On the Greatly Exaggerated Reports of the End of Client Services.

Echoing Mike Monteiro, Andy Rutledge, Jeffrey Zeldman, and countless others: we love our clients. So when Khoi Vinh calls out the client-professional relationship, we naturally take umbrage—but not too much. Many of Khoi’s points hit home. He’s speaking from real experience that matches that of any professional who partners with another company to deliver a solution to their need. A quick tour through his post:

The traditional model of design services rests on the notion that a design studio or agency offers a unique value, a set of highly specialized skills and competencies that their clients do not possess and cannot nurture within their own organizations.

Yep, sort of. Every client we’ve ever worked with has been missing something that they thought we could bring to the table. It’s not always that they couldn’t hire it in-house, but that financially and given the time available, it made more sense to work with an established external company who could deliver.

For most design companies, and for most of the history of the design industry, that unique value has been storytelling. The client makes a product or service and then turns to the studio or agency to help them tell the world about it. Look at the portfolios of most design companies and you’ll see that they’re full of works that are essentially marketing narratives — graphic solutions intended to communicate a story about a client’s product to the world.

Yeah, I don’t know, maybe. Khoi seems to be drawing on anecdotal experience here that may or may not be true across the board. For our part, we’ve been involved in many interface design projects in addition to the purely marketing projects he appears to be referencing. It may be this first assumption that begins the article’s path off the rails. Being in client services doesn’t automatically entail a superficial, marketing-level role. The relationship you enter into as a provider of professional services is entirely at your discretion. If long-term, deeply-integrated work is something you want to do, that’s a viable path.

Digital media requires something different, though. It’s not sufficient to just publish a narrative to the Internet. You have to build an experience around it, a system that lets the user experience the narrative but also one that responds to his or her inputs and contributions. Basically, to create anything meaningful in digital media, you need to think in terms of a product, not just a story.

True, however, many agencies have embraced this fact by bringing on user experience experts, content strategists, social media consultants, and a variety of other creative professionals whose skills range far beyond imaginative thinking divorced from the underlying business reality.

However, it’s very hard for a design studio to create digital products on a contract basis because the messy timelines and continual course corrections that are required to launch a truly effective software product are anathema to the way clients like to be billed. No matter what a design studio promises, it’s very likely that in its first iteration a digital product will take longer to complete, will cost more, and will be less effective than originally promised. The most critical time for designers to be involved in a digital product is all the time, but it’s perhaps most important for them to stick around after the launch, when they can see how a real user base is using it, and then amend, refine, revise and evolve it. But it’s at just about this time that most studiosare preparing invoices and shuffling their staff on to other clients’ projects.

There is much to unpack here, yet in the end it may be concentrated into one principle: the specifics of the contract and the relationship are yours to determine. It may be true that traditional contracts encourage artificial limitations and the intricacies of working with clients are difficult to navigate, but that hardly eliminates the possibility of a successful and profitable relationship. That said, we completely sympathize. There are core business realities that lead directly to this mentality. It’s an upstream swim to avoid it.

But more and more, every business is becoming a digital business, is responsible for digital products. If a company is not able to design, develop and maintain their own products without outside help, then what kind of future does that company have?

Undeniable. We have this conversation with every client, many of whom are in the start-up stage. We highly recommend bringing on qualified, full-time help as early as practicable. The success of these types of businesses is highly dependent on having smart, invested people in-house. There is simply no long-term substitute.

Basically, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to design great user experiences then that old model of being a design contractor or a studio or an agency would not work. Instead, it’s necessary to be a part of the company that owns the product, to be in a position where I can continually work on and improve the product without the artificial constraints of a services contract.

Despite everything said to this point, there can be no denying that Khoi has identified a fundamental truth of the service industry. Good work—perhaps even great work—can be done by professionals working on behalf of another company. No matter how intimate the client-professional relationship, one suspects there is always something left in the professional’s tank. Nothing can replace the drive to build something and own it completely. There is no substitute for the satisfaction derived from seeing your product being used and appreciated. It is not a coincidence that even the most ardent, pro-service agencies like Happy Cog, Unit Interactive, and Information Architects make and sell products in addition to working with clients. It’s how 37signals went from client services to software as a service. And it’s a part of Full Stop’s DNA as well with United Pixelworkers.

There is so much that remains to be resolved in the digital landscape, and so much of it will depend on great design. In my view, the very existence of this opportunity alone has changed the design industry, because it presents an amazing alternative to the client services model, and will hopefully unleash a torrent of creative energy and invention that clients never would have brooked. When I realized this, I decided that I had to take part in it.

If Khoi is guilty of anything, it’s a bit of hyperbole. Client services isn’t going away. There are innumerable opportunities for consultants and bespoke web design and development. Some clients need design, creative direction, web development, iOS development, copywriting, usability testing and more. Should they hire one of each type of person? Should they try to find a superman who can do them all? Should they spend valuable time searching for that magical person when a suitable agency is just down the road? The answers to these rhetorical questions are of course dependent on the particular situations. It should be evident, prima facie, that there are instances where hiring an agency is the smart move.

The digital pie is expanding exponentially. It’s the reason I joined this industry four years ago when I finished college with nothing more than a liberal arts degree. That growth makes the exact percentage of the pie devoted to client services irrelevant. There is now and will continue to be a surplus of work available. The argument about whether the client benefits most from mercenary agencies or an in-house team is neither original nor difficult to analyze. There are easily identifiable advantages and disadvantages, all of which are variable—i.e. dependent on the location, time, budget, and resources available.

What we’re actually talking about here is not the end of client services but the personal gratification a professional feels and the level to which he or she can execute in each context. It’s foolish to prepare a client services straw-man to demolish. Find good clients, not too many. Treat them well—like a professional—and the client services model will be a joyful experience for you. It’s equally nonsensical, however, to argue against Khoi’s position that he can more fully realize his vision (“great design”) as his own boss. He can, and I fully expect he will. Now truly is an amazing time, full of opportunity for the creative professional. We wish him the best.

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