Small talk better than big, clichéd formulas

Which size of consultancy delivers the optimum service: large or small? Jonathan Levien, who is a proponent of the latter, continues the debate

I have worked in a variety of design consultancies, from a large ‘one stop shop’ to a small studio and formed my own partnership two years ago. I believe there are many advantages to operating a small consultancy.

One of them is the integrity of the design philosophy, one which is shared by all the employees. There is no need for corporate brand awareness meetings on Mondays in an effort to hold things together. In a small consultancy, everybody shares and develops a vision through constant daily dialogue with each other. This dialogue is harder to maintain naturally in a big design consultancy, so clichéd formulas are created to represent the design approach.

The large consultancies seem to be preoccupied with ‘brand’ and ‘strategy’, seeing them as separate issues divorced from the activity of design. Often the message is inappropriate, patronising and diluted by the time it filters down to the project design. In a small consultancy, ideas seem to flow more from an independent, heightened awareness of the environment and people’s needs. So working on a more human level the results, in design terms, are more imaginative.

Most large consultancies are compartmentalised and tend to hire people for a particular skill rather than acknowledging the multi-faceted nature of people. It is far more rewarding for everybody if the roles are less defined, as they are in a small consultancy, as this enables a fluid interaction of skills and experiences. When you separate the creatives from production you end up with uninspired and disconnected employees.

In a small consultancy people feel more involved and responsible for the general welfare of the company as they have input into a relatively larger share of it. This makes employees more agile, pro-active and interesting as a group of people. A small consultancy can afford to be more discerning about the clients it works with as it is not under financial pressure to meet the cost of burdening overheads and a top-heavy workforce. Equally, the client can choose the design consultancy most suited to its project.

Small consultancies are characterised by their recognisable approach to design. It is the integrity of ideas which gives meaning to the work, resulting in design with clarity and consistency. It is also this integrity which generates the energy and cultural appeal of a small consultancy. It is the intuitive and spontaneous response to problems instead of brand and marketing-led solutions that lead to progressive design. This is why large global clients increasingly see the benefits of working on big projects with small design consultancies.

With lower overheads, a small consultancy is financially very competitive and a greater percentage of its income can be invested in software and hardware, providing a cutting-edge service to its clients. The clients know more of their money is being spent on quality design time and less on running costs.

Rather than supply every aspect of the design service under one roof, improvements in software compatibility and a faster Internet enable us to work at real time with outside resources, if necessary. A strong, vibrant connection can be established with like-minded people who are the best in their field. The design budget can be spent more effectively and projects made more interesting by introducing alternative creative disciplines on a project basis.

These companies may be handpicked according to specific needs, ultimately offering more choice and diversity to the client. They are also small and flexible, allowing the assembly of teams at short notice, while offering a rich and diverse range of project possibilities. On completion, both go their own way until the next time. This network of services provides a fresh

and unique fusion of people and approaches which reflects in the work. Added to this, most large global companies specialise in a certain technology or production approach which requires its own engineers. While working closely alongside them, this leaves the small consultancy free to concentrate on what it is good at – design.

Through developments in communications technology, it seems that the geographic situation of a consultancy has less and less to do with the efficient running of it. These developments enable the consultancy to travel around the world, servicing its clients in France while on business in China, so there is no real need to have offices all over the globe.

With communications made easier, more informal and direct, there are fewer people involved in relaying information and therefore running costs are less and efficiency goes up. Also, there is a more direct connection between the client and the people actually doing the work, with less information lost in translation.

Operating a small consultancy is a choice people make because they are not willing to compromise their design approach in search of a larger market share. Large clients are increasingly moving away from the idea of working with unwielding, all-encompassing ‘one stop shops’. They need small, creative, well-connected offices that are in tune with the spirit of our time. Big ideas are important, but you don’t need a big office to achieve them.

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