In Defense of Client Services

While I really do believe that the design industry has changed enormously over the past decade, and that the opportunities available to designers are much greater today than they were even a decade ago, I have to admit that when I recently blogged about this topic I was being a little bit sensationalistic by titling the post “The End of Client Services.”

Several other design bloggers wrote thoughtful posts in response to mine — the best one was probably from Erika Hall at Mule Design — arguing that client services will never go away, and I think they’re right. It’s hard to imagine that all businesses everywhere will ever stop having a real need for outside design expertise; there’s just too much for most companies to know, so being able to access external help will always need to be an option. Now, it’s my belief that the best businesses will meet those needs by internalizing design expertise and methods themselves, and going forward many — if not most — of the choicest design challenges will be tackled by in-house teams.

But there will always be work out there for design studios and agencies, I’m sure of it. What’s more, the services industry is full of smart, talented, visionary people, a disproportionately large number of whom are extraordinarily effective agents of change. What I meant by “the end of client services” is that, within a few years, the landscape for this industry will look very different from how it’s looked up until the recent past. The best of the best from this industry will help evolve the client-designer relationship to meet new expectations and to create new kinds of value.

For me, at this time in my career and my life, client services just isn’t what I want to do, but I wouldn’t ever say that I’ll never return to it either. I’m not sure any designer, no matter how prolific they become as auteurs of their own career and products, ever really rules out the possibility of taking on a fantastic project with an enlightened client. What makes a designer a designer is an inability to resist solving problems, and services is still a great way to get exposure to many different kinds of irresistible problems — and to learn a lot about subject matter areas that most in-house designers will never get to touch. Even better, if you have a good services business — one that satisfies you creatively while rewarding you financially — then you have a great way of getting paid to do design. If you’re passionate about design, like I am, then that’s gold. Not a lot of people can pull this off, but if you can, then more power to you.

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  1. I absolutely agree that the client service landscape will change over the next few years. Hell, it’s changed quite dramatically in the past five. Ultimately it’s all part of an evolution process and a shift in supply and demand, something we just have to acknowledge and accept. For instance, I can easily see services like social media marketing being taken in-house by larger organisations as it really is something that needs permanent, full time attention. However, saying all of that, so long as the most talented designers remaining running their own agencies then there will always be a reason to outsource to them.

  2. For those of us who care more about the quality of work then the money, we are constrained by this care and cannot work with clients who undermine the work. That’s fundamental to the nature of client services. Client service agencies into quality work have a hard time scaling past a certain point. But a product company can sell a great design and not lose a sales opportunity even for the people who would be terrible clients. They may be good users.

    Of course client services will be around forever. The most effective being, large agencies making forgettable schlock for lots of money and small ones making meaningful, exciting stuff for good money but far less than the agencies. So be careful client service people-we have a confirmation bias. The promise of a product design approach is possibility to achieve scale and effectiveness in both economic and creative realms.