Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Physician, heal thyself! (on redesigning a design agency)

[NB: This was originally written for the Fjord blog, and is cross-posted here by permission]

As most people who’ve worked in an agency environment well know, there’s not a lot of existential reflection in what we do – we spend so much of our time working with our clients that there’s little time left for examining ourselves.

This being more or less the way of things, I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to examine and re-frame the Fjord offer with an eye toward our future – to examine what exactly *we* do, and why (and how) we do it. The outcome isn’t mine, per se – it’s the result of countless conversations with Fjordians all around the world and at every level of the business. We talked about what’s worked and what hasn’t, what’s been fun and what’s been painful, where we’ve succeeded and, more importantly, where we’ve failed. And most importantly of all: why. We launched the new client-facing slides at Mobile World Congress earlier this year to enthusiastic response, and each of our studios is in the process of embedding the structure underneath it in the way that makes the most sense for their local market, clients, needs, talent and pace.

There are a few outcomes of this work that we’re particularly proud of, and we think they’re important not only to our work and relationships but also to the overall direction of our industry, so I thought I’d share them here.

1. User-centric –> client-centric

We spend a lot of time telling our clients, “It’s not about you.”  This is something that we’ve been striving to integrate more and more into our approach and our work too. The thing is, our clients are our users, just as their customers are theirs. So instead of framing what we do in the terms that are the most familiar and make the most sense to us – design methods and processes, complex diagrams about even more complex problem sets – we thought we should make an effort at framing it in a client-centric context. Functionally, this means no more diagrams, or project phases, and as little specialised ‘design’ language as possible: instead, we present our capabilities in packages designed to drive particular outcomes in our clients’ businesses. We then combine these packages to build each engagement. The approach is both modular and bespoke, giving the benefits of both repeatability and flexibility.

2. Form Follows Function

This is a classic design axiom, and yet once again we seem to have difficulty applying it in an inward-facing context. One of the real challenges in any design agency is planning and resourcing projects to achieve maximum benefit for all parties – the client, the agency and the people on the team. Team members with experience in the client’s vertical need less onboarding, and when mixed with fresh minds can uncover some real breakthrough opportunities. What this means for Fjord is that we’re moving away from job titles as a framework for resourcing, and toward a matrix of skills and capabilities against project roles. This enables us to put the best possible mix of individuals on any engagement, while ensuring that every role required for success is covered.

3. Looking at the Bigger Picture

Even the greatest design is useless if it doesn’t make it to market, and there is nothing more depressing to a designer (or to our clients, for that matter) than pouring effort, energy and love into a product or service that never sees the light of day. As the digital landscape grows ever more crowded and complex, and more and more of our clients’ business is conducted in the digital space, our skill set has had to grow apace. And to face the challenges we see coming in the near future, we will have to extend our capabilities even further. Alongside the ‘classic’ design disciplines and established user insights, we have added Business Design to our offer. This competency includes a range of skills from Marketing & Brand Strategy to Content & Partnerships – all aimed at helping our clients usher the services and products we design into the market, and closing the loop with frameworks and models for measuring success and gathering feedback for ongoing improvement. We’ve also added Technology Strategy to the offer, even though we will continue to work with partner organisations on development and implementation. We feel it’s critically important for us to understand the technological landscape – platforms, data, emerging technologies – at every stage of our thinking in order to come up with the best solutions for our clients.

In the end, that’s what it’s all about – we believe that design is about solving complex problems, finding a way through the complexity to elegant simplicity. We’re looking forward to ever more challenging engagements with our clients that push us to learn and grow even further.