Strategy vs. Production for Design Firms

by Luke Wroblewski July 19, 2005

Many companies have a central design department predominantly focused on production (an assembly line if you will). An increasing number, however, are exploring a separation of design as production and design as strategy (as defined by Tim Brown at IDEO). I think a key driver for this separation is that optimizing both strategic and production design within a single organization, reward structure, environment, etc. is quite difficult.

This brings up an interesting set of questions for design firms:

  • Should design firms focus on either strategic design or production design or attempt to do both?
  • Are smaller design firms better suited for strategic design?
  • Do clients look for large companies for production work or for strategic work?

Niti Bhan and Steve Portigal have been working on a set of articles for BusinessWeek’s new online channel on the topic of design and innovation. Their research uncovered the following answers to these questions:

Should design companies focus on either strategic design or production design or attempt to do both?

"Specialize if you are a smaller firm, offer both services if you are large enough. As I commented earlier on Luke's original post, at least one of our interviewees at a global organization mentioned the benefit of distinguishing between cost and value. That is, you cannot charge the same rate for both services."

Are smaller design companies better suited for strategic design?

"Across the board, our interviewees responded enthusiastically about the increase in creativity and willingness to push the envelope offered by a smaller design firm, however if the strategy is to be executed on a global scale, they may not always have the breadth of experience or reach to coordinate or create such an effort successfully. This may apply only to certain fields of design and not others."

Do clients look for large companies for production work or for strategic work?

"Neither. Clients seem to be looking for companies that suit the scale and scope of the project at hand coupled with appropriate creative expertise, costs involved and the "fit" of the firm. Each and every one of our interviewees emphasized the importance of building a long term relationship and doing your homework when choosing the design studio. Then, projects, whether production or strategy, flow to the appropriate company, depending on what is required. Again, this applies only to certain fields of design, as production for consumer products rarely goes beyond a working prototype before being handed over to a manufacturing facility."