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Design - in or out ?

What I would like to do in this blog is share an exchange between myself and Joss Newberry after a mailout that linked to an article about ‘Innovation - What’s design got t do with it” I wrote I 2004, and which provides some arguments for and agains ‘design in-house’, leaning towards brining design understanding and competencies in-house (see end of this blog entry).

Below a statement from Joss where he is coming from, followed by our exchange :-).

Joss: In the large there is (unfortunately) a long way to go to instill a positive and informed approach to innovation – let’s put design thinking and government policy to one side – and a lot of effort still required to properly assert the value of user-centric approaches in the realization of innovation. My viewpoint comes from a lengthy experience working with companies who take a short –term, necessity-driven approach to investing in design and innovation whereas I would far rather be working in an environment where the value of design vision and innovation potential is regarded as an opportunity for transformational change.

Our exchange:

Joss: I read your article since I like what you write.

I found your analysis and definition accurate, and yes, it is unfortunate that we still feel it necessary to clarify common terms with definitions. However your case studies come across as very skewed in favour of in-house design, as if you have never spoken with a commercial design practitioner. This has led you to draw incorrect conclusions, which is unfortunate.

I am sure the whole design community, even in-house designers, would agree with this critique.

Bettina: many thanks for taking the time to read and feed back on the article :-). though we may have to agree to disagree… (especially as the assumption that I have never spoken to commercial design practitioners is a wrong one…)

While I always believe in ‘horses for courses’ and can of course see great value in using external designers; i believe that as a minimum an understanding and appreciation of design and designers needs to exist in house for a collaboration to be truly successful, and have seen that bringing designers in house, even in organisation where they might not be suspected, can have a hugely beneficial influence on the overall culture and environment for innovation :-).

Joss: Yup, we share a lot of territory on innovation, but as a practicing engineer and designer of 30 years I have seen just about every conceivable situation and configuration of mistakes in the new product development process.

Certainly an understanding and appreciation of design is fundamental to the success of design, whether in house or external. It is counter-intuitive to business types, particularly MBAs, accountants, old-school managers, pretty much the whole investment community and there is always a different way of going about business with less creativity, less risk, less imagination. The recent widespread failures of design thinking to take hold in the mainstream exemplifies this point.

I would go further and advocate the hiring of ‘creative types’ whether in a design role or otherwise to begin to tip the balance away from the orthodox, which today spells long-term decline. So I agree with your second point too.

However, your paper proposes that design must have an in-house design expertise (more than an understanding and appreciation of) and this is read as having in-house designers with principal responsibility for (product) design. You state that in-house design is more likely to push the boundaries than using an external supplier – this is so blatantly untrue I do not know where to begin! You follow this by proposing that it is more difficult to inspire enthusiasm with external designers, when designers, to a person, fear getting locked in to the repetition and constraints of an in-house facility where their creativity will dry up! Finally you suggest that, at best, external design remains a bolt-on, with absolutely no evidence. If that were the case there would be no design industry.

Across my peers working in strategic product design there is a long list of advantages and disadvantages you have missed :

Cost: the hourly engineering rate at Motorola was always higher than our consultancy rate. This is true for many companies. Further, the efficiency of in-house teams makes them look very expensive in the main

Easy co-ordination: this is a rash assumption. It is very frequently the case that there exists no connection between engineering and marketing and it is often the consultants role to bring them to the same table. There are legions of cases where the in house design team (mostly designer) is isolated.

Focus: having an external team, costing ‘real money’ brings a focus to internal functions and helps formalize deliverables and schedules

Management: only too frequently the commissioning company is unable to create a design brief (not like the old days!) and becomes hugely reliant on the designer to take down notes and compile a design brief

Fresh ideas: consultants bring not only high level and broadly experienced creativity but also technology transfer, knowledge transfer and transfer of other valuable intangibles

Methodology: even today most commissioning companies are incapable of managing the product development process and rely heavily on (strategic) product designers to devise a strategy. This often starts with information gathering, connecting with customers, imagining different scenarios and continues into product planning and strategy prior to conceptualization…one of the most valuable outcomes of a design project engagement is a new methodology that the host company can then adapt to its own use.

Bettina: I love the fact that you take so much time to elaborate, many thanks indeed! I do not disagree with anything you say - and perhaps just ask you not to forget that the article was written 10 years ago… meaning that my thinking since then has moved on too - though I still feel that some of my arguments around in0-house vs external remain valid. what I would perhaps add today is, it all depends!!! meaning it depends on the company in question, and it very much depends on the designer / design consultancy in question. at the time I wrote the article the way I portrayed it was the way I had experienced it in several instances…

Excerpt from article:

Internal or external? Some pros and cons

I firmly believe that in order to gain the full benefits of design - and innovation, for that matter - an organization needs to develop internal capability for its management and delivery. Bringing in outsiders might help to kick-start the process, but ultimately it will remain a bolt- on, an artificial limb that is useful but not quite part of the core. In worst-case scenarios, outside help becomes a transplant that is rejected by the organism—as almost happened in the case of the motorbike project described earlier. However, there will always be situations in which bringing in an outsider is preferable, or the only option. Table 2 lists some of the advantages and disadvantages for each scenario.

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