there is a whole new world opening up for designers in the digital realm. Of course this should not discourage those who are not ‘all about the digital’ but nonetheless very talented designers at created amazing designs in the ‘physical’ realm. There is a place for them too… it’s not me, but they exist .. and as hordes of new designers graduate (and have just graduated) they shouldn’t be discouraged from following the ‘traditional’ path.. It still exists and there is money to be made, success to be had and fulfilment to be experienced.

    If every ‘new’ designer followed this same route there would be no one left to design for those companies that aren’t design based digital startups.

    I look forward to hearing your experiences and to experiencing your product… and thanks for a great bog.

  4. Thank you for putting into words something I’ve been thinking and feeling ever since I left the agency world a few years back. I’m still searching for the right idea(s) to start my own thing with, but being intimately involved with several startup projects/products over the last few years I can attest to the truth here.

  5. Interesting! We decided a year ago to make some of our own products too. We don’t do digital to the extent that you do (though it’s the larger percentage of what we do), and we missed doing more print. So we created a line of ecofriendly baby books (Squishy Press). So far it’s been a challenge going from the service model to the retail one, and we’re still learning, but it’s really fulfilling to create your own product from start to finish and also get it out in the market. I would love nothing more than if we could get the retail side of the business to take over the service side (as Jim Coudal at Coudal.com has been able to do). But as non-techies with little start-up cash, unlike the Groupons of the world, it’s an uphill battle right now but we think more fulfilling in the end.

  6. I’ve been walking in limbo between client services and product creation for about two years. As a self-employer this is spot-on, and a blueprint for entrepreneurial thinking for designers.

    I still wince that design education is hoisting the wrong flag. The recent graduates I know would rather work for PrestigiousStudioA on campaigns for Nike than start a company.

    Startups are “the great new design companies, not the studios and agencies you read about in the design press.” I couldn’t agree more.

  7. Good summary and exactly the process I went through five years ago. Doing client work gave me the variety but I was missing the satisfaction of growing something. I really wanted to look back a year or two years later and be proud of something I helped to build.

    Joining a company and building its products held another fear: that without the variety, I would get frustrated coming in every day and working on the same thing.

    Although I didn’t start my own company, I can honestly say that being part of the build has been so much more rewarding. I won’t go back to client work full time again.

  8. I think you make a great case, not necessarily for the end of design services, but for seeing both design services and “in house” design as options for individual designers who want different things from their work (and exploring these as options for designers and producers is really a new, exciting thing).

    It’d be sweet if every organization, everywhere could have a designer on staff, as a founder, and/or had the perspective to step outside themselves to ask important questions that go unasked when you’ve been stewing in things for a while, but even if there were more flexibility in resources and growth in perspective of individuals, there would still be a use for design as a service. The ability to see and apply models of thinking and behavior to groups can diminish if you stop seeing them as one model or one option and start trying to become them. That is not to say you have to surrender your process or your perspective upon working on a product, but outsiders can provide a great perspective on what is and isn’t relevant to outsiders.

    In the same way that I think people should learn the skills of visual storytelling and try their hand at making videos and films for their projects or campaigns, there are lessons and expertise that people from the outside can bring in and prime people with. As I’m writing from the city by the bay where e’ryone has dabbled “a bit” in e’rything, I believe strongly that there should be a respected place for outside expertise, experience, and at the very least lessons from past mistakes to come into groups and companies and help them along in their mission.

  9. Deep insights and so well put. Already, I can start to see this wave of great user experience products designed by the owners themselves in our part of the world. Exciting times are ahead for designers who intimately understand this and are able to work on it. Really looking forward to learning about your startup.

  10. This rings true for the low end of client services also. Between WordPress templates, design contests and the economy it has become difficult to add value for small business. To reiterate Khoi’s point, if you want to produce quality you almost have to go in-house or spin a start up.

  11. Insightful and very, very inspiring.
    Thanks for writing this and best of luck with the new initiative(s)! Serial entrepreneurship is after all highly rewarding, some say.

  12. Fascinating post. My partner and I are amidst a fairly large shift from client services to doing our own (digital) products.

    It’s the culmination of what we see as the commoditization of web design (templates, very low budgets, etc.) and the democracy of the market place – creating an app and posting it on the app store for the whole world to see, and hopefully download.

    While creating a good app is hard and a lot of work (which is fine by me) at least we can now do it for ourselves, solely based on our content, ideas and design decisions, instead of relying on (or waiting for) clients.

    I am not sure how your startup idea bridges the gap between being an a design agency and working as a designer for a start-up, but I look forward to hearing more about your ideas.

  13. “…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.”

    This quote echoes one of the core messages (and criticisms of architecture) in Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn.” Highly recommended for anyone who designs for use!

  14. I think all of this is right and true, but I still think there is a place for a design consultant with deep expertise external to a company.

    I don’t disagree with the premise that there are a wealth of opportunities to build businesses founded on design, influenced by or run by designers. I also don’t disagree with the fundamental belief that the world doesn’t need another generalist design services firm. Generalists want to explore what’s new and different. Generalists are client driven and often scurry around attempting to please their clients by over-servicing them. Whether they realize it or not, the vast majority of designers and design firms are hired for their service work, not their expertise. The positioning of most design studios reflects this– their claims are totally undifferentiated– and as a result design service work has increasingly become a commodity. Design isn’t the solution, it’s the process.

    One way to affect change as a designer, certainly, is to become a creator and an influencer inside a company, or to start one’s own company. Another way to affect change is to become so expert and differentiated in what you do as a design consultant that you effectively create your own market, and you become so deeply informed about the types of problems that your clients encounter because you encounter those problems repeatedly from working with similar clients. This kind of expertise and strategic thinking is invaluable and it has little to do with design service work or artistry. Experts know things about their area of expertise that their competitors and their clients don’t, and these realizations come from narrowing one’s focus. Ironically, the narrower your focus and area of expertise, the more integrity you earn as a designer, and your ability to influence and affect change increases.

    Some organizations *can’t* nurture that type of design or strategic expertise within the organization, or it doesn’t make sense for them to do so. The traditional model of design services may indeed rest on the notion that a studio possesses unique value or specialized skills, but the reality is that most studios don’t possess unique expertise. So while I agree with almost everything you’ve posted here, I don’t think that the only way to be successful at creating stellar user experiences is to do it from “inside.” I definitely agree that it won’t come from functioning within the traditional model of generalist design services, however.

  15. This is an excellent piece that really gets to the heart of the in house/design shop dichotomy. As a consultant, it can be very painful to watch good design work destroyed in the crucible of a company not prepared to act on it.

    If your goal is to be fulfilled as a designer, it makes a lot of sense to abandon clients for internal work. But what of the existing companies who are slower to adjust to today’s digital world? As a design consultant I am most passionate these days about affecting organizational change. We deliver great design, sure, but more and more we are also helping our clients make the change internally to act on that design in the short term, and do their own great design in the long term.

    Happily, Cooper enjoys enough of a reputation that we are given those opportunities. I hope we are helping to create a world where companies who seek design services expect organizational change to be part of the service.

  16. I’ve also made this journey, mostly as a question of my own integrity and contribution. I can assure you, it is a no less challenging path, but there are fewer excuses. It has been difficult to learn and explain to close friends and family the complexity of the ego that drives our ambition, a grounding sense of purpose, a realistic relationship with profit in order to sustain, and the audacity of impact and/or scale. But it is worth if only because you can’t, as Khoi says, go back.

  17. Product development is the ultimate form of marketing. Build quality products and they market themselves. There is always a tension in the client service context that typically produces products that alienate it’s intended audience. Be it politics, contracts, the list goes on….

  18. Only if you design a lot for various clients, you learn, define and fine-tune your goals, and what do you want to do when “you are gown-up.” So the idea of “just” start a startup is wrong, and the fact that internet is plenty of failed projects is a proof that is not the digital platform that makes your ideas worth to be a business.

  19. Thank you!

    I recently went from being self employed (after a bunch of stints at agencies) to a gig inhouse at a startup.

    One of the questions asked during my interview was why I wanted to work with them instead of at a design agency. My answer wasn’t as thoughtful as yours. Actually it was a bunch of feelings I just connected together without much thought.

    In the weeks after the interview I’ve been trying to formulate why I wanted inhouse doing what’s perhaps “non-traditional”. What is it that I really dislike with agencies? I knew it had something to do with no feedback once the project is finalized and sent to the printer. Instead of just having the printer as a step in an already evolving process. But that was kinda it…

    This post really summed it up for me.

  20. You highlight something I have expressed to design firms for years who wish to build a product for recurring revenue. Product teams must be fully dedicated to the initial build and launch of the product. Following the launch, the product will require refinement, maintenance, upgrades and support. Customers have less interest in investing in unsupported products. Thanks for saying it.

  21. Phil: I didn’t intend to comment on the issue of services businesses building products, but you bring up a good point. I’ve seen several studios try their hand at products only to discover that they didn’t have the steam to keep refining it or, worse, they just didn’t know what to do with it next in terms of building a business out of it. It takes a special kind of studio to be able to bear and intuit their way through that kind of predicament.

  22. As much as I appreciate and understand your point of view, I think there will always be a place for client services in smaller companies. At the end of the day, it’s just not financially viable to hire in full time staff with the knowledge and experience to required to only develop a single project or two. It may be fine for organisations like the BBC or CNN but it’s not realistic for most others.

    Here’s my response anyway ;) Link

  23. One thing I see a lot of entrepreneurs experience is that they rarely get the time they desire to exercise their craft–whatever that may be–and instead have to divert their focus to all those “boring, but necessary,” parts of business (marketing, selling, finance, taxes, legal, etc…).

    When you wear all the hats, you have to do all the jobs. Or at a minimum, build an outsourced support structure to help, but that costs money which usually isn’t available during start-up.

    It’s been proven time and again that simply having a superior product doesn’t equal automatic success. Customers rarely attract themselves; at least not consistently.

  24. Hi Khoi,

    Great post! It’s expressed so clearly something I’ve had a gnawing suspicion about for a while.

    To me, it seems that the central thrust of the argument is that traditional client services contractual work doesn’t give the studio enough “ownership” over the design element of a project’s lifecycle. Or, if I understand you correctly, that deadlines, bullet points and Gantt charts suck at delivering a great experience.

    I agree. I agree that for many in client services, this is a golden opportunity to translate in building and shipping products of their own. However, I don’t think this means that there is no place for design studios and agencies. Companies will always need to buy in a particular competency.

    I think what needs to change is the nature of the relationship. I think that the agency needs to become involved far earlier in a project, and have a hand in defining a successful outcome. I think it’s wrong in 2011 for design to be simply bolted to a project as an afterthought. It needs to be deep and integral.

    The relationship needs to be designed to be less transactional. This will involve more risk for the customer as it gives them less leverage to have service providers compete with one another. It won’t be practical to displace an expensive but great designer from a project they were involved in at the start, but it will yield a better product. There is surely an opportunity for the agency to mitigate against this risk by replacing deadlines with SLAs.

    What do you think?

  25. Khoi, Terry Stone just sent me your link because it explains exactly what I’ve been thinking about since 2009.

    I just got off the phone with an old friend who also knows we are all experiencing this shift. It appears the tipping point is near, which is nice to see. I believe the saving-the-world industry (design of humanity’s systems from the core outward) will be the biggest economic boom in history.

    I’m eager to see what happens next, as the traditional clients of global agencies and branding firms gain a complete understanding of this tectonic shift in the definition of marketing. How will they react to these new realities? Will they join in the fun or will they dig their heels in like the Republicans and lobbyists in Washington?

  26. Great to see so many talented designers recognizing a sea change in the industry. Now you are experiencing a need to be “in business” in a more general way. I’ve been coaching a leading designer for many years. I currently coach over 25 small business CEOs and would be pleased to help you figure out how to start and run your business. Best, Les Deck

  27. It’s rapidly getting to the point that you can’t be a good designer without working in-house. That post-launch period, when the user is finally using the product is so key to its success. If you aren’t around to experience that, learn from it, and adjust it, then you’re really missing out on a big part of what it means to be a designer today.

    It doesn’t matter how skilled the designer is. They’ll get things wrong and the product won’t succeed without that observation period.

    I’ve been thinking about this whole situation for several months not and I’m really happy you put it together in this post.