The death of design consulting.

Last year I posted a prediction about the future of design consulting, placing my bet on the evolution of the traditional design offer to include physical marketing, advertising and the like. Today, I’ve got a new outlook. Design consulting isn’t going to evolve; instead it’s walking the path of slow suicide. And there’s only one possible outcome at the end of that road…luckily for us, out of death comes new life!

I generally believe that ‘business as usual’ is risky business, that’s never been truer for design consulting. The traditional business model works a bit like this: a company/client needs a design solution and seeks out a design partner that can deliver on said solution. That partner, the design consultant, takes the brief, does the work, delivers the solution and collects a fee. Both the client and consultant are satisfied with the result and move on. Sometimes it’s a one-off project, other times the two may collaborate repeatedly. Either way, the traditional model works well enough, and everyone is happy. This traditional design consulting model has allowed consultancies to live high on the hog for more than eight decades. But those glory days are quickly fading. Like it or not, change is gonna come.

One of the things I absolutely love about here and now is that design and innovation surround us; that’s the reality of our world today. The rise of the digital age unleashed creativity, democratizing design and blurring the line between professionals and amateurs in the process. We’re all designers. We’re all inventors. And we’re all entrepreneurs. Welcome to the third Industrial Revolution! These are exciting times, but perhaps less so for large design consultancies like IDEO, Continuum and Smart Design who rely on the traditional design consulting model to stay afloat.

Those firms, and others like them, are doing their best to hold on as evident in frog’s play for thought leadership as well as IDEO’s support of incubators and in-residence startups, not to mentioned their transition from product design to business and design strategy. But it may be too little too late. These firms move at a glacial pace; they’re big, bureaucratic and set in their ways. They’ve been doing what they’ve been doing for decades. Feeding the beast is what commands their attention, not creative entrepreneurship.

Today, smaller, younger and more agile firms that focus on brand and experience design are giving the big boys a serious run for their money. And they’re succeeding for a few reasons: First they let go of the traditional design consulting business model—meaning they don’t just rely on the standard fee for service, they look (in earnest) for and invest in other opportunities e.g. equity stake, royalties, retainer models, etc.  Second, they balance their portfolio between Fortune 500 companies and start ups; winning the type of work that attracts the best design talent, and the type of clients that are willing to let them talk about the work, all while keeping the lights on. Last, but certainly not least, they have no beast to feed, and they never will.

The best incarnation to date is probably fuseproject; Yves Behar and Mitch Pergola were the first to successfully challenge the traditional design consulting business model (which they’re still doing today). Combine that type of thinking with the rise of UX, brand and the maker’s movement and you’re looking squarely at what will ultimately take down institutionalized design i.e. consultancies.

Long story long: Generation X will be the last to give a sh*t about IDEO. Generation Y will undoubtedly be the last to experience design disciplines as we know them today. The future belongs to multidisciplinary creatives, entrepreneurs and makers and firms like DeepLocal, Breakfast and fuseproject!

Craft is making its triumphant return at last.

P.S. It might also be interesting to add that we’ve spent the last decade educating the C-suite on both the power and value of design—turns out they were listening—and many have decided to build their own in-house design teams (some through acquisition e.g. One & Co and HTC), effectively diminishing the need for design consulting services. Oops.