I’ve always worked at design studios rather than within design departments. That is, at shops (usually small) that deal with lots of different kinds of projects for different clients, rather than on a company’s internal design team, working on projects for in-house clients. Those studio jobs haven’t always been glamorous, especially when I was just getting started, but I’ve always enjoyed the varied exposure to different businesses and challenges that kind of environment affords me. It’s been a kind of an education in itself, and I’ve become familiar with lots of industries that otherwise I never would have known much about at all. It’s no accident that, at the last crossroads of my career, I helped found Behavior, rather than looking for work inside a corporate entity.
Still, from time to time I wonder what it would be like to work in a design operation dedicated to a narrow stripe of business or a specific set of challenges. I was thinking about this the other day and made a short list of the kind of design departments that I’d like to join:
- Any metropolitan transit system, but especially New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. I’ve been privately fiddling with ideas for reinventing the online version of the New York City subway map for years.
- The online division of Major League Baseball, or one of the stat houses that are doing new, groundbreaking work in statistical sports analysis like Tendu or Baseball Info Solutions.
- A newspaper with a serious Internet offering like The Guardian or The New York Times, where the online content is an integral complement to the offline content.
- Any research company like Forrester, Jupiter, etc., where I’d have an opportunity to influence the presentation of serious business data and research online — these companies desperately need the help.
Earth to Khoi
Of course, the fantasy of the kind of work that’s possible to do at any of these organizations and the reality of what can actually be accomplished in the real world are two entirely different things. I’m sure that a lot of the idealized design strategies I’d like to put in place for these organizations might quickly collide with the cold reality of budgetary constraints, cultural intransigency and/or office politics.
As abstract opportunities, though, what’s enticing about projecting my design fantasies into these organizations is the idea of working on a product, a quantifiable body of design work that can be nurtured and evolved over time. The nature of studio work, at least the way we do it at Behavior, doesn’t always let us stay with a product we’ve helped design for as long as we’d like. Even when it does, it’s difficult if not impossible to achieve the same level of intimacy that an internal design team develops with a product that they effectively own — as it happens, that detachment is a function of the objectivity we bring to a client’s design challenges, so it has both its pluses and minuses.
At the end of the day, though, it’s all just idle daydreaming. I’m too excited about all the really cool projects we’re working on at Behavior, and really, at heart, I’m a studio guy. I can’t realistically see myself focusing on one kind of design challenge at this moment, not when there are so many different kinds of problems offering themselves up to me daily at the studio.