The Big Decision to Design a Studio for Lots of Small Decisions

This essay is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond. 

Have you ever failed to define to a six-year-old something that defines you? When it happened to me, my son and I were cruising through Brooklyn to his school. In the thick of our daily sleepy question-and-answer car huddle, Isaac threw me a curveball. “Dad, what’s design?” he asked.

These three words and a curvaceous punctuation mark formed like Voltron right in front of my face and drew me into a staring contest. I didn’t know how to define something that defines me. And my answer had the potential to define how my son would value—or devalue—something so important to me. I tried to drive but Voltron kept looking at me; he wouldn’t even blink.

“Everything that isn’t made by nature has been designed. It’s how people make everything,” I said.

I felt like a failure. Voltron made me flinch, and I had taken what could have been such a magical moment and accidentally practiced some sleight of hand on my son.

But my answer stuck with me.

Design is everything (Everything is happening at a fuzzy center)

If design really is how we make everything, how do we define an organization, a culture and a workspace to make, well, everything? And how do we do it at a time when everything is bleeding into everything else?

Right now, we’re all moving to the middle. Technology companies, management consultants, advertising agencies, digital agencies, innovation shops and design studios are rushing toward a fuzzy center point where the skills we need aren’t so different. Research, data, interaction design, code, storytelling, visual and written expression—some groups will be more adept at some things but there’s no longer a clean line from “business problem X” to “partner Y.”

As a result, the convenient ways we’ve sliced up design are becoming inconvenient as we move toward the future. What happens if industrial design gets pulled into this “fuzzy center” due to 3-D printing? Or fashion design due to wearable computing? Or interior design due to smart surfaces?

And this is all happening at a time when digital media has made everything elastic. Digital media has introduced more ambiguity, which requires more small decisions than ever. (Compared to print and television, very little is imposed by the medium.) What those decisions are and who makes them will be what defines the design organization going forward.

Designing for lots of small decisions

So rather than telling you what you should do with your studio, we’ll tell you what we’re up to here at Big Spaceship. We’re trying to design our studio for lots of small decisions.

We define our studio with the invisible stuff. Lots of invisible stuff. It starts with the belief that outcomes matter more than outputs. Output obsession is a hangover from the manufacturing model where factory lines and divisions of labor prioritize efficiency and the elimination of defects. But if we’re not striving for repeatable outcomes, why define a studio by a repeatable process? (When things don’t fit neatly into boxes anymore, we know that trying to cram them in simply isn’t going to work.) We prioritize getting to unique outcomes, an emphasis that demands ambiguity and randomness—but not chaos.

A clear (and hopefully compelling) vision, mission and set of values help us navigate the ambiguity. These mental and emotional frameworks exist to guide and provoke human beings to make lots of small and interesting decisions. While the manufacturing model and technology have made so many businesses robotic and unemotional, we believe businesses that exist for humanity—not in spite of it—will thrive. And we believe that we can help design humanity back into business.

This belief drives Big Spaceship’s mission to create marketing that’s useful and products that have emotion. And this guides the direction our decisions take. But it is ultimately our values that shape how those decisions happen. And they’re simple:

  • Produce exceptional work
  • Co-create with your team and your clients
  • Take care of each other

When these three things happen, we get interesting groupings of people and skills bumping up against each other in random ways—yet guided by the invisible stuff—and interesting outcomes materialize. And that’s something all studios are striving for.

If “design is everything” and we need many perspectives to solve problems and create new things, then we don’t need a new generation of generalists in 2015 and beyond. The challenge doesn’t lie in individual designers and their specific areas. The challenge lies in bringing people together in ways we haven’t thought of and couldn’t plan for. (Because processes don’t lead us to where we need to go. A lot of catalytic interactions is where we need to go.) We need to design the studio of 2015 for lots of small decisions—like how to define design for a six-year-old.

Michael Lebowitz, founder and CEO of Big Spaceship, employs an original leadership style by staying extremely focused on the agency’s culture and maximizing creativity as a catalyst for developing avant-garde campaigns and product innovations for brands including Absolut, Google and HP. His creative business model was profiled by Harvard Business School and is now taught in more than 40 countries throughout the world. 

Mark Pollard, VP of brand strategy at Big Spaceship, leads a team of ten brand and content specialists on clients including Chobani and YouTube. He’s a brand planner who grew up digital and has been featured in AdNews’ “Top 40 under 40,” was named one of Sydney’s “Top 100 Creative Catalysts” and was listed by The Guardian as one of ten digital strategists to watch.