Of the many things you work through as a designer, determining how
to structure roles around a design function seems to be a perennial
struggle. Truth be told, most structural problems occur by letting
growth (adding people to the operation) happen to you. And you let
it happen to you because you might misunderstand what it means.
Here are three quick points to make about growth.
First, it does not necessarily mean that you'll make more money if
you are a firm with more employees. In some cases, there is
actually an inverse relationship between size and net profit.
Second, growing does not always mean that you'll be able to snag
larger client relationships. There is some truth to this, but it's
not absolute. We all know of very small shops doing great
Third, what growth always means is that someone's role should
change, and if you are a manager, your role must change. You have
suspicions in this regard because some of that change has been
forced on you. You will know for sure that it's true if you examine
the source of some of your frustrations: what you should be doing,
how you wish people were more responsible, and what kind of
accountability you long for at the studio.
In a minute we're going to look at how the role of “Designer” and
“Interfacer” needs to be pulled apart and focused in different
individuals, but let's paint a tad more background first.
Unique temptations of the design profession
Look back for a minute. You started your career as a designer. You
even began your firm in that role, since there weren't enough
bodies to require your full-time supervisory skills. All this was
probably welcome to you, since you were most comfortable in the
designer role. You touched the work directly; there was nothing
between you and the activity of design, or between you and the
client. This illustrates how design firms face some unique
temptations that make this issue of structuring roles even more
difficult than you would expect from firms that size.
Higher interaction level.
The level of access you are granted to your client is far higher
than for nearly any other service firm your size. You are typically
working with the top executive team and brand managers, and in
their most critical communication channels. The other firms that
serve your clients are not given that level of access. This
includes the firm that leases the door mats, does the landscaping,
or repairs the copy machines. The work you do is far more
important, and it requires an appropriate level of interaction
between your firm and your client's principals. Because of this, it
is natural to expect that your personal presence will be required
at the client level. It is tempting to stay too involved in client
affairs. If nothing else, it is more difficult to know when to
remain involved and when to delegate.
In contrast with other types of service firms, many of you run
companies that are relatively small. Whether your firm has five or
fifty people, that's still out of proportion with the amount of
influence you have. This smaller size is an internal matter,
though, in that it creates a greater temptation to be involved in
the Doing (see above). After all, you know how to Do, since that
was your entry into this field. This is especially true if you've
hired the wrong people, since they'll need training, and in many
cases it's just easier to step in and fix what went wrong rather
than train someone. In the short term, anyway.
Deliverables that are less tactile.
The substance of what you offer is advice (or at least it should
be). Sure, you might be doing implementation work, but whether it's
bundled or unbundled with the advice you are giving, providing
advice is the core of what you do. The easiest things to delegate
are physical activities that can be replicated, such as building an
electronic file or asking survey questions. High-level thinking is
difficult to delegate because it is not tactile. Even high-level
contact is difficult to delegate because any representative of your
firm must be able to think on his or her feet. So, it's no wonder
that designers struggle with their role, right? You've made
yourself believe that you are indispensable, and this becomes a
self-fulfilling prophecy when you hire the wrong people. “See, I
told you they couldn't do it.” And the cycle repeats itself.
Designers want an emotional connection with a solution, demanding
direct contact with the client. They don't know why, and they can't
explain it rationally, but they start to quiver with fright at the
mere thought of not having direct access to the client. Some seem
to think it would be like Mozart composing for the King without
even meeting him. They are fear irrelevance and can't get past
their own control issues. In the typical firm, this translates into
designers lacking the sort of skilled support staff that would
otherwise be present in a consultative service industry setting.
Specifically, you seldom see account service people (what I call
Interfacers) in a design firm.
What clients prefer
So far, we've just talked about what you as a designer may prefer.
How does the experienced client react, though, when told that they
“get to work directly with the designer?” Keep in mind that we're
talking about sophisticated clients who have not been unduly
influenced by your promises of direct designer interaction.
Obviously any change in that arrangement would alarm them, but
that's just because they were attracted to your promises.
The more sophisticated client wonders several things:
First, will this designer be so close to her work that we won't be
able to discuss it calmly without it becoming too personal? Will he
feel like I'm criticizing him if I don't like a particular
Second, will this designer be organized? Will they be buttoned up?
(Let's face it: how many designers are known for this.)
Third, will my stuff get done? I like the accountability of someone
else knowing the budgets and schedules. I want someone looking over
this designer's shoulder.
Fourth, in my career I've worked with great designers and great
Interfacers, but I've seldom seen both in the same person. So which
is going to suffer?
All this points to a plea that you consider professional account
people, or “Interfacers.” Interfacing is the function that connects
your firm to the client. Whether they are called “account something
or others” or not, the function they perform is to interface with
your clients, handling communication both ways. They are a client's
Using professional interfacers
Here are a three suggestions on how to make this work so it
benefits both you and your clients:
What will happen at your firm
Well, let me state the obvious: these benefits will only accrue if
you have the right person and you are committed to the process. But
if you are?
First, you'll get better information from the client because the
Interfacer will know how to draw it out.
Second, the project will be more organized from the start.
Third, your edgier solutions will get a better selling job back to
Fourth, you'll really know what the client thinks because they
won't hold back.
Fifth, prices will be higher, and scope creep will be kept in
Sixth, you'll grow existing accounts from the inside out.
That list is formidable enough to at least give this serious
consideration, right? Remember, too, that it's not so much a plea
to limit designer/client contact, but to consider a system where
the designer is not primarily responsible for that
Maybe this is worth another look. I think you'll find that even
your best clients will notice unprofessional interfacing long
before they recognize substandard design.
The reason firms fail is not creativity, location, or the marketplace. It's management ability. Here are the most common 12 mistakes we see creative service firms make.
Section: Tools and Resources -
What does a project manager do, and does your design firm need one? Emily Carr rises to the challenge, takes ownership of the issue and delivers some solutions.
Section: Tools and Resources -
collaboration, new business development, studio management
Putting off a difficult conversation at the office? Bryan offers ways to confront a troublesome employee or coworker and get results.
Section: Tools and Resources -
INitiative, in-house design
This toolkit—a downloadable booklet of activities that enables
groups of people throughout the world to collaborate on making
changes in their communities—encourages participants to develop problem-solving skills
while drawing on their unique strengths and perspectives.
Section: Why Design -
Design for Good, design thinking, interaction design, nonprofit, culture, diversity, international, social responsibility, strategy, sustainability
Learn to facilitate interdisciplinary problem-solving sessions in this professional development workshop series hosted by AIGA chapters around the country.
Section: Why Design -
Event, Professional Development, professional development
“Be good at what you do and be nice to people.” I know
you’re probably thinking that it’s a no-brainer, but for many of us (and I’m
definitely one of them), this is easier said than done.
Section: Inspiration -
Design Job Series, job search, professional development, advice
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