The Myth of the Agency

This post has been stewing in my head for a very long time which means I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. Here are the main points:

  1. In-house design departments that have not devoted serious attention to design process will by default adopt and mimic the practices of agencies.
  2. The assumption is that these practices are derived from the unique nature of design when in fact many are derived from the unique nature of the agency business model.
  3. Use of these techniques creates a misalignment with business objectives and reinforces problematic misunderstandings about the role of design in internal product development processes.
  4. In-house design teams must evaluate their process and unwind from certain agency methodologies.

Agency Dominance and Myth of the Magical Creative

At the start of Design is a Job, Mike Monteiro paints the picture of the “Magical Creative” who sits behind an iMac and summons creativity through the mystical incantations of design. He then spends a glorious 100+ pages tearing this idea apart. His point is that design is a job, just like any other. “Grab your lunch. We’re clocking in.”

The misunderstanding about design applies not just to the role of the individual designer, but to the entire function of design within the product development process. This is what makes it so damaging—if you work on an internal design team, the perception of your daily role and contribution is grounded in a misconception.

Where did this myth come from and how did it become the universal notion about designers?

Well, where do designers come from? They come from agencies. For decades, agencies have dominated the design world and in doing so have engendered popular ideas about design. There are other causes too but some of these ideas enable the myth of the Magical Creative.

Consider the client’s point of view: Design is external, a service, something cloaked in foreign expertise, a creative black box that outputs comps. It’s a process with its own unique set of rules.

I’m drawing this connection not to pin blame on agencies but to shed light on a problem unique to in-house design: for in-house design teams, part of undoing the myth of the Magical Creative requires undoing the myth of the agency.

This is difficult to do when the internal design team subscribes to agency methodologies.

For the rest of the post instead of the word “in-house” (a telling term) I’m going to use the phrase integrated design, in the sense of an internal design function integrated side-by-side with other business functions in the development of digital products.

Agency Business Objectives

Here are three high-level business goals that I think are common and fundamental to agencies:

  1. Maximize billable hours
  2. Get new business
  3. Make clients happy (because happy clients pay bills and refer new business)

These are sensible goals for an agency but not so much for an integrated design team. An internal team (1) wants to _minimize _work hours, (2) isn’t concerned with winning new clients, and (3) doesn’t need to ensure the happiness of their colleagues as a job requirement.

There’s another thing that plays a big part in agency process: the difficult challenge of having to adapt to the client’s domain. This isn’t easy and there are a number of design practices that directly relate to bridging this gap. Fortunately this isn’t a problem internal teams have.

For our purposes what matters is the degree to which these business objectives and business challenges influence the design process.

Common Design Practices

Let’s look at a few common design practices with an eye to how they address the aforementioned business goals.

Multiple concepts

Presenting stakeholders with multiple concepts assists with several agency goals. One, it allows for more billable work. Two, it’s more likely to lead to a happy, satisfied customer who’s been given the pleasure of choice. Three, it helps bridge the knowledge gap by putting less pressure on the external party to get it right with one shot. And four, it shifts a certain amount of accountability to the client.

For internal design teams the big problem with the multiple concept approach is that it reinforces the misconception that design is purely subjective. It sets up an atmosphere where design is seen as guesswork and where design criticism is reduced to picking favorites. It equalizes all opinions and shifts all the power to the committee of voters.

Worse, it establishes the notion that design is a special function, subject to unique expectations. Note that no other department works this way. The engineering team does not write three backends that a group of non-engineers then votes on. The journalist does not write three completely different versions of the same story.

Sign-off, Approval

Agencies provide a service and an important part of the service exchange is the client’s testimony of satisfaction, The Approval. This usually results in non-designer stakeholders “signing off” on design work.

This completely reasonable business practice ending up being mistaken for a design practice and now integrated design teams everywhere produce design work subject to their colleagues’ approval.

It’s another example of something no other department does. Yes, there are plenty of cases where work is subject to manager, executive, or budgetary approval, but this is not the same as the peer-level, cross-departmental approval process that happens with design.

Lots of deliverables

Providing a ton of research and process deliverables helps meet the billable hours target while also bridging the internal/external gap by building confidence in the relationship. It puts the stakeholders at ease and provides evidence of what is otherwise invisible work.

This job of exposing the process is something that agencies do incredibly well and something that clearly does have innate design process value (I never said that the business/design goals were mutually exclusive). It’s something I continually strive to emulate.

Designer alienation

It’s the nature of the agency-client relationship that the designers are often distanced from the discussion. The conversation takes place without them and then information is relayed back to the design team via project managers. Part of the reason for this is that putting a layer between the designer and client makes the conversation easier to manage.

This is no good for internal or external teams. Without a design voice in the room, vital information is routinely lost in translation. For the agency the cost/benefit may equal out but the internal design team gains nothing. And again, it supports the idea that design is some sort of special creative service as opposed to a companion business function.

What’s the Harm?

I’ve tried to identify some of the popular design practices with clear ties to agency business goals. The point is not to castigate these techniques, or even to challenge their design process value. If these techniques work for you, great.

I only want to draw attention to the idea that some of these adopted practices originate from solving problems you don’t have.

The reason this is worth paying attention to is that it may be contributing to the pervasive problem in many organizations of Not Understanding What Design is Really About. If you work on an integrated design team this means everyone around you has the wrong idea about what you’re supposed to be doing.

And worse, the power dynamics of the inherited client-agency relationship enable those who hold the misconceptions to continually reaffirm them.

Design is a Job, Not a Service

All of this is not to say that design doesn’t have special and difficult qualities. But this doesn’t require that design functions as an in-house imitation of an external service. Design is a job and it can work just like everyone else does.

If you work in an organization where serious thought has not yet been given to the role of integrated design in the product development process, there’s some work to be done unwinding from the current position and dispelling the Myth of the Magical Creative. This amounts to cultural change and cultural change can take a lot of effort and a lot of time.

In the next post I’ll share some of my experience working on this very problem, along with some techniques that have proved to be helpful in effecting change.