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.


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.