Can the death of design firms be a good thing?

“If design firms choose to continue moving in the same direction they used to over the last two decades, they will be extinct soon.” — Tenny Pinheiro

I recently read Tenny Pinheiro’s ‘The Design Firm Is (Walking) Dead’ article which talks about how small and medium design firms are being lost to huge corporate companies looking to bring this skill in-house. He makes the argument for how this new trend is causing the loss of independent design firms believing that, in effect, design itself will suffer.

“McKinsey will never design like a design firm.” — Tenny Pinheiro

I understand Tenny Pinheiro’s point of view having started in agencies myself before moving to in-house design teams for corporate e-commerce giants. I found the cultures very different which had an impact at first on the way in which I worked. Initially, I felt more restricted creatively as a result of the strongly enforced brand ‘guidelines’ (which were more rules than guidelines) and remaining constantly under the scrutiny of the in-house brand teams who sat next to me. I found there were regular in-house meetings to make sure I remained on brand (in the eyes of the company) which prevented more innovative designs being initially produced for the company. The client was losing the opportunity of being presented with something completely different and so I felt the creative edge was potentially being lost.

So what will be lost if design firms die out?

  • Fresh eyes resulting in new perspectives or interpretations of company brands could be lost
  • The creative culture an agency will bring is often lost in a corporate environment
  • Competition and inspiration for other designers may die out as agencies often have more flexibility to produce bigger, better and more off the wall designs which act as inspiration to designers across the world regardless of where they work
  • With practices such as design thinking sprouting from agencies, could the loss of these firms lead to future practices being lost?

Yet despite the initial challenges I found in my own work environment I found that I actually thrived in in-house teams. Though, at times, it is not as creative or as technologically advanced as a small agency I was able to more fully get to grips with the users due to ongoing reviews and focus groups carried out on our audience. This resulted in my products being more tailored therefore delivering the best experience for the end user, if not necessarily the most mind-blowing creative experience.

“I share the belief that design thinking needs to be ingrained in every business we deal with as human beings” — Tenny Pinheiro

As a designer my goal is to create a perfect piece of human centered design and as design thinking requires the constant cycle of ideation, testing and reiterating this is something that is easier to do in-house over a longer period of time. So could this new style of design firm actually lead to better design for the user and consumer?

What could be gained by the move to in-house design firms?

  • Larger companies often have more money to invest in new technologies or processes as hiring in-house teams is more cost effective in the long term
  • The individual potentially has more time for Research and Development as they aren’t on as tight a budget as in an agency
  • The project has more resources and time to spend on practices such as design thinking as they aren’t as limited by the time frame like that of an agency
  • It allows for a “fast-paced, quick, iterative and continuous” process which can be refined over years (rather than the shorter time frames experienced by agencies)
  • Designers will have more of an opportunity to work with many people from different industry backgrounds which won’t be found in design firms and could help grow the individual

So, is this really a bad thing?

I don’t believe that the move to bring design teams in-house means the death of the design firm. In fact, I believe that this is the birth of the new age design firm who work in-house on multiple company brands producing creative and innovative results. ‘Design firms’ will grow within companies permeating into all aspects of our daily work life rather than separate of them.

The article talked about designer culture being lost to that of a corporate culture but many of the ‘corporate’ companies that Tenny Pinheiro discusses are the likes of facebook and Google which have a very different company culture to that of the traditional corporate environments suggested. And, as design is continuing to gather followers from all aspects of the corporate world why wouldn’t design culture prevail over the traditional corporate culture.

Are we, as designers, not accepting change because this is our industry? We embrace change in many different areas of our life, constantly looking to innovate and re-frame yet when it comes to how our industry works why are we so afraid of this change? Rather than looking to how things can be in the future and working to achieve that, it seems we are mourning the design firm environment that we have lost.

The traditional design firm isn’t and needn’t be lost, it just needs to adapt to an ever changing world, using the same design principles we apply to our work.

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