Design Agencies RIP. Long live Agents of Change.

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Design creates the new - and therefore creates change. So, designers (who think their role is to be creative) are actually asked to create change, but the one thing that people generally don’t like (especially if their job or reputation is on the line) is… change. Design change can scare even though it has been asked for. Therefore the value of design change can be quickly eroded as new and fearless creative ideas become subjected to risk averse mentality – and not a change mentality - on both sides. So, until both designers and clients adopt a new way of thinking about achieving their objectives, progress on a general scale is going to be tough with disappointing results and wasted efforts. 

Am I wrong? Come on, how many of you have worked on projects for months on end seeing fresh ideas and design be whittled down through endless rounds of tweaks or to bomb in research? Or both. It happens to all of us and we in the design business unwittingly contribute to this attrition with our conventional ways of working – and both client and agency is left feeling frustrated and disappointed. The designer blames the client, the client blames the agency, and usually the role of research gets it well and truly in the neck.  

So what does go wrong? It’s usually not about the creative change but how both sides manage the process of change and the expectations of it – something that in these design savvy times we maybe take for granted. 

Pearlfisher has a reputation for great design, which we do our best to uphold by doing, erm, well… great design. But sometimes that doesn't come easy. Oh no. Designers can be a pain in the ass at the best of times (I know, I am one). But we - and by that I mean you as well - will often blame the client when it all goes wrong without for once considering the impact of what we are really doing and the emotions and consequences it creates as we go through our linear processes from RFI to brief to artwork. 

My team and I had a pretty big chat about this after one project spectacularly fell apart leaving great design splattered on the walls of one of our Studios - along with the hard- earned working relationship. It’s fair to say there were a few frustrations aired, but we were trying to see if we could learn from this experience so we could avoid it again in the future, and help our clients achieve the original design change objectives.  

And what it all boiled down to is we work best with people who value and want great design but who also know how to affect change - effectively. 

Now that is not something that can be exclusively defined by someone with a job title with the word Creative or Design in it and who has the unenviable task of telling us: 'Oh, its Marketing’s fault…’, ‘Sorry but the Chairman’s wife liked blue…” or ‘...but  research said Mrs. Smith in the ‘burbs didn't like the new contemporary logotype’... Some of the best design savvy people I have worked with have been Chairpersons, CEO’s, Strategists, Marketing Directors, Researchers and Mrs. Smith in the ‘burbs, because actually they get it, and their decisions were listened to, interpreted and acted on. They know that things change naturally and despite an obvious resistance to the idea of, say, Tropicana moving to a purple pack with pink logotype, they are actually quite open to new design and ideas - especially if it makes things better for them. Don't worry we aren't working on a new Tropicana design, but it’s interesting that the previous one was done by an ad agency not a design firm. 

So the problem is not just in the process that both designers and clients individually go through to 'do a project' but also in properly evaluating each others’  ability to push change through and make sure we understand each others’  language, internal processes and the brief. And maybe for us to also take back the responsibility for educating the client about both the process of design and the value of design. Let’s face it, with so many designers out there these days in all shapes and sizes, we can be short of professional focus and high on (sometimes desperate) competitiveness. Thinking of design in traditional ways or as quick and easy service is a ticking time bomb, when really it is all about skill, desirable ideas and creating brand value.

Well anyway, back to the wall splattered with design and some bruised egos thrown in for good measure. Simply put, it was a complex multi-country design change being centrally managed by one person whom we thought had the authority for managing change to get to a common solution. It turned out that, despite the presence of a unifying creative brief, they didn't have that authority and was weak in presenting on our work. And so those country manager sharks, to whom design smelled like fresh blood, went in for the kill. Ouch. You can just imagine it. Vee like blue! Oui like yellow! We like stripes! Nein! Non!, no! 

But actually we have successfully managed many of these types of projects before. And we have always found that those people in marketing, design or management who anticipate the doubters, cynics, fearful, and the plain conniving - and who set out on a clever change management strategy as part of the process - are the ones we have most success with. They value design and know how to get a result and it doesn't matter if they are a small company or a corporation. They know that design is about change and that change can lead to effective results and not doom or gloom. Importantly they set about involving us in the process of change - as much as the process of design - to overcome the fears attached to changing a typeface, a color or a symbol. 

One client we worked with had a great product idea, he loved our work and so we were all very keen to work together. However, we forgot that, even though we both spoke English, we were most likely to be talking to each other in a foreign project language. A big disagreement ensued when we failed to deliver artwork on time. Aha! Unprofessional I hear you all say. Actually it was because we never got the die-line from him despite numerous emails and calls requesting one. “The what?” he finally said. He didn't know what a die line was and so couldn't supply it. He valued design but he didn’t know how to manage it and it made us realize that unless we both know what we are talking about it can all go wrong despite all the goodwill and good intentions. 

So, there you go. We are not design agencies, we are agents of change, and change is full of conflicting optimism and fear. Designers don’t often realize the fear they create and, frankly, it’s not often mentioned from the client side, maybe for fear of not being in control? Who knows, every situation is different but there are some common threads.  

I’m not saying I have all the answers but just thought we would share some of our home truths about what’s gone wrong and how we are looking to change what we do to, hopefully, make change easier for all of us – client and agency side. Maybe it’s about a new best practice goal that we all need to start working towards? What do you think? Let me know. 

So, before you start work on your next project, here's our starter points to help avoid a few design disasters and the abhorrent whining of a designer whose design has been shot down in flames for whatever reason (assuming it was good in the first place).  

Remember that both designer and clients are agents of change so maybe casually psychometrically evaluate each other to see if you and the client possess resourceful change for better skills as well as an understanding of the usual design, strategy and production processes. This can be done over a glass of wine.  

Have a covert or select client/designer change management strategy phase of work before you start the project work. This is designed to anticipate the fears that will inevitably stifle progress. Also done over a glass of wine.  

Provide a clear rationale with every design you present so that if our beloved clients need to justify work in our absence they have a solid support to turn to when we are not there to defend the cause. Wine optional, and makes for a great rationale.  

Provide a glossary of design terminology so the uninitiated client understands your language (and maybe get them to do the same so that you understand their anachronisms etc) Best not done with a glass of wine. 

Jonathan Ford, Creative Partner

Pearlfisher

www.pearlfisher.com

twitter.com/Jforddesigns

Jonathan leads the overall creative direction of Pearlfisher, and has built up a global reputation for design excellence and effectiveness from the Pearlfisher studios in New York and London. He is fervent about the value that fearless thinking, great ideas and design can bring to brands and in short, believes that great design, sells. 

Pearlfisher was co-founded by Jonathan in 1992 and is still an independent design company, working with iconic and challenger brands around the world including The Coca Cola Company, Cadbury, Kraft, InverHouse, Jamie Oliver, Green & Black's, Innocent Smoothies, NUDE, Fortnum & Mason and  Unilever.

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