Design business sense

Design companies bang on about being creative, but in general they take fewer large-scale financial risks, are less imaginative about developing their business and are more hierarchical than many run-of-the-mill companies

Just how creative are Britain’s design businesses? I don’t mean in terms of British Design and Art Direction. I mean in terms of business generally. Terence Conran, James Dyson, Wolff Olins and others have helped change business on a macro scale. Others have inspired micro changes – project by project. But the wider reality is that most design consultancies are just small, reactive servicing companies for larger businesses; it’s only because their work involves some aesthetic judgement, a modicum of self-expression and a relaxed dress code that they are more “creative” than, say, a stationery supplier.

Therein lies the irony; design companies bang on about being creative, but in general they take fewer large-scale financial risks, are less imaginative about developing their business and are more hierarchical than many run-of-the-mill companies.

Part of the problem lies in the narrow way consultancies define their creativity. So often it is limited to the act of “designing” – of art directing an image, or experimenting with new shapes and materials. But the spirit of adventure and enterprise that informs this area is usually kept separate from how the company does business. Indeed, highly adventurous design thinkers often opt for very conventional business practices.

The problem is most acute in the heartland of consultancies, employing 15-30 people. Directors here are often also designers and, as they are able to enjoy a degree of self-expression from day to day, they often feel no imperative to think imaginatively about non-design issues as long as work is coming through the door.

The relationship between consultancy directors and new business directors is what best dramatises the separation between designing and business. I’ve witnessed episodes where directors are effectively saying to their business staff “you just keep the boat steady down below and we’ll sit up on the bridge and steer us all in the right direction with our inspiration” – and enjoy the view and the sun and the kudos for spotting land.

For all the talk of design consultancies offering a creative working environment, the reality is exactly the opposite. For example, many new business people have no clear role other than a client-grabbing function. Here is a highly intelligent and energetic individual whose talents, commitment and entrepreneurial spirit have been constricted to just one (exhaustingly constant) business operation. No wonder so many business design people feel like they are mere rowers in a lightless galley, providing the raw energy for the ship without having a say in the direction it takes.

What a ridiculous situation. If they’re good, they should be freed to develop the business approach of a consultancy with the same level of imagination and excitement as designers bring to projects. Good new-business people can be hugely valuable; they understand the needs, psychology and language of both designers and clients; they are superb translators of one culture to another.

It’s hardly surprising that design consultancies find it difficult to recruit them. There simply aren’t that many good new business people in the industry, and those that are often start their own companies or get grabbed by the biggest players. Basically, they’re an asset that won’t come your way or stick around unless they are properly empowered, challenged and rewarded.

Set these issues against our rapidly transforming environment. Design consultancies are superbly placed to create new value for themselves among the client community, and it’s never been easier to become a company that makes and owns things too.

Perhaps this is where an answer lies to how consultancies should view and use their new business people. Instead of making them slaves to limited growth, why not give them responsibility for changing the company? Through them the entire organisation can move through commercial areas that keep it thriving, challenged, and truly creative. Growth should be redefined too – their job should be about expanding a network of friends and partners so that the company can work with other specialists, taking on projects they couldn’t do alone or entering business sectors they have no previous experience in.

A company that transforms itself constantly like this stays vital and attracts clients wanting to benefit from change. How refreshing, then, if the title of new business director was not limited to just getting new business from the outside and started to be about creating a new business on the inside.

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