The Design Agency: Academy vs. Bureaucracy

December 20, 2016

When starting a design agency, the principals—whether they grasp this fact or not—are faced with a choice. One choice is to create something that enriches the lives and quality of their staff and the quality of their industry first. The other option it to create something that narrowly serves the desires and profitability of the principals first. The result of this choice will be either a nurturing agency or a destructive one. And there will be consequences.

The consequences stem from the manner in which the first sort of agency works to create competent professionals and the second sort of agency very seldom does. This second sort is set up as a bureaucracy built to mine designers and other staff members as resources. That model is no longer sustainable because the industry has changed. The future belongs to professionals, not technicians.

Every competent design professional should be an expert at public speaking (with clients if nothing else), project and process management, human behavior/psychology, idea communication and support techniques, social and business etiquette, marketing fundamentals and media-specific skills (usability, prepress, etc.). They should also be well acquainted with branding issues, interactions with potential clients, business operation fundamentals, general economic fundamentals, agency sales processes, and brand and client management.

That’s a lot for designer to learn in the early stages of a career, and successful development of these skills requires the right sort of professional environment. Therefore the agency is required to operate in a responsible, nurturing manner and serve the development of its designers or it fails itself, its staff, and its industry by limiting the experience and education of its employees.

Agency as Bureaucracy

A destructive agency is typified by fear, protectionism, and a focus merely on what’s best for the agency principals. Those traits drive a culture of expediency and specialized segregation where designers do not interact directly with clients as they are insulated by client services staff; where designers don’t write markup; where designers don’t work directly with developers or other production staff; where sales staff receive no input or guidance from designers; and where designers learn nothing about the sales process at the agency.

In such a culture staff members are expected to stay inside their respective silos. Much of the motivation behind this destructive model stems from selfish fears that any staff member who learns too much or acquires cross-disciplinary competency will likely then go off to work for a larger competitor or simply start a competing agency. Therefore, the principals may believe that they must work to limit the sharing of information and the professional growth of their staff outside of their narrow parameters. Or it may even be that the principals are oblivious to the destructive effect of their tendencies. In either case the resultant environment is inherently negative and everyone learns to stay in his or her respective slot.

Rather than learning how to become competent professionals, designers in these environments learn only how to be narrowly-focused technicians: resources. When new expertise is required this agency must hire a resource with that narrow focus…and it also means that someone else is likely to be fired to make room. This situation is perfect for the proprietary and protectionist motivations of a bureaucratic agency, but detrimental to both the design profession and the people involved.

Agency as Academy

In contrast, the nurturing agency operates with the idea that it has responsibilities to its staff members and to its industry equal to those toward the principals. The result is a sustainable model; sustainable for the staff, the agency, and as positive and productive fuel for the wider profession.

In this sort of agency, disciplinary silos are largely metaphorical. The agency is set up so that responsibility is levelled with appropriately narrow focus (the buck must stop somewhere specific), but proprietary practices are not encouraged. Information and education is shared freely among staff members and principals. Those with specialized skills and greater experience actively share their knowledge and experience in an effort to grow the individual and therefore collective ability of staff members.

The environment in this sort of agency is inherently positive. Staff members are more likely to view themselves as part of a team, so healthy collaboration becomes more common and more productive. Here, designers are apt to more easily become exposed to and acquainted with the multitude of disciplines required of competent design professionals. What’s more, they’re more likely to learn to appreciate the necessity for these skills and disciplines and less likely to remain mired in the inherently limited role of production technician.

The result of the approach taken by academy-like agencies is that they attract the best staff members, they generate goodwill and respect in the professional community, and they contribute to the overall growth of their people and their industry. If a valued member leaves for greener pastures it is no cause for alarm because the agency’s value resides in its DNA rather than being locked up in specific individuals.

The Professional Future

There are consequences. The design profession has long been considered by many to be not so much a profession as a commodities market populated by groups and individuals that must be managed and directed (as opposed to informed and trusted). This is due largely to the fact that there are so few actual professionals in the profession. Destructive, bureaucratic agencies have played a significant role in maintaining this situation.

The future belongs to competent professionals with the right sort of experience and disciplinary exposure. Incompetents will as always be relegated to what people are willing to offer them. Competent professionals can choose where they want to work and who they want to work with…or they can choose to work freelance without sacrificing income or project choice.

The design profession is changing. If you’re a designer at an agency, your survival may be imperiled. Take stock of your environment and adjust your situation according to what will allow you to grow and survive. If you run an agency, make sure yours is more academic than bureaucratic. Agencies adhering to tired old ways have no place in the future and neither does our profession with them in it.