The Commodification of Design — What’s Next?

With IDEO, SY Partners, fuseproject and Lunar all joining larger agencies and consultancies recently, it’s easy to see the trend as typical “consolidation.” Think the advertising model, Don Draper and Roger Sterling cashing out to McCann Erickson? It’s a familiar and an easy argument — too easy.

A deeper cause for the current wave of consolidation in the design biz is the commodification of design thought. Twenty years ago, when design exploded out of its little ghetto of aesthetics to impact all of the business world, it’s process was fresh and its practitioners were few. Today, schools are pumping out thousands of grads who know how to design great customer experiences and generate “personas” and “customer journeys.” Business schools are pivoting from finance and consulting to innovation and entrepreneurship. The era of proselytizing for design is over and the procedures of design — both the theory and process — are well- known and wide-spread. They have become foundational, the sediment of business. Design and its current practice is now a commodity of some value, but not a rarity of great value.

So what’s next? I am looking at two sources for new thinking about design. The first, of course is demographics — the new generation of designers coming out of the best creative schools around the world. The Matter-Mind Studio in NYC (mattermindstudio.com), for example, started by three recent Parsons grads, is developing concept of “Feeling Follows Form.” Its a provocative twist on Form Follows Function and a great way to frame design as we return tangibility.

The other source of new thinking about design is the startup culture. Curating the volatility of the incubator — to me — is a fresh way to view how design can work to generate disruption and value. Looking at design as a flow process, not a linear, stage gate procedure, opens up fresh thinking about innovation.

Seeing recent events as “commodification” rather than “consolidation” allows us to look to the future, not the past and to seek the new and not pine for the past.