Mastering the art of doing business

Clients are increasingly looking for some serious consultancy from their designers, but do we, as an industry, measure up to the demand? Dave Allen talks business

SBHD: Clients are increasingly looking for some serious consultancy from their designers, but do we, as an industry, measure up to the demand? Dave Allen talks business

One of the most significant changes in design at the moment is the industry’s slow, but steady, acknowledgement that strategic thinking and planning is as much part of the design process as is creativity.

Listening to clients, understanding their business problems and expressing the solutions visually is the essence of design consultancy – and it is this process that is increasingly in demand.

As clients find new ways of working post recession, so design companies have to find new ways of giving them the higher levels of consultancy service they need. Very few clients today believe they are buying a logo, for instance, when they commission corporate identity work. If they are paying a serious design consultancy they do expect the rest of the iceberg, not just the tip.

Consequently, we’re seeing an evolution – from the totally design-led thinking of the Eighties towards a much more balanced partnership which combines different skills within the design company.

Designers now recognise that in an area as complex as corporate identity, no one person or one skill can do it all. Along with strong design capabilities, an identity consultancy needs other experts with hard experience of putting design work into a commercial context; people who can investigate the rationale for change and recognise how much is enough – and who understand how to communicate a new system to all employee groups.

They need sure cost-management and easy access to other disciplines, such as management or personnel consultants. Altogether the process has become far more complex than just turning out a new house style with a “thou shalt not” manual.

Obviously, the people carrying out this front-end work need to know and understand thoroughly both the market and the issues faced by the client organisation. Design consultancies looking to tap into what might seem to be a rich billing vein should beware of promising something they cannot deliver. If such a high level of service and expertise is what clients are looking for – particularly those in the market for corporate identity advice – the design industry will have to shape up if it is to be credible in providing it.

It is easy to look at consultancy as a way of charging more, but clients aren’t stupid. Many are already once-bitten and they can spot a bullshitter a mile away, particularly when the bill comes in.

Building a bona fide consultancy offer isn’t a matter of hiring a couple of MBAs or just poaching a few people from the client side. It’s also an attitude of mind. If new people with different skills are brought in to a company they have to fit comfortably with the existing culture – and this culture in turn has to adapt to incorporate them. Just as a client company making an identity change has to build consensus internally before making the change visible outside, a design company adding on a serious consultancy offer has to shift the company’s perception of itself accordingly.

A thoughtful approach needn’t dampen a design group’s sense of fun, but it should demand a level of professionalism and a commitment to the client in the long term. Dine and dash and consultancy don’t go hand in hand.

What does all this mean for the designer? Relegation to the backroom waiting to be briefed by the suits? Quite the contrary.

Clients now increasingly want to talk directly to the designers who will be doing their work. They don’t want their brief to shed meaning in a Chinese whispers exercise.

This means that the role of designer becomes enlarged rather than restricted. Instead of remaining aloof from the grimy world of business – as was the fashion for designers during the Eighties in particular – today’s designer has to take on the client’s issues, understand them and feed back solutions that demonstrate this grasp.

He or she should be able to work side by side with an account director or consultant, to approach the same problem from different angles. A them-and-us attitude between designers and consultants is always counter-productive. Real co-operation between them breeds true creative consultancy.

Almost as important as recruiting the right people is motivating them to continue to develop and grow within the company. A culture based on intelligent ideas needs feeding. Companies serious about offering consultancy should also be serious about training. Cross-fertilisation of approaches – designers learning marketing skills and consultants learning to think more laterally – creates a well-rounded offer and bright, fulfilled people.

The rewards of consultancy are great, but, ultimately, so is the responsibility.

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