Design consultancies are dead! Long live design!

One year ago Katie Marcus was working for a well-known London based digital agency. She says, ‘I was working for brands like Orange, Skype and French Connection doing interface designs and psds. It was fine, but I really wanted to be doing more, to be involved in the processes happening on either side of my work.’ In May 2011 she decided to take the plunge and start freelancing.

Nick Marsh
Nick Marsh

12 months later she’s 50 projects down, having worked on around 15 new products, acted as design director for four startups and seen one of her creations, group shopping site Llustre, exit via private sale to American competitor

‘Working for startups is the best. Everything moves very fast and you can see immediately where your input is being used, and importantly, almost everything you design does get used. I’ll never go back to being a cog’, she says.

Katie is part of the new generation of multi-disciplinary, digitally-native visual and user experience designers who are central to the success of the world’s hottest startup companies.

Only a few years ago every design school grad that wasn’t a full-on artisan aspired to work for one of the big design consultancies (ideally IDEO, runner-up Imagination) where they’d be working for other big companies on big branding/product innovation projects.

The assumption was that the only route to impact was by working for established companies as a consultant. In-house design jobs just weren’t an option. Making your own products, equally unlikely.

These days it just isn’t like that anymore. The economics of the digital economy have changed everything – through the process of startup products can, and are, dreamt up, built and shipped to markets of hundreds of millions of customers in a day.

Earlier this year Ben Pieratt, designer and founder of wrote a blog post entitled ‘Dear Graphic and Web Designers, please understand that there are greater opportunities available to you.’ In it, he points out that historically, designers needed big companies to help them get their products to customers, but, thanks to the Internet, now they don’t. As he says, ‘you now have direct access to the raw vein of popular attention. The pixels you’re pushing have a higher exchange rate than you’re giving yourself credit for.’

In some ways this feels like the fulfilment, some 48 years later, of Ken Garland’s famous First Things First manifesto where he called for designers to stop wasting their time selling ‘cat food and stomach powders’ and proposed ‘a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful and lasting forms of communication’.

Today’s design heroes, people like Kate Aronowitz, head of design at Facebook and Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gumroad and early head of design at Pinterest, have shown that by working in-house for startups you can combine a global reach for your designs with the focus that comes from working on one product and have the personal control that comes from ‘doing your own stuff ‘ – i.e small team, no marketing police.

A great example of this trend is Kohl Vinh. Until recently Vinh was design director of the New York Times. After five years on the job he left, but not to start another agency, instead he quit to work on startups. He explained why in a well circulated blog post last year:

‘We use the term “startup” and “tech startup” interchangeably, but the latter is becoming less and less fully accurate over time. Many recent startups are powered by design as much as technology, because the technology has matured so greatly that the difference-maker is design. Design is playing a key part in the success of Tumblr, Instagram, Flipboard, Groupon, Kickstarter and many, many others. These are the great new design companies, not the studios and agencies you read about in the design press.’

This new trend isn’t just confined to the States. These great new design companies are already here in London – in May this year, startup recruitment event Silicon Milk Roundabout hosted over 120 startup businesses looking for new hires, and for the first time put on a whole day dedicated to product management and design.

In short, there’s never been a better time to be a designer. Make sure you’re making the most of it.

Nick Marsh is design director at Sidekick Studios.

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  • Steven November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Every few weeks someone comes along and says that something is ‘dead’…

    Advertising has been pronounced ‘dead’, Marketing is apparently ‘dead’ and now Design Consultancies are ‘dead’!

  • Derek johnston November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Of course design consultancies are not dead, new start ups built from the ashes of big old lumbering ones appear each week- to great success.

    Where do all the freelancers get work from if not consultancies who offer clients an intelligent and structured approach?

  • Christian Jones November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Point 1: It’s not ALL about London. Okay wages are better, but the quality of life is crap. I was offered work experience with M & C Saatchi when I graduated. They were not going to pay me anything, so I told them to stick it.

    Near ten years and three awards later, I’m now considering starting up my own design consultancy, but in the North-West, yes, outside London! : )

    Point 2: For those graduates think ever idea they have is a golden egg – wake up! Real tallent will be spotted, but these big companies are desperate for your ideas, don’t sell out to them. Get some real experience and do it yourself! Most of these agency people are stuck-up with a really bad taste in fashion and music.

    I was told to be prepared for this industry, be thick skinned they said. Maybe it’s made me a little too hard, but when you put up with managers and directors who know little about their job, never mind yours and they tell you how to do your job, that can and will piss you off.

    My advice, start small and work up. If you’re good enough, your reputation will build itself.

    Chin up.

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