Robert Fabricant posted an article over at Fast Company‘s Co.Design. I won’t say that I agree with most of the things that Robert says, though it is clear that he has been doing a lot of good thinking about these issues. And, honestly, trying to pull together a cohesive story about the current state of American design is no easy task. I’m mentioning the article because, for me, one of the most interesting things in it is something that Robert only touches on and then drops: “I look around at the aging leadership at the leading American design firms—organizations like frog, IDEO, Continuum and Smart—with some concern.” He goes on to give the impression that it is the aging itself that has lead these firms and their output to become “mellow” or not particularly innovative.
This idea is interesting because of the examples he chooses. These are four of the biggest and well-established firms (by headcount and age) in the design industry. They were built by design pioneers who created innovative approaches to tackling design challenges. They were successful and they grew. Because of the necessities of scale, they are now hierarchical and highly-structured organizations focused on reproducing the same success but more of it. Put another way, they might just be different flavors of a design factory meant to reproduce the innovative approaches pioneered by those aging leaders before they were aging. Big ships are notoriously hard to turn. Big factories are very difficlut to retool. If American design is having a hard time keeping up, size might be more the culprit than age.
What’s the moral of this story? Don’t trust anyone over 30? No. Don’t trust any design studio larger than, say, 50 people? Maybe. Don’t trust any design organization who says it already has the answers to your problem to the point that they have a systematic process that can be reproduced again and again by a large team of highly specialized junior staff? Probably.
I don’t really mean this as stab at frog, IDEO, or any other firm. All of these firms have talented folks on staff and I have seen some very high quality work from them. Still, it’s interesting that every example Robert uses is a fairly big organization (at least relative to their industry). I personally wish I could have heard more from Robert about this issue and its relationship to the current state of American design, especially with Robert’s position inside one of the these firms and his mention of agile processes and small teams.
For the sake of disclosure, here at Adaptive Path, we think a lot about scale and the dynamics that we feel are necessary for our approach to creating great experiences. We’ve batted around a lot of ideas about growth but one of the most commonly recurring ones is that we don’t want any of our studios to be much bigger than 50. That’s the point when things get much less flexible and require a lot more management. We’ve also done a pretty good job of mixing up our leadership on a regular basis. Only two (out of seven) of the founders of the company still work here. The bulk of the current leadership came up out of the ranks of practitioners fairly recently. Most of us who lead the company still do project work every year to keep ourselves grounded in current design issues, techiques, and challenges. Some would say this slow growth and lack of scale is a failure for our company. I think it’s what helps keep the whole company lean and innovative.