What I Learned When I Started a Design Studio

Earlier in the year, I wrote a bit about the design services industry in two blog posts: first, I wrote “The End of Client Services” in July, which outlined my thoughts on why the best interaction design is done outside of the studio/agency model. Then in August I followed up with “In Defense of Client Services,” which expands a little bit on why I believe services is such a difficult way to earn a living as a designer. I had meant to write a third post, but getting Mixel out the door got in the way. Over the past several days I was finally able to find the time to hammer out this follow-up.

Actually, I’ve been making notes for this blog post all year long, because it was ten years ago that I co-founded an interaction studio here in New York City, partnering with some colleagues from a previous employer. I stayed with the studio for four years, and I learned a lot in that time. Building that business significantly changed my outlook on the design industry, but I haven’t written too much on why. A decade later seems like the right opportunity.

What still strikes me the most about that experience was how little my former partners and I understood at the outset about what it takes to build a successful services business. In the years since, I’ve met lots of designers who have either founded or had the ambition to found studios or agencies of their own. Most of them, it seems to me, are laboring under misapprehensions very similar to the ones that hobbled my former partners and myself.

So here are a few of the key lessons that I learned from co-founding my own design studio. The usual caveats apply, of course, in that everything about business is contextual, and so your mileage my vary.

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A Short Film About Me

Last year director Raafi Rivero of The Color Machine asked me over email if I would be interested in being the subject of a short film project. By way of an example, he showed me this beautiful short that he had made about cinematographer Bradford Young. Flattered, I said yes, and not long afterwards he and a small crew filmed an interview with me in the beautifully arcane MEx Building, located on a still-ungentrified stretch of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

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Where Are All the Ed-Ex Designers?

There’s a small but meaningful number of really, really good user experience designers in the world. I’m talking about the sort of individuals who can create a highly effective, truly immersive architecture around the way real users interact with software — and who have the skills and wherewithal to roll up their sleeves and get it done. Those types are not abundant, but they’re not uncommon either.

There’s also a reasonable number of really, really good editorial designers in the world, thanks to decades of publishing tradition and best practices. I’m talking about designers who know how to enhance and even maximize an audience’s understanding of published content. They’re comfortable working with writers and editors to help shape what we read, and they create unique value out of the combination of the written word and graphic language. Even given recent difficulties in the publishing industry, there are still lots of these people out there.

But there are very few designers who have both of these skill sets.

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Should You Get a Masters in Design?

From time to time people ask for my advice on whether they should pursue a master’s degree in design, especially in interaction design. It’s a funny question for me because I never went to graduate school myself, and have relatively little experience with the graduate environment.

Two years ago I taught a semester at the brilliant Master’s Program in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts. The program is run by my close friend Liz Danzico, who has staffed it with amazing teachers who are also practicing professionals, and the first few classes of students (it’s only a few years old) have been full of smart, ambitious people. But I did a terrible job teaching the course, probably because, in all honesty, the academic environment is not a good fit for me. I prefer to be working, and I don’t much enjoy the classroom.

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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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A Word About Unsolicited Redesigns

The Internet gives designers a soapbox like they’ve never had before, and that’s a wonderful thing. One of the most entertaining uses for these soapboxes is the unsolicited redesign, a kind of public demonstration of talent in which a designer overhauls a well-known Web site or digital product and shares it with the world at large. There is no invitation required or expected, and the same goes for credentials — anybody can undertake a creative reworking of any Web site, regardless of their experience or professional status. The only real qualification is whether they can produce something that they can substantively argue for as an improvement over the original. If the redesign is full of good ideas, well-executed and persuasively reasoned, the world beats a path to your door.

In the past week I’ve been asked numerous times to respond to one such unsolicited redesign that’s achieved not insubstantial notice within design and technology circles — a reworking of a site that I was closely associated with for some time. It’s a redesign that contains some genuinely good ideas and is executed professionally. But the argument that the redesign’s author makes is not quite so persuasive, mostly because it makes some rash assumptions, misses some critical realities and, perhaps worst of all, takes a somewhat inflammatory approach in criticizing the many people who work on the original site.

I’m purposefully not identifying this person or the project or providing a link back to the redesign itself, mostly because I think it’s counter-productive to continue to reward this effort with more unwarranted attention. To me, it felt less like constructive criticism than link-baiting, and so I have tried to avoid making any public comment.

I will say this, though: unsolicited redesigns are terrific and fun and useful, and I hope designers never stop doing them. But as they do so, I also hope they remember it helps no one — least of all the author of the redesign — to assume the worst about the original source and the people who work hard to maintain and improve it, even though those efforts may seem imperfect from the outside. If you have good ideas and the talent to execute them and argue for them, the world will still sit up and pay attention even if you take care in your language and show respect to those who don’t see things quite the way you do.

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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.

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An Unfinished Theme for Google Reader

As I wrote yesterday, I’m encouraged by the recent design improvements that Google has made in its products, especially its new Gmail theme. I’m assuming — hoping — that Google will apply this new sensibility to its many other products too.

Number one on my list would be a refresh of the interface for Google Reader. Yes, I’m one of the diminishing devotees of RSS. Every morning and many, many times throughout the day (and often in the middle of the night when besieged by insomnia, too) I check the copious feeds that I’ve collected over the years, devouring all manner of updates from all corners of the Interweb. They’re a critical source of news, information, education and entertainment for me.

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Does Google Get Design Now?

It’s only been a short while since Google co-founder Larry Page assumed the role of CEO but it’s safe to say that we now have a sense of what his vision of Google looks like. Apparently design is a key part of it.

The search giant’s recently launched, high profile social networking bid Google+ debuted with an unexpectedly thoughtful (though admittedly derivative) design, and evinces an attention to the finer details of typography, spacing and visual hierarchy that was previously absent across the vast majority of Google’s products. Similarly, the company has made additional refinements to its iconic home page that reflect a newfound respect for the intangible — the changes have been minor, but they’ve felt less beholden to the brutally analytical decision-making that has guided Google product design and aesthetics in the past.

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The Making of Avatars

I’m designing a social app right now and I need lots of avatars to use in the mock-ups. Designing social interfaces is a bit like trying to visualize a party, attendees and all, which is to say the designer is challenged with representing something full of life using tools that are inherently static.

Insofar as avatars give the impression of lots of people using the system, they’re a helpful design detail. I could use one or two ‘generic’ avatars across all of the various interfaces I’m designing, but the more that the hypothetical users in my mock-ups look like they could be actual, real-life users — and the more of them there are — then the better my chances for communicating a convincing design to collaborators.

Picking up a random selection of avatars from Twitter or Flickr, which is what I’m doing now, presents several problems. First, it’s laborious. Second, the users from whom I’m ‘borrowing’ these assets haven’t granted usage permissions of any kind. And third, they’re not a great cross-section of a wide user base.

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