9: Consultancy Rat Blues, Part 2

In which we continue to grapple with in-house vs design consultancy distinctions, and see promise in the creation of senior strategic design roles within some companies.

Topics: working in teams; working like a consultancy; Metropolis; the lie of design schools; the reality of in-house design practice; cycles of abuse; working in truly high-performance design contexts; the stage model of cook apprenticeship; the capacity of design programs; rotation programs within and across companies; the emerging role of Principal Designer.


Jesse: Previously on Finding Our Way:


Peter: We’ve asked listeners to send in their thoughts, and we have one from a gentleman who referred to himself as Consultancy Rat. And, his email to us goes as follows. 

“I have spent the bulk of my design career in consulting… However, I am sensing a growing divide between design consulting and in house design… The design students in a master’s program in which I have taught for a few years, increasingly find the notion of production and shipping digital product…to be the penultimate.

Whereas wrestling with ambiguity in new and unfamiliar spaces, exploring different methods and modes of design, craft, working with Anna mitts, other designers, while spreading the gospel of design seems less and less the ideal to most students… But I find this shift troubling at a community slash craft level as well as the personal level of my career in design leadership… How does the design consultancy leader better sell and genuinely augment their training to be more attractive to in-house teams? 

Jesse: And now, the conclusion.

The Show

Peter: Welcome to Finding Our Way, the podcast where Peter and Jesse welcome you to their journey as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership. I’m Peter Merholz, and with me is Jesse James Garrett.

Jesse: Hello, Peter.

Peter: Hi Jesse.

I wanted to circle back. I’ve got a thing that I want to talk about, related to Consultancy Rat’s initial email that occurred to me as I was reading it,and recognizing his frustration, which is, frankly, my frustration with how in-house design has largely been reduced to just people who are pumping out assets to feed into the engineering furnace to power these product development engines. A couple of weeks ago there was this Remote Design Week conference, and I gave a talk called, “The Atomic Unit of Design is the Team.” One of my biggest frustrations with in-house design, and has been for a decade now, is how it has elevated this notion of the unicorn product designer, this individual designer who’s going to work on a cross-functional team, some type of scrum team or squad, you know, you have a designer, you have a product manager, and you have a set of engineers. 

And that is what design looks like in most of these companies And, there’s a ton of problems with that. Where I come back to is one of the things that you learn in a consulting context is that design is best done in teams. Pretty much all work is best done in teams, but design is best done in teams.

Adaptive Path almost never staffed a project that wasn’t a team, even if it was just two designers.

Jesse: Oh, yeah, “Nobody flies solo,” I think was the way that we always framed it.

Peter: Because there’s power in teamwork. You can’t expect any individual to have suitable competency across the range of skills needed for digital product design. No one person is good at interaction design, visual design, information architecture, copywriting, user research, in terms of the craft skill sets, as well as the communication, the leadership, all the professional skills that you need in order to succeed. 

Jesse: I would say even beyond that, even if they had the whole smorgasbord of possible skills, they still are hamstrung by their own perspective and always, always, always in any kind of creative work, having a second perspective in the room strengthens the work.

Peter: Exactly. So, in this talk I talk about how pretty much since I moved from working in Adaptive Path to in-house, I’ve tried to, as I put it, team-ify my design teams, often within an environment that does not naturally support it. A lot of these product development environments are essentially built on some flavor of scrum or the Spotify squad model, which is these small teams with the idea of being one designer, one product manager, and a set of engineers.

And so I’ve tried to figure out how can I pull designers out of those scrum context and into a design team that works across a set of scrums. But, there’s a, phrase that I wrote on a slide when I gave this talk that I think is relevant, to what we’re talking about, which is “Much of my career since leaving Adaptive Path has been trying to figure out how to bring relevant aspects of an environment dedicated to quality design into corporate contexts.” 

At Adaptive Path, our mission was to deliver the best design. That’s all anyone paid us for. And so we optimized our environment to deliver great design. You go in-house, now you’re in a context where the best design isn’t the ultimate goal, There’s other things that that business is about. What I’ve tried to do is figure out how do I bring the qualities, and frankly, the organizational thinking that we had at Adaptive Path, that allowed us to do great design work, and find ways to imbue, integrate those ideas within a corporate context. The one thing that doesn’t work is that internal agency model, right? This internal services firm, we know that doesn’t work, so design can’t be a black box, that briefs come in one side of and assets come out the other side of, right? It has to be woven into the practice, but how can you weave it into an existing product development structure without design kind of getting dissipated and dissolved into that environment. How does design maintain its integrity?

And that has been my professional challenge for the last 10 years or so now. And one of the key issues that I see is maintaining design in teams. I’m saying all this though, to kind of speak to, when I empathize with Consultancy Rat, it’s this recognition. I think he’s right that much of in-house design has been reduced to this factory model, because it seems to serve the existing product development structures and processes. But what it ends up doing is, frankly, inhibiting or constraining design’s potential within these contexts.

And so, figuring out how do you create a safe space for design to be at its fullest in the face of the forces that Consultancy Rat is recognizing, I mean, that’s been my mission.

Jesse: As much as I’m interested in the impact of this on organizations and on leaders, I’m also interested in the impact of this on the designers who are a part of this larger machine, these factory UX workers.

Peter: I’m imagining, you know, Metropolis or something. Right. 

Jesse: Yes, exactly. Lots of clanging going on. I’m reminded of an exchange I had on Twitter last year, with a young designer who was in his first job out of college, as a product designer at Instagram and was offering up a bunch of really sharp, really cogent advice for being a product designer in an environment like that.

And most of it boiled down to: forget most of the things that you were taught in school because you are never ever going to use them. Forget about user needs analysis. Forget about anything connected to design thinking. Get good at prototyping, get good at prototyping fast, get good at encapsulating requirements in ways that product managers can easily consume them.

And this was his advice for being successful in user experience. So there’s that data point. I also have conversations with young designers all the time about what they’re seeing out in the market. And what I am hearing from people is a lot of frustration and a lot of burnout, especially if you went to what you and I would consider a good UX program. One that really taught the whole soup to nuts of traditional UX practices. And then you came out into the marketplace with this dream of the strategic work that you’d be able to do, and then the only jobs that you could find that anybody would consider you for were these production jobs, people feel betrayed. They feel let down. They feel like they’ve been sold snake oil by the entire field of user experience. They’ve been set up for something that’s never going to materialize for them. At least that’s how it feels. And then they get into a role like this and it’s like, well, you’ve got to, you know, buckle down and find your place on the factory floor, or you’ve got to get out and find something else to do with your life, and that sucks.

Peter: Yeah, it’s frustrating, too, because bringing these early career designers into contexts like this where perhaps they did have a breadth of understanding because of however they were taught, but then they are only engaging with a quarter to a third of that practice, and the remaining elements start to atrophy ‘cause there’s just not a need for it.

Thinking about it from a design leadership standpoint, you know, 10 years later, as these folks are starting on managing and leading teams, either they are not set up to succeed because at that level, they are expected now to re-engage with matters of strategy and vision, and they’ve lost that muscle, or, it becomes this vicious cycle where they end up leading design as essentially a form of plumbing where it is this factory work where my job is to have my team be the most effective and efficient widget builders there are. And that’s how I’m valued and that’s what I understand my value to be. 

Jesse: Right, right. 

Peter: I mean, that becomes perilous for the future of design as a practice because it is so reductive.

Jesse: Yeah. Well this is the thing is… When I read this guy, his name is Joe Kennedy, his thread about his experiences or what he learned from being a designer at Instagram, I read that and I was like, “There is nobody looking out for this guy.” There is no design leader who is taking care of this person as a creative resource and nurturing their development as a creative contributor to the organization. 

Peter: And that might be because that design leader didn’t know any better. 

Jesse: But that’s because they’re… That, that’s the thing, is because they’re not hiring design leaders, they are hiring product managers to oversee product designers and they don’t know, and they don’t care and they’re not interested. 

Peter: You would hope the design manager would be the one to look out for that designer. But again, that design manager probably came up through the system. And this was one of the struggles that I’ve had, like even back when I inherited that team at Groupon of a bunch of dudes in their mid-twenties who thought they were great designers and thought they understood what great design was.

And I’m like, you’ve never been in an environment where there’s actually legitimately great design, but they didn’t know that. Literally I had 25 year olds who thought they had reached the pinnacle, that there was nowhere for them to go. When they did self-evaluations, they were like scoring themselves five out of five on everything. Cause they didn’t know. 

Jesse: Crushing it. 

Peter: And I’m like, what’s going on here? And that’s one that I don’t quite know how to break that wheel. Because until you’ve been in an environment where you’ve experienced truly elevated design, you don’t know what it looks like.

I was fortunate that I had two formative career experiences. I worked at a CD-ROM company called Voyager that hired amazing designers to work on their CD-ROMs. And we were all figuring it out as we went along. And what they were mostly amazing at was visual design. 

And then my next job was at Studio Archetype. Similarly, the focus tended to be on the visual design, though Lillian Svec was building out an information architecture practice. And Studio Archetype was one of the earliest to have a substantial information architecture and interaction design practice for a consultancy.

But these were environments that were, where design was loved, truly loved, supported, cared for, given the space for, was not an afterthought, was not, “How do we cross that line item off?” but was instead a focus. And so I was fortunate very early to see what it took to deliver amazing design.

Jesse: High performing design organizations have always been a rarity, that’s just sort of the nature of it, especially as the work itself has been evolving so rapidly in the spaces that you and I work in. 

Peter: The issue was design generally operated at such small scale compared to all these other functions. that it wasn’t a big deal. and if you did want quality design 15 years ago, you went to a consultancy, that’s where all the best designers were. That’s where the best understanding of design was. And over the last 15 years, we’ve had this fundamental shift of the energy for design moving in house. And then we’ve had design as an industry just scale rapidly and massively. 

So 20 years ago, most practicing designers, and let me say at least half of the practicing designers likely would have been in an environment where good design happened ‘cause they were working in a consulting company context doing good design. It’s just that the field was super small. 

Now, 20 years later, most designers have never been in an environment where truly good design has been practiced. They don’t know what it looks like. They don’t know what it is. And, I don’t know what to make of that. It’s almost like what we need is some place where all these designers can go and spend three months.

It’s like in restaurants, the stage process in restaurants. Whereas you’re coming up as a cook, you can go stage for the best restaurants in the world, working in an environment where great cooking is happening, and then you can come back and, we don’t have that kind of rotation for designers to go to the great places where design is happening, to see what it really takes to do great design and then return to wherever you were and bring those practices back.

But we always need something like that if we’re going to see design reach the potential that is expected of it.

Jesse: I think the closest thing to that that people have right now are these college degrees or certificate programs that are exposing them to these practices, but they’re doing it in this sort of hermetically-sealed

sterile-sandbox kind of fashion that doesn’t necessarily map to real world design delivery.

Peter: If you look at the top design programs, your CMUs, your Institute of Designs, your whatevers, they just don’t operate at scale nearly big enough to process the number of designers, that the world needs.

So now you have these General Assembly or other types of UX boot camps… 

Jesse: CMU has just added an undergraduate degree in HCI, by the way.

Peter: That’s a start. 

Jesse: Yeah, they’re moving in that.

Peter: The, the issue is literally every college could possibly have a design program and it wouldn’t be enough right now. Just given the need. So now you have these General Assembly and other UX boot camps that are not teaching this highest order design. They’re teaching what we said at the outset: What are the things you need to know so that you can get a job? You need to know how to work these tools and you need to know these basic practices and boom, you can now get a job you can plug into the factory model.

And I think what’s missing, thinking about that restaurant analogy, is this recognition of design as a craft. We talk about craft a bunch. Design is a craft. The way you learn craft is through apprenticing and guilds and mentorship relationships and that kind of thing.

I do see about UX mentor programs out in the world, but they’re few and far between. And most people are not getting exposed to those. And I hadn’t thought about this, but I wonder if there’s some deep cultural change that needs to occur within the development of designers to almost reengage with some type of guild model, master/apprentice model. I don’t know what it looks like to do it at the kind of scale that we need, but it feels like that’s a direction that could work. 

Jesse: I agree with you and I, in fact, I have advocated for a long time for, going back at least as far back as the early days of Adaptive Path, when we first started talking about bringing new designers in, I was interested in instituting something like an apprenticeship rotation kind of a model, which was one idea that we talked about at that time. And I think more broadly… 

Peter: Though, like between us and other design firms, or…

Jesse: No, no. It would be that new designers coming in would have an opportunity to partner with a founder for a period of time and then rotate it so that they could learn how you worked and then learn how I worked, learn how Jeff worked…

Peter: Ah, within the business they’d get a rotation, right? ‘Cause what I’m talking about is like how you get someone going from company to company…

Jesse: Yeah. As, as a means of skill building, but, yeah. So you take that, and then you scale that out to the, to the scale of the entire design community and you get what you’re talking about. I don’t know how to create that. I think it would be a really compelling way to level up the entire practice of design at every level, not just at the level of junior designers, but eventually those junior designers become design leaders.

And to have those design leadership practices, imbued and enriched with that experience as well, I think would be super valuable. 

Peter: To take a hopeful view, and I’m hopeful because of some stuff I am seeing, where they’re hiring principals, they’re hiring architects, they’re hiring senior designers to be explicitly creative and strategic and to mentor their teams. And I think one of the things we’re seeing potentially is that up until a couple years ago, everyone was on this hamster wheel of design-as-delivery, but some people who had been doing this long enough were like, “Wait a moment, we’re missing something here. Now I’m leading a team of 40, 80, 150, and all I have are squads of crank turners. That’s not right.” 

And I think what we’re starting to see is this recognition that we need to bring back this more senior strategic design role, and my hopefulness is that we’ve gone through this period of pain that was largely a reflection or reaction to this scaling of design within this somewhat mechanistic product development environment and a feeling that we had to accommodate to that mode. And what I’m starting to see in some of my conversations with design leaders is we don’t need to accommodate to that mode. We don’t need to have designers embedded on scrum teams. We can have designers working in teams, working across scrum teams. We have a big enough organization where it makes sense that I can hire someone who’s been doing this type of work for 15, 20 years, potentially in a consulting capacity, bring them in-house and they can do very similar work: Being strategic, being a leader, synthesizing across user understanding, developing practices and processes for doing great design and then teaching that internally and leveling up this whole organization.

Where I’m hopeful is that we’re at the outset of that realization. That we almost have to do this. That we’re essentially stuck. If these leaders are recognizing that if they want design to be as effective and to reach the potential that they know it can.

Oftentimes these leaders don’t have capacity to do it themselves. They’re running big organizations, but they recognize that they can bring people in whose focus is on that creative and strategic leadership, that can pay immense dividends internally.

And again, I know a number of companies that now have principal product designer, principal user researcher roles. And that to me suggests that there is a path forward, at least in these larger companies. 

Jesse: Are these principals running teams? I mean, are they… I mean, there , there’s reporting structure and then there’s the day to day. Are they leading teams or are they…

Peter: They are leading teams. They’re not running teams. It’s kind of what we talked about a few episodes ago in terms of that distinction between management and leadership. These principal designers are leading large efforts. There might be another 5 to 10 designers involved. And then the product managers and engineers as well. And these principle designers are the primary creative leadership, for a big set of work. It could be an end to end app, right? You might have a principal designer whose job is to lead the design of that app.

You need dozens of people, potentially hundreds of people to do all the work, building that app. But you can have an individual who is that creative leader who’s hanging all that together. And they are not managers. The designers that are working with them are not reporting to them, but the designers working with them are looking to that principal to lead them like, at Adaptive Path and another consulting environments. We always had a creative lead and the other practitioners looked to that person as leader of that work, but they weren’t reporting to them.

I think that can be a path forward. Yes, you can have this type of strategic, big picture, creative design practice internally that they set the vision, they set that North Star that you were referring to, and then they work with other design leaders and product leaders throughout the organization to figure out how to segment that work so it can be picked up by the delivery mechanisms and turned into something that ships.

Jesse: How much do you think that role is able to influence design process of design practice in these organizations?

Peter: Potentially a lot. When I’ve written job descriptions for this role, one of the key expectations and responsibilities is mentorship. And is developing practices and processes for how to do the work, either at the basic level, bringing in the best practices, just making sure that you’re doing your user-centered design stuff, right? But then, potentially there’s some expectation that they’re going to be developing new practices, probably specific to the context that we’re in, but figuring out, “We can’t just do off the shelf, quote unquote UCD. We need to figure out a way to make that work within our context.”

So, they’re bringing in these processes and practices. They’re leading the creative work. And as part of that creative leadership, key to their role is that cross-functional education. They need to help product people and engineers understand why we should work this way and how to work this way.

Jesse: So it sounds like, when Consultancy Rat is yearning for wrestling with ambiguity and new and unfamiliar spaces, exploring different methods and modes of design craft, working with and amidst other designers while spreading the gospel of design, sounds like that is still very much alive out there in these in house positions.

Peter: There’s potential for it. I wouldn’t say that they’re the norm. I wouldn’t say that they are typical, but they exist. it’s too early to tell if this is the start of a trend that’s growing, but there is that potential, and that’s what I would encourage him and anyone in a similar situation to consider. 

Jesse: Thank you, Peter.

Peter: Thank you, Jesse.  Well that about wraps up another shining episode of Finding Our Way, the podcast about design and design leadership. Thank you for taking the time to listen. This time, I want to actually thank listeners for the feedback we’ve been getting, whether it was the email from Consultancy Rat that proved to be enough to encourage Jesse and I, or feedback we’re getting on Twitter, feedback I’m seeing on LinkedIn. It means the world to us to see that people are listening and getting something from this. We want to continue to, deliver, and be relevant. So, again, you can find us, on Twitter:  I’m @peterme, he’s @jjg.

You can find us on our website at https://findingourway.design/. and there’s a contact form there. That’s actually how Consultancy Rat reached out to us.

Jesse: Fill out the form, send us some email. We respond.

Peter: Yes, we do. And not only do we respond, we record entire episodes for every email that is sent.

Jesse: No, we don’t. We.. 

Peter: No, we don’t. No. Um, but, yes, we want this conversation not to just be between Jesse and I, but be part of a larger dialogue. So thank you to Consultancy Rat for inspiring today’s conversation and we look forward to others, reaching out to us as well.

And with that, I’m going to sign off and say thank you, Jesse.

Jesse: Thank you, Peter. Finding our way.

Peter: I’m just, I’m reviewing the, I think we’ve actually got, maybe we hit the high points on the on the Consultancy Rat email. I don’t think, I think beyond validating his concern, I don’t know if we’ve addressed it, 

Jesse: I mean, we.. 

Peter: …we’ve solved it.

Jesse: We haven’t solved this problem. We haven’t solved this problem for him. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s something that we are all doing together as we continue finding our way…

Peter: I see what you’re trying to do there. I don’t know if I’m buying it. 

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