A changing tide

(Some half-thoughts based on hunches and radar blips. Go easy.)

I’m starting to feel that we’ve reached an inflection point in digital design.

Specialisation and consultancy were the dominant trends of the last 5–10 years. Experts thrived in high-profile agencies or lived comfortably as independent consultants, while in-house design teams were largely seen as downtrodden, pulled in too many directions, and unable to establish themselves as genuine authorities.

But now the polarity is reversing, and I sense a drift toward centralisation. It is the hybrid designer – not the specialist – who is most in demand, and every capable visual designer has picked up interaction design fundamentals. The specialists’ differentiation and competitive advantage is shrinking. The result is a swing toward direct intervention rather than consultancy, and companies that value breadth and flexibility over individual expertise.

Judge for yourselves whether you think the evidence is strong enough. Peter Merholz – formerly of Adaptive Path, the original UX supergroup now boasting a much-changed lineup – recently listed some noted interaction designers who have made the transition, and we’re all aware of Facebook’s aggressive pursuit of design talent in recent months. Perhaps my joining Twitter is another illustration of my hypothesis. I also speak with many senior interaction design agency staff who dream of the ideal startup role, or of transitioning into product management (which I suspect is far more challenging than most anticipate).

A great agency is still a strong asset to the industry and its clients, just as a bad agency is still harmful – and there are undoubtedly counter-examples to my evidence. However, one thing is clear: the design industry’s focus is no longer on agencies. It is on products.

Perhaps this is a natural evolution. Now that clients understand the value of design, it’s entirely logical for them to build their own capabilities. And maybe we’re also experiencing the limitations of our previous approaches. Responsive design and Agile have forced us to re-evaluate our methods, and we’re finding there are simply no tactical short-cuts for cross-channel and service design: the entire company itself must be designed, which demands internal influence. Money’s certainly a factor too; stock options and acquisition deals can be hard to resist.

But I also wonder if there’s a deeper motivation: a collective mid-career crisis, if you will. A household brand in our portfolio no longer appeals. No one wants to make another campaign site or Groupon clone. Instead, I see a community questioning whether it’s had the impact it dreamed of in its idealist youth. The ‘make the web better one site at a time’ mindset is really just treading water at this point.

One reason I found last year’s Brooklyn Beta so compelling was that I met many attendees who were struggling with this angst, as I was. The sense of shared cross-examination was palpable, and the unspoken conclusion was clear. If we truly believe in the power of design, it’s our duty to apply it where it can have the biggest impact.

I’ve been thinking a lot about scale recently. How can we amplify the effects of what we do? I see three methods:

  1. Example & education – sharing ideas, successes, and opinions through case study, mentorship, speaking, writing.
  2. Leadership – assuming positions of authority in organisations (executive level, internal champions), or in public office (politics, pressure groups, professional associations).
  3. Reach – finding ways to increase the number of users/citizens our designs affect.

I see many recent changes in the design community mapping to the latter two goals. We’ve never had any problems with Example and Education, and long may that continue. But I sense a new attitude of buckling down to change entire organisations, to increase public and governmental awareness of the importance of our work, and to seek out opportunties to affect the lives of millions. This is music to my ears.

A lot’s been written about the alleged decline of client services, and plenty of people are now rushing to its defence. As always, “it depends” is the only reliable answer; context is the key factor in deciding whether to work for, or hire, external consultants. But I do wonder how the agency world will respond to this shifting community focus. How will they manage to stay an attractive option for designers and organisations who are increasingly internally-focused?

There is another possible interpretation: namely, that I’m projecting my own assumptions onto behaviour that could be interpreted any number of ways. But I spy a pattern – however faint – that’s worth further examination. Am I onto something, or just seeing ghosts?

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