Fish in troubled waters

Colum Lowe thinks the end for independent designers is nigh and that the new fad will be for more in-house corporate design teams and design managers

Picture the scenario; some time in the dim and distant future the retail industry finally understands the importance of store environments and retailers have learnt how to control them through design. They reap the rewards of enhanced customer loyalty through branding and lifestyle shopping, impulse purchases and linked sales. They now understand the benefits and, more importantly, how to measure them fiscally.

If this situation ever came to pass what would be the next step for the retailer? It would bring the whole design resource – hook, line and sinker – in-house immediately so it could manage, control, indoctrinate and, more importantly, cut the costs. But, this new design department will still require outside assistance from time to time.

My father was a retail designer and the industry has already changed beyond recognition in his professional lifetime. Today you can get BAs, MAs and even MBAs in design management to prepare this new internal workforce for the changes. The next phase in the maturing of our industry has already begun, but I’m not sure we’re ready for it.

Why am I so confident that this will happen? You only have to look at commercial organisations in different industries that have been using design in a controlled way for decades and have built up credible, award-winning internal design departments to see the future for retail design. Companies like Philips, Braun, Sony, and Apple Computer, not to mention the motor industry. It’s inconceivable to say that these organisations aren’t creative, don’t understand their brands and don’t deliver customer-facing solutions or products. Sure, they use external groups as well, but the main drive comes from inside their organisations. So why should the future of retail be any different given time and experience?

Nor should we be surprised. The design industry has been telling retailers to take their store environments more seriously for decades; well, now they are. In fact, they are taking them so seriously they are already bringing the resource in-house.

Some of the big retailers are catching on already; experimenting with internal teams and external consultancies, trying to find the right balance between the 3C’s of creativity, cost and control. Tesco, for example, has a breed of design managers that are predominantly designers first and managers second. They are learning how to manage this resource effectively, and once this has been achieved they will turn their attentions to managing it efficiently.

I believe we will witness improved design management and ultimately an increase in design work, which is good. However, I also believe that in future most of this work will be carried out by internal teams who will become experts in their own industry and their corporate brand and know how to communicate this to their customers. They will acquire a depth of knowledge and experience that external people won’t be able to compete with.

How will this affect the design industry? It will see a culling of independent groups, with the remaining industry polarised between groups who specialise on picking up the scraps caused by the fluctuating workloads of internal teams, ostensibly becoming an extension of the corporate design department; and those that specialise in offering true creativity and innovation in a way internal teams can’t.

Like any good marketing activity, the aim is to turn a perceived weakness into a perceived strength. The unique selling point of these latter groups will be that they are not indoctrinated into a specific set of brand values or industry, but thrive on variety and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. The result will be innovation that is hard to achieve with an in-house team dedicated to a single brand.

Sure, there are groups out there that offer these services already, but they’re few and far between. There aren’t many Imaginations or Pentagrams, but in the future it will only be consultancies offering their level of creativity that will earn commissions.

So, are you ready for the future? They say there are only five types of businesses; those that make things happen; those that think they make things happen; those that things happen to; those that don’t know what happened; and those that weren’t aware that anything had happened at all. Which one are you? I’d say you’re probably not the first one.

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