Duffy: Future-Proofing Your Design Agency

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by Joseph Duffy, EVP of design & John Geletka, EVP of digital strategy at Duffy

Let’s put on our space suits, hop into the DeLorean and head to the future of your design firm, ad agency or interactive shop. We have to sign a disclaimer: all opinions here are those of the authors, and may or may not be well-received.

First, let’s look at the cultural trends that are larger than just design and marketing. There are new working models, new tools and new types of people with diverse and complex skill sets driving change.

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New Working Models

The new working model will have a hive mentality of generalists aided by computers and augmented by specialists. This will mean less of a top-down management style—so long boss!—and flat organizations. We’ve already seen new models like this being tried in companies like Zappos and we can expect to see a lot more. Also of note in the new model, there’s seemingly greater reliance on personal integrity, motivation and the right fit in a given organization. People are more interested in understanding their place versus being put in a place where folks with talent have much more control. But the real future shock for this industry will take both of these trends and mutate them in ways currently believed to be unspeakable, impossible and akin to being gored by X-ACTO blades.

New Tools

Speaking of blades, let’s talk about new tools and resources that allow us to do better work, faster. At the moment, the mobile dev world has powerful SDKs from Apple, Google and Facebook, as well as a ton of PaaS and SaaS offerings that dramatically speed development. We are in an API economy where pieces of any dev puzzle are fairly easy to access. On the design and media side the same is true. The ability to source images, automate media buys and conduct big data research changes literally every day. To keep up may be impossible, but to keep after it is required. A few of the tools that are rapidly becoming mainstays include Slack for team communication, file sharing and task monitoring; Sketch for quicker-than-Photoshop mock-ups and layouts; Zeplin for collaboration between UX and front-end dev; plus myriad scripting languages, unprecedented access to data and low cost infrastructure. Follow producthunt.com or their app to stay current.

New Talent

It used to be that the jack-of-all-trades was the master of none. Let’s talk about the rise of the generalist more, but really the rise of the generalist with talent. One of the big changes to the talent pool is the power of online information and training. Literally any topic, any trick and any troubleshooting can be addressed in seconds. Low-cost training—even free MIT and Stanford courses—mean that we can always be improving our skills. This is not about the ‘learn to do a few things and coast’ mentality. It’s about who’s hungry for information and self-improvement. It’s also about contributing to the team and being able to pitch in as needed. The old days of the subject matter expert meant waiting in line for the most precious work. The firm of the future doesn’t have time for that.

So What’s Going to Happen?

1. Brands Take Back Control. The Move Back (Again) to In-house

One of the most despised trends in history is about to become the savior of the industry. Increasingly, the move by clients to create an in-house creative department will be the norm. Fears of bad work and low fees will cause many old school design firms to predict the demise of the design world falling into an abyss of mediocrity and misery. OK, most in-house work today is, quite honestly, subpar—for good reason. The best talent isn’t drawn to the in-house team. The Internal Force is such that any new hire gets sucked into business as usual. That’s why great designers have not usually gone in-house. In the future they won’t have to. As hired guns, the top designers and their firms will have one foot in and one foot out.

This isn’t a new concept. It’s been successfully executed for years by the likes of Apple, Nike, Samsung and even Ford Motor Company. And as the world continues to love great design, the need to emulate these great companies will drive the in-house migration further.

But here’s one look at the crystal ball. Sure, the internal teams will grow and become more talented. But the talent will be augmented by the integration of creative stars who operate outside of the in-house group. These partnerships will create a best-of-both-worlds situation. Face it, not every company can hire Jony Ive. But they can team up with a part-time rock star, Guru consultant.

Why This Works

  • We have to be honest and admit that us outside guys and gals can’t know how to get stuff done like the in-house guys and gals.
  • Inside teams also have to admit that the outside perspective of the Guru will allow them to see the forest from the trees. There might not be anyone internally who has the vision or the high level talent to guide the path to great work. You will need that to do great work.
  • There will be an end to the “whisper-factor”. People believe that going in-house means you either sold out or weren’t that good. With the help of the outside Guru, the internal work will improve and you will be able to recruit better talent.
  • We predict an end to the current bad practice of an in-house CYA mentality. Focus on how to leverage outside resources to your in-house advantage. Use those teams because it is not about your personal job, it is about getting great work done…together.
  • This will change the age-old hard feelings generator: who gets credit? The Team gets credit now.

2. Design Will Be Formally Applied in the Business World

Designers will have leadership roles in more organizations responsible for business. Great design is table stakes but the application of design to change business is where the future is. At Duffy we call this the design-driven business, and your creative director is your Chief Growth Officer. For those accustomed (or chained) to the old model, this will be a difficult transition. Proven techniques from the startup and development world will help. Agile development and lean startup practices are perfectly matched to the team mentality. If the company brings in the outside Guru, the chance to leapfrog expected outcomes increases. Big Creative will be leveraged to create products, services and revenue-generating vehicles, and not just be used to promote them.

3. The Idea Machine

The Rise of the Scientific Designer might be 2nd only on the disgust-o-meter to the Rise of the In-house Designer. Again, bear with us as your future is at stake. First, we have to pronounce The End of the Illusion of Design. Gone as well is the design maestro whipping up magic in a creative cave until “Voila!”. Fun while it lasted, but the market doesn’t have time to wait for that to happen, or the stomach to redo it if the genius idea tanks. The next generation of great ideas will be made real by data. We’re not saying robo-designers will conquer the drawing board. We do want to talk about how fast we can bring an idea to market, test it and kill it. We do want to talk about the death of the website and app in the near future, and the rise of the process. The culture is changing rapidly. The best design has always reflected, and even anticipated the larger cultural shifts. Reading the data is better than reading tea leaves.

Finally, What Should an Agency or Design Firm Do?

  1. Create a culture that puts the work first
  2. Structure for process changes
  3. Re-think the Creative Director role
  4. Hire data and insights people

It’s a great time to be a designer. Look ahead, not back, and great design will follow.

About the Authors

Joe Duffy was born into the design business—literally. He has learned from some of the world’s most talented creative people and set out to follow in his father’s footsteps from day one. Joseph is charged with bringing brilliant creative opportunities to the Duffy team as well as being the keeper of the Duffy brand. Joseph’s work has been recognized for design excellence by: American Institute of Graphic Arts, Communication Arts, Print, Graphis, and numerous other publications and organizations. He also travels around the country speaking to design organizations and schools and often judges design competitions and award shows.

With more than 15 years experience merging marketing and technology, John Geletka blends technical acumen with form, function, and design. His expertise encompasses marketing strategy, brand planning, product development, user-centered design, and cross-platform mobile and web application development. John’s work has been recognized for design and technology excellence by: The Favourite Website Awards, The Webby Awards, Communication Arts, and numerous other publications and organizations. He often speaks about design, technology, and user experience around Chicago. John also teaches digital foundations at the Chicago Portfolio School.


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9 thoughts on “Duffy: Future-Proofing Your Design Agency

  1. Lulaturner

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  2. UnclePaul

    The death of the website and app? Not anytime soon, I’m afraid. Let’s all check back in 5 years time to see how all the predictions here have actually panned out. I suspect not much will have changed.

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