As the end of 2016 rolls around we wanted to leave this globally tumultuous year, albeit a professionally landmark year for us, with four major learnings from us; as designers, collaborators, practitioners and passionate pragmatists. It’s not earth shattering, but they’re things we want to remember, and might be of use to our clients, our industry and maybe even contribute to world peace!
1. Being true to your design approach differentiates you
The service design (or actually more broadly design) market has become exceptionally broad from the one or two companies that existed when we were founded in 2003. In 2016 there was no shortage of new start ups, agencies getting acquired by big players and our usual list of collaborators and competitors. This vibrancy in the market is great, it ensures there’s competition and keeps us on our toes and fresh.
It has also taught us this year that it means we can be MORE true to ourselves, not less. When there are different players in the market you can really differentiate yourself and ensure what makes you different as a design agency comes to the fore. We have some little markers that we set prospective clients – will we actually get to their users? Are they willing to collaborate not just “buy our outputs”? and Are they happy with a small agency that doesn’t embed? (because we don’t think embedding works).
This year we’ve been able to respond to requests for quote and be quite strong on these markers – not just chase work that’s called ‘design’ but doesn’t actually fit our definition of design to fill our pipeline.
And the result when we are clear to prospective clients about our approach is that they get results. Their investment in us is rewarded with disciplined and focused design processes and our very approach means we are highly aligned with those clients who engage us – it’s a win-win!
2. Interdisciplinary works and is much more rewarding
This year yet again proved to us that there’s no room in our world for discipline snobbery. We often tell clients that being design-led is a great position to be in, but that design alone isn’t the only discipline they should be relying on.
Increasingly the mantra of the ‘interdisciplinary dance’ (thanks long-time mentor Jim Faris) becomes more and more real for us.
We’ve worked with teachers, architects (both landscape and IT), telcos, developers, project managers and program offices, specialist consultants, contract managers, social workers, children, parents, and many others this year; and each time we rely on these subject matter experts to bring the best out of us and help in the creation of meaningful design insights and solutions.
The more other disciplines are our collaborators and the less they are ‘participants in a design workshop’ the better our work becomes.
3. The Power of the well-made but not exact prototype
Sometimes the small things help big shifts. When a client was struggling to be on the same page about a conceptual shift to how they delivered services we decided it was time to mock-up a traditional A4 tri-fold brochure. We put stock photos with smiling faces articulating earnest but authentic customer needs. We plotted a service offering with different with icons and colours. We presented the brochure without preamble or comment to a team of strategic leaders.
It immediately got people talking about the right things, debating the real business problems, and enjoying the potential for solving their problems. It shifted people’s thinking from hypotheticals, to a shared understanding and a way forward.
Sketches are fantastic for most prototypes, but every now and then you need to call on the powers of being a designer and having access to graphic design, communication and copywriting skills and make a client see a possible future.
4. Designers need to get something made sometimes, to reality check good design
We were lucky enough to win an Australian Good Design Award this year in the Service Design Education Category and for Best Overall Service Design for our work with Macquarie Primary School. The project involved simultaneously working with a team of little designers and big educators on service design in practice in order to redesign the School car park.
The car park was designed and it was implemented. Every aspect of the Design Specification was put into practice. That doesn’t often happen in the design business (and with 13 years of DMA, and collectively, 34 years of design practice under our belts, we know). The win was truly fabulous for our team. But the car park getting made was equally so because you don’t always get to see how your design plays out when it hits the reality of a complex organisation – and a public school with its multi-user environment is an extremely complex environment.
But we had another win in this area when the work we’ve been doing with a major federal agency designing their operating model reached its conclusion with the final enabling area being designed – bringing an entire group, normally focused on ICT as a black box, into a more service-oriented mindset and practice. Designs that we, and other people have undertaken over the years have been tested, re-evaluated, diagnosed, re-diagnosed, adjusted, and as a design program, they all still fit together with core service principles and business intent remaining flexibly steadfast.
It’s brave of any large Agency to invest in a small company like ours – instead of a large Consultancy that ultimately might not deliver a bespoke, integrated solution, but instead offer a “proven” one. That’s the best thing about what our design partners demand of us, and what they allow us to challenge them to achieve. This connects us back to our first learning – being true to our design approach, but respecting and supporting the courage our clients/design partners make to invest in success.
It gives us faith in the system when we, and the people we’re fortunate enough to work with, truly want to make a difference to, and for people.
So, 2016, in many ways you were perplexing, but for us – you weren’t so bad ;)