Where Does Innovative Design Happen?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the evolving world that interactive media designers inhabit. My recent post on Digital Archeology may be to blame, as it highlighted how the needs and interests of users have changed over the past 20 years. And the role of designers — including the types of environments in which we can best function and they way in which we innovate for clients.

But not all all designers and firms have evolved at the same rate, or the same direction. And a friend’s recent post on Facebook highlighted how even the basics of interaction are still not understood by some of the people directing it:

During a final internal presentation, the ECD of a huge traditional shop wanted to remove navigation & suggested that users will just use the forward & back buttons on their browser. – He actually thought the browsers forward button will take the user to the next page that was mocked-up.

Are episodes like this unusual? Well, we’ve all worked with people (clients, managers) who don’t know much about interaction and interface design basics — let alone what makes something exceptional and innovative. And we need to acknowledge that a designer’s role is not just to learn the client’s domain and create solutions, but to educate and illustrate the value and purpose of the designs to the clients. But if a designer is also educating their colleagues then creating something really innovative gets a lot harder.

And so I started to connect together some thoughts I’ve been having recently about the role of designers and how we fit in the professional world. So bear with me as I try to weave this all together.

The Challenges of Big Firms

Large firms have long been engaging in discussions (ie. here and here) of how they can evolve. This happened first (back in the 90’s) with traditional graphic design shops. Now it’s with big agencies. They’re worried that they may suffer fates like the music and movie industries.

One interesting approach, from a recent presentation by Golan Levin, recommended that agencies work more closely with outsiders — new media artists and creative technologists. This is, in part, a reaction to a handful of well publicized instances of agencies not giving credit to the artists whose work they copies. But he also believes that by working together the two groups can mutually benefit. By supporting and crediting new media artists, agencies get unique products, credibility,  and cutting-edge expertise. And new media artists are able to continue innovating with independence.

A big company

A more pessimistic view comes from this confession of a big-agency top digital exec. The anonymous exec argues that agencies function on scale rather than creative need. Thus much of the digital work is done to show capabilities to clients and win awards. Since the work doesn’t make a financial or business impact, the agency has no incentive to fully embrace digital. As a result, they can’t develop the types of environments in which digital designers can thrive and be successful. Instead designers get pulled into the existing structures and inertia of the firm and the quality of their work declines.

Creative community of anglerfish trying to absorb you. (Will Carey)

I stumbled across an old post by Mark Changizi entitled How Not to Get Absorbed in Someone Else’s Abdomen. It starts with the very strange story of how male anglerfish give up their lives to be absorbed into the female. By comparing this to the basic human desire to be part of communities, he explains how joining communities can be as harmful and self-destructive as the behavior of the male anglerfish. The results are dramatic:  “Once the psychological transformation has completed, one’s view of the world has become so radically constricted that one cannot see the world beyond the community.” Changizi’s final thought:

Creative communities are dank pubs, and once we’ve optimized ourselves to living on the inside, our full range of reasoning is brought to bear on a narrow spectrum of ideas, a spectrum that we’re under the illusion is as wide as it can be. And so we don’t realize the world has shrunk at all.

Taken to the extreme, the only truly creative person may be the artist working in the woods. But that isolation isn’t healthy either. So what’s the right environment to foster innovation, without suffer from the problems of habituation?

Innovation in Startups

Startups seem like a good place — they’re neither too big, nor too established, to exhibit the effects of habituation. And with the growing awareness of the value of design — and how it needs to be integrated into all aspects of business — a startup could be an ideal place to do design right. In good startups design isn’t just a pretty skin applied to a product, or a means to advertise. Instead design is the blueprint of the service experience, it’s the utility provided to the customer, it’s the way customers can make the product more than what the business imagines it can be, and it’s inventing new ways to interact.

One great example is this FastCompany story about how the team at FiftyThree developed a breakthrough way for users to select colors in their Paper iPad app. Their process, which took over a year, included extensive research and developing a range of prototypes to test different ways of mixing colors and giving users feedback. The result is a whole new way of thinking about color.

But as these companies grow and move past the initial startup phases, their innovation tends to become more incremental. For example, when Airbnb changed their wish list icon from a star to a heart they transformed into a social company. It’s a great insight, but is this type of work enough to keep talented designers satisfied? I’ve heard stories of designers in similar environments craving the variety and big thinking that they had in their previous lives as consultants.

Small Firms

As Golan references in his talk, a lot of the exciting and unexpected innovation is being done in small design firms and by new media artists. It’s the work that I blog about here, as do numerous other blogs (think: CreativeApplications.Net or rb.trends). It’s often work happening outside the traditional, or expected, communities —  sometimes hidden in research labs or sci-fi interfaces.

These works are just the outward signs that the design world is in the midst of a redefinition. Lev Manovich wrote in a recent paper: “There is no digital media, there is only software.” (Here’s a summary, and the full version.) It’s an idea that suggests that we need to radically re-think what we mean by digital design. And fits nicely with my belief that designers need to know how to program. Small firms are the ideal environment for this new class of designer/programmer, the creative coder, to thrive. (Take a look at this list of who work with creative coders.)

OFLab at Ars Electronica. It’s not a design firm but you get the idea.

Because small firms lack the bureaucracy and hierarchy of large firms, they are less likely to have processes and leadership that stifle creativity. As a result, they can be more experimental with how the solve design problems. They allow designers to explore their individual creativity. And they are more likely to produce unusual and unexpected solutions

Small firms aren’t without their problems. When founded by young designers they may not have the professional expertise expected by bigger clients. They may lack domain or industry expertise that some clients expect. They may lack the scale to effectively work with a large client. And because they’re small, clients may not know they exist, let alone how to find them.

The challenge is that clients are just as tied to existing processes as large firms. And so they need to be willing to try something new. Otherwise they’ll continue to get the expected — which is not going to help them differentiate themselves. Clients need to learn how to work with small firms. Clients may need to break assignments up into smaller tasks. (See this NYTimes article on the value of doing that in government.) And clients need to be brave enough to try something new. But hey, when they’re doing it with small firms on smaller projects, the risk is a lot lower. So why not?

For this post I had considered including some reference to the current artisinal movement, but it seems more retro. I also wanted to link Clay Shirky’s post on the fate of educational institutions, but couldn’t find the right way to connect it.