The Secret to Design Effectiveness is Internal Design Groups

by Joshua Handy, Method Products

When I was a design student, the common perception was that if you were really talented you might get a job with a design consultancy.  The rest of us, if we even got a job, would have to settle for an in-house position working for a manufacturer; dreaming of the better pay, more attractive staff, and glamour of being a “design consultant.”

“Consultant Envy” may have been true 20 years ago, but it should hardly be the case today. The Design narrative has progressed, and now many of the most innovative, customer-centric and sustainable organizations treat design as a strategic asset and have design thinking, if not designers, at the heart of their businesses

Design consultancies are still around, and many do excellent work, but as other “business critical” consultancies have ballooned to huge sizes (e.g. Accenture at 180,000 employees and Omnicom at 63,000), the largest industrial design consultancies top out at around 600 people.  This inability to scale implies a deep, perhaps existential flaw within the design consultancy proposition.

In the last few decades, Design has shifted and transformed, becoming a cross-functional discipline that excels in dealing with business problems that are often intangible and difficult to define. This inherent complexity suggests that these problems are most successfully addressed through well connected internal design groups, not external agencies.

What was once considered a tactical design issue is now often recognized as a much broader multi-functional business strategy question. This larger scope demands a more integrated and nuanced approach. A large part of what drives successful outcomes of design projects is not the genius of the idea, but the ability of the designer to cross-functionally collaborate and carefully navigate  the internal political landscape. Design is the ultimate boundary-spanning discipline. 

In my experience, great ideas are never in short supply; it’s marshalling the will of the organization to execute that’s the difficult part. External consultancies rarely have the political capital, influence or knowledge to truly shepherd projects in an organization and must often rely on account directors as point people. These limited areas of overlap usually choke the ability for both the consultancy and the client organization to access and influence each other and as a result effectiveness is reduced.

Internal design groups can certainly face similar issues, but their recourse resides in their own abilities to connect and influence; access is not often a problem. The poor performance of internal design groups can often be attributed not to their lack of talent, but to their lack of connectivity, influence and communication savvy.

If there is any desire for design to be a credible, effective and strategic force within an organization, then Design must live alongside Marketing, Finance and Operations in a central, highly visible, executively represented role. Having a senior executive to provide “air-cover” can help protect and champion  the organization’s design vision in situations when its relative intangibility can become a liability.

For highly compartmentalized or tactical projects, or if you are just too small to employ a full time designer, then yes, a consultancy may make sense. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and invest in an internal design group.

Joshua Handy is the Senior Director of Industrial Design at method products in San Francisco

Josh has worked his way around the globe, doing stints at places like Karim Rashid’s studio in NY and HWI in Australia. He’s worked in London. He’s been to the Great Wall. He’s even eaten a raw chicken in a back-alley in Tokyo.  

He has a degree in mechanical engineering and a masters in industrial design and an MBA in design management, but don’t let all that fool you, he’s no overeducated-design-geek-weirdo...he’s a Kiwi.

Founded in 2000, method is headquartered in San Francisco. Today, method is the leading innovator of premium healthy home and personal care products. method can be found in more than 25,000 retail locations throughout the US, Canada, UK, France and Australia. For more information, visitwww.methodhome.com