The need for a new design paradigm

The design industry has reached a tipping point. We’ve reached a point where the overspecialisation of design fields has fragmented the market and the available offerings so much, that clients need to have a design background in order to understand what it is that we do exactly. It’s time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

First let’s identify the players that comprise the design industry. Architecture & interior design firms, branding studios, digital agencies, industrial designers, are all part of it, yes (and about 1,000 more specialties I believe). But so are marketing firms, communication agencies, advertisers and service design experts.

If you just raised an eyebrow while reading this last sentence, think about what those specialties’ job is. They are the final step in a process whose scope is to provide the customer with a designed product, and if you think that it doesn’t really involve design, think again; most of them employ internal design teams (or outsource), because they effectively deal with communication, which (by definition) is designed and executed.

We (designers) have been hardcoded to believe that overspecialisation is the best available solution. You can kind of blame the industrial revolution and Adam Smith for that, but that would be a gross generalisation, as well as profound misunderstanding of what Smith actually believed on the subject (he famously was a generalist). Schools have worked towards building qualified individuals, who work well in a very specific and controlled environment or, in extreme cases (yes, I’m looking at you architecture) presumed demigods who know it all and are rightfully on top of the design pyramid.

The thing is though, that we’ve been looking at it all wrong; from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. For designers fragmentation has become a safety mechanism. We do our part, then someone else takes over. If they drop the ball then we get the chance to feel angry that our “vision” was diluted and violated, and blame it on the next guy (hi there branding specialists and online advertisers). We work in a bubble, expect our work to be understood and respected and move on when it doesn’t. You know who doesn’t really care for that? Our clients.

And we’ve been screwing them over every step of the way.

The client relies on design to accomplish a specific goal. And I’m sorry to disappoint you but that super cool, minimalistic, award-winning packaging design (website, office, logo, you get the point) is not enough to help the client reach their goal. Proper understanding of how a business plan is constructed, what the marketing has planned, how the advertising will work and what communication strategy has been built around these things will.

Our job shouldn’t be touch-and-go.


Design specialisation is slowly giving way to design thinking (which also covers more abstract notions such as the ability to design culture, or design systems — areas that find current school curriculums lacking, as John Maeda notes). And the interesting thing about this shift is that thinking by yourself will result in, pretty much, a one sided outcome.

Everyone needs to have a seat at the table and understand their role — and, mind you, there’s a new breed of Product Designers who already do. Branding, digital, architecture, marketing, communication, advertising, product, are all connected. The process must become organic in order to produce the best results.

And, I know what you’re thinking, don’t worry I’m not implying that everyone should become a mega-firm with 200 employees overnight (remember, ad agencies are suffering from that same disease). What is feasible though is to look at your position in the design process and try to advocate, to the best of your abilities, for the need to involve everyone as early as possible.

If your client comes to you for a packaging design, a website, whatever it might be, ask the tough questions: how does it fit in with their plan, what’s the next step, how is what you’ll be designing implemented when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture?

Branding, digital, architecture, marketing, communication, advertising, product, are all connected. The process must become organic in order to produce the best results.

Companies like IDEO have been doing this for years, but their clientele has always been rather specific and as a result it has felt like an exclusive type of service, one that SMEs couldn’t have, or couldn’t afford.

In recent years there have been steps toward — what I feel like is — the right direction from companies that understand the importance of cross-field collaborations. Snøhetta comes to mind (architecture & branding), the superb Anagrama (branding & interior design), as well as agencies that have been combining branding & communication for a while now — such as London’s The Team or Albion, and a few others.

Vince Frost is probably the one with the most impressive transformation in recent years, by announcing this past summer that he would be forming the Frost Collective, a collaboration of different fields for the benefit of their clients, which includes their world renowned branding studio, as well as the addition of interior design and marketing & communication services.


If we take a step even further back we’ll see that the design industry is experiencing tectonic shifts like never before in its history. Technologies and theories that seemed so far away are now within immediate reach (i.e. VR, IoT, AI, and other acronyms), design collaborations on a global scale are trying to solve problems so abstract that seem far fetched, but are now starting to make sense (Kyu, for example, has acquired a minority stake of IDEO and the collective — alongside firms like SYPartners & Sid Lee — is tackling issues like changing the global perspective for the aging population), and the Huge (pun intended) scale of game changing companies is making them look towards evolving the field as a whole (through workshops, R&D, self initiated projects, experimental work, etc).

In the near future, those left behind are going to have a tough time catching up (at the most extreme example, architecture firms have been working off the same premise for the past 100+ years and already have a serious problem today; don’t take my word for it, just ask Rem).

Where does that leave the smaller players? I believe that this is the time to adapt, reposition and scale our offerings to present our clients with opportunities like never before in the past. It’s time to take risks (like starting the next [Digital] Product Studio) and show an open mind and a diversified skill set.

It’s time for a new design paradigm.

(This blog post was originally published on our website)