The one misalignment that breaks business-design collaborations

Donn shares two broad perspectives of design that, when misaligned, can cause tensions between businesses and designers.

Summary

  • When deciding to engage design, there are two broad kinds of perspective and design appetite that directly determine its profitability: a) design as execution of the tried and tested, and b) design as R&D (research and development)
  • “Know that design is like R&D, innovation is inherently wasteful, and (be) prepared to kind of put in the resources hoping that at some point in time there might be some big returns based on some big wins.”
  • Problems and conflicts arise when companies and designers misalign on the two perspectives of design that result in a mismatch of expectations; for example, companies who seek profit and tried and tested methods that engage designers who prefer exploration and seeking new methods, or companies who hire external agencies specifically for R&D but are met with designs who follow safe and standard templates
  • “The painful part being designers is that I would say most of us, especially at STUCK, we operate on the end of like the new and wonderful, all the strange and weird and the new areas that we’re trying to open up. So our main pain would be encountering a lot of clients who want that tried and tested, and proven and quick money.”

Full Transcript

There are clients who, when they hire an external agency, they sometimes are looking for the big spark. And then if for such clients, you operate the project like, “I give you a standard template”, the client would just not feel like this is the right agency to work with. So it’s a mismatch in terms of expectations.

DESIREE
I have another question here, where it’s, you know, practically how do I know, as a client, whether I’m getting my money’s worth when I engage a design agency? Are there evaluation criteria that I can look into? Is it the quality of the outcome, that it’s super creative? Or is it about a rigorous process? To know that I’m getting my money’s worth?

DONN
This question depends very much on what kind of design appetite is being put in question here. There is design whereby you can have very quick sense that there’s a return, and this is where you don’t take that much risk; you do just based on established best principles, you execute things a bit like a machine right, and then you know that for sure it will kind of create a certain type of reaction in people. In the case of whether is it marketing communications or even just as simple as seeing what is a product out there that exists and sells well, making just a slightly different variant of it, you probably are in the space of validated demand. And if you can control your costs and everything well, design would be probably quite reasonably profitable if you operate like that.

If you operate design with the perspective of R&D (research and development), and so this is the opposite end of the spectrum right where you’re like trying all kinds of strange things hoping that you might find some big spark one day that makes you a lot of money right. Then you have to see design from that R&D perspective where R&D really burns a lot of money, and you’re almost sure that it will always feel like a key cost center instead of a profit center of companies, except the companies who know how to operate it well and who have benefited from it; they know that R&D is vital if they want to be a hit in the long run or if they want to make big leaps.

So, many times I would say it’s because companies come to designers with the confusion of these two, and it’s not clearly defined between the client and the designer that causes the problems.

(When) the company wants to come for sheer certain profit from design, they want the designers to operate like, uh yeah follow the template. Or they don’t even know and they just think that design is that and everybody will operate that way. Then they realise that the designers are giving them all kinds of strange new wonderful things and they are putting a lot of time in figuring out some new possibility that others have not really explored, then this client cannot make that immediate return from a tried and tested type of formula. The designer is frustrated, “why is the client so timid and conservative”, then it’s just fighting. But eventually it’s just the perspective was different right, what they wanted in it was different.

There are clients who, on the opposite end, kind of have a lot of budget and they are the ones who maybe typically already run big R&D efforts. When they hire an external agency, they maybe even have their own design teams right, when hiring external agencies, say like ours, they sometimes are looking for the big spark and something weird. They don’t mind that the project fails. They’re trying to see what’s out there, and they’re hoping they might catch something surprising. And then if for such clients, you operate the project like, “I give you a standard template, I do it in the safe way”, the client would just not feel like this is the right agency to work with. So it’s a mismatch in terms of expectations.

The painful part being designers is that I would say most of us, especially at STUCK, we operate on the end of like the new and wonderful, all the strange and weird and the new areas that we’re trying to open up. So our main pain would be encountering a lot of clients who want that tried and tested, and proven and quick money right. We’ll be like always hoping that, hey maybe someday they can see the light. Then it’s like, you do something cool for them and then they said “no, no, I want it to be like that.” So yeah, that will be that key conflict.

It’s really an alignment of perspectives, so when we find those companies that like what we do, want us to work on the weird and strange and new and cutting edge, then it’s a very happy arrangement.

Such companies, they usually are very mature to know that design is like R&D, innovation is inherently wasteful, and they are prepared to kind of put in the resources hoping that at some point in time there might be some big returns based on some big wins. They are not so particular about that next $10 that is guaranteed to make out of hiring you.

THE STUCK IN DESIGN TEAM
Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong

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