Let me admit a real prejudice that I have, and maybe you can try to convince me that I’m wrong: it’s my belief that you just can’t get great design out of a design agency with a staff larger than a dozen or two. Design doesn’t scale well, in my opinion, or at least it doesn’t do so easily.
This craft, and whatever pretensions to art it can pull off, rests so much on the efficiency of transferring ideas from the brain to the hand. This means that in its ideal form, it works best when practiced by a single person. The perfect design staff is a single designer who can conceive of and execute an idea from start to finish — a straight shot from the right brain to the wrist — maintaining the same coherent creative vision throughout.
Of course, as an economic matter, this is impractical. For design to work as a business, it almost always has to scale to some degree. The smaller the scale, though, the more efficient the practice of design; transmitting ideas among a small number of people is much more effective than transmitting them among a large number.
Bigger Isn’t Better
When a design operation scales up the equation becomes much more diffuse. Beyond a certain point, a business of designers is no longer a studio — focusing on a specific niche of design, or devoting energies into a small number of projects at once — but rather an agency — a provider of multiple services, staffed by different kinds of specialists. Ideas must travel more complicated routes from brains to hands, and reconciling conflicting signals becomes difficult.
It’s certainly not the case that agencies are inherently staffed by inferior designers. That’s not what I’m saying, let me be clear. In fact, I’ll freely grant that designers employed at agencies are very often more talented than those employed at in-house design groups (except for those in my group, of course).
The problem is that the structures of most larger design businesses cannot effectively facilitate the the transmittal of ideas. They don’t allow good design to happen, because they are overburdened with the organizational overhead of running a business: org charts, jurisdictions, inconsistency, poor communications, etc. All the complications that large groups of humans create for one another when they work together, complications that are not about doing design.
When a client hires a design vendor, they are often attracted to a concept called “depth of bench.” This means that the vendor, whether a studio or an agency, has enough staff at the ready in the case that one of the staff assigned to their project fails miserably or just leaves the job. To provide an attractive depth of bench, a design vendor almost invariably has to scale up.
What you get, then, is a grab bag effect. Hiring a design agency with a large staff is an exercise in luck of the draw; one client may get very good designers assigned to their project, and another may get poor designers. Most often a client will get a mix. A random mix. In a large design agency, I contend that it’s impossible to have a staff that’s uniformly excellent. Impossible.
By contrast, design studios that are small in staff are also much more focused. Their structures are inherently simpler, so their dissemination of ideas is more effective. Moreover, in many design studios where it’s clear who provides the source of creative direction, there’s very little ambiguity regarding who is the brain and who are the hands. (Contrast this with agencies where there are often dozens and dozens of dubiously talented people with the title “creative director” printed on their business cards).
These small studios are usually good at a fairly narrow band of project types, too, though they may have delusions of being adept at a much wider spectrum. You wouldn’t hire a Web design studio to design your outdoor advertising campaign, for instance, nor should you. As a client, you want the very best design you can get given the medium in which you’re dealing. Do you want to hire a company that does a few things very well, or a company that does many things not particularly well?