On Reinventing a Design Studio

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the future of design consultancies. In the past 4 years, a number of well known design companies including Adaptive Path, Hot Studio, Bolt Peters, 8020, Fjord, Gecko, and Sofa, have been acquired by larger companies. Teehan+Lax recently closed it’s doors when its 3 partners joined Facebook. Maybe “the agency is dead“, or the entire consulting world is “on the cusp of distruption“, or we’re at least “feeling the squeeze“.

Without a doubt, the way businesses perceive, procure and utilize design is changing. Multiple forces are coming together to create this shift. The success of design-centric companies like Apple, AirBnb, Target, and Uber has made design a ‘need to have’ not just a ‘nice to have’. Technology has become less of a barrier to entry and “value is shifting from the development of underlying technologies… to the design of how technology interacts with the user.” At the same time, certain tasks that used to be the work of designers, can now be done by non designers using software, or more efficiently completed through the use of templates.

Some design companies have responded in interesting ways. Zurb has taken note of this shift and has built a uniquely positioned company that offers product design consulting along side a suite of software based products. IDEO has been exploring new models with IDEO.org, Open IDEO, and IDEO Futures. Even McKinsey is trying to reinvent itself. On the other end of the market, a new wave of design marketplaces like Crew, and The Idealists have found a niche serving customers at price points larger design companies can’t make profitable.

We’re Changing Too

This past Spring, we decided to dedicate some time to re-inventing Distill. We stopped taking on new projects, cut costs, and saved our pennies. We took a much needed vacation in August, then came back to work in September, except this time we were our own clients. We managed to save about 6 months of runway, and have taken a few projects along the way. Currently we have cash to cover our (modest) salaries and expenses until August 2015. We’re hoping that by documenting our journey, we can share some of what we learn as we try to find the best path forward.

What We’ve Done So Far

Since beginning this process we’ve talked to dozens of entrepreneurs and businesses about how they work with designers, and how design can help their businesses. We’ve studied all variety of design and consulting services, and looked at how other service industries are changing. In November, after countless customer development interviews and emails to every good designer we know, we launched a prototype of our Micro-consulting marketplace, Talkshop. More about that soon.

What We’re Doing Next

In the coming months, we’ll be continuing to iterate on Talkshop, but we are also working to overhaul Distill’s consulting offerings. We’re looking at ways we can provide the highest amount of impact, while working on very focused and targeted design challenges. We hope you’ll follow along as we tackle these new challenges.

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