Understanding Design Consulting (Part 1)


During Spring Break of 2015 I decided to go to the Pacific Northwest to learn about the exciting and unique culture of design consultancy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with design consultancy, I took this definition from IDEO’s “About” page:

[Design consultancy] helps organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow. We identify new ways to serve and support people by uncovering latent needs, behaviors, and desires. We envision new companies and brands, and we design the products, services, spaces, and interactive experiences that bring them to life. [And] we help organizations build creative culture and the internal systems required to sustain innovation and launch new ventures.

In a nutshell, the design consulting industry involves consulting but from a design standpoint. Companies ranging from fledgling startups to Fortune 500 companies come to design consultancies with a problem in a company ranging from rebranding their organization, launching a new product for new types of consumers, or even designing the spaces in which they work. Last year, I became interested in the design industry (which you can read about here) and was fascinated about combining business with design to help companies create new products or improve on existing platforms. As it turns out, my godmother’s good friend Christopher helped start Ziba, one of the leading design consultancies in the world. Christopher was incredibly kind to me as he invited me to stay at his house and helped me set up private tours with the design firms  ArtefactTeagueZiba,  Tectonic, and Tactile in the Pacific Northwest. Twenty email correspondences later, I found myself on a plane to Seattle, unsure yet excited about the things I would learn and discover during my trip.

Artefact

Artefact's Kitchen

Artefact’s Kitchen

Artefact, located in the heart of Pioneer Square, was the first design firm I visited on my trip, so naturally I was very excited as I entered Artefact’s doors. The first thing that I noticed was their kitchen and collaboration space, which was beautiful with their wood floors/ceilings that were nicely juxtaposed with their big windows and steel staircase.

Artefact’s Lobby

Artefact’s Lobby

I met with Dave Miller, Principle Recruiter of Artefact, who was nice enough to show me around the space and sit down with me to answer some of my questions I had about Artefact and the design industry. Everything that you need to know about Artefact can be found in this cultural guidebook, but here are some other interesting insights that I gained from this 8 year old design firm:

Insights

  • There are no PMs (product managers) at Artefact
  • Designing with the client is extremely important to Artefact
  • Artefact is a flat organization and you can really create your own job here
  • Projects typically last from 5 weeks to a whole year, depending on the type of project assigned
  • Artefact’s design culture is approachable, confident, unconfined, collaborative, self-aware, feedback oriented, and one giant evolving conversation. Real-time, constructive feedback is highly valued, along with no fixed lines and inhibitions.
  • Artefact has this internal incubator called Startefact where designers can create their own projects with other designers. Annually, these designers pitch their ideas to the entire company, and the exec team picks one idea and backs it up with a specified budget
  • Artefact’s niche is creating both digital and physical products that are meant for longevity (hence the name “Artefact”). Here, designers like to create applications and products that solve problems and impact society, changing the way people interact with technology
  • Artefact created an internal PM tool called 10,000 ft which allows designers to keep track of progress when doing projects

Tips for Potential Interns

  • Artefact targets young designers who are in their junior/senior year or are entry level fresh graduates with 0–5 years of experience
  • Artefact takes one intern per discipline (interaction, visual, industrial design, etc)
  • Communicate at a high level
  • Craft and tell your story
  • Make a list of firms you like
  • Pick a handful of projects to display on your portfolio that are relevant or share similar characteristics and values with projects that the design firm you’re applying to has. For example, if you’re applying to a design firm known to design really beautiful and functional wearables, have a bunch of wearables projects on your portfolio
  • Talk about your design process, problem, solution, and outcome in a clear, concise way
  • Defend your design decisions in a rational way
  • The #1 mistake young designers tend tot make is not networking enough — people care about who took the initiative to reach out first
  • Design a business card and give this to people at design events/meetups in your city
  • Volunteer with community organizations
  • Be open-minded: know where you fit in and what your niche is but don’t close off everything else
  • Freelance is basically paid networking

Portfolio Tips

Recruiters tend to look at the following:

  • How you’re talking about your work
  • Whether you share similar tastes as the design firm
  • How polished your portfolio is (a very visual and polished portfolio indicates a high taste bar)
  • Your personality and point of view — shake it up a bit and show some edge
  • Images are super important
  • How you lay out the full design process (problem, process, outcome, what you learned)
  • Relevant coursework

Teague

Teague’s front desk with the founder himself

Teague’s front desk with the founder himself

The next day, I went downtown to visit Teague, which is apparently one of the oldest design consultancies in the industry (they were founded in 1926). Teague is mostly known for designing airplane interiors, in particular for Boeing Airlines, but they also dabble in designing for tech consumer products. I also noticed that there was a clear sense of legacy as soon as I stepped into their lobby, as they had Walder Dorwin Teague’s face plastered on their wall behind their front desk, as well as an inspiring quote by Teague near the elevator.

An inspiring quote from Teague

An inspiring quote from Teague

I met with Matt McElvogue, Creative Director of Teague, who toured me around the office and chatted with me about Teague:

Insights

  • Teague values T-shaped people, meaning that you should have a main area of expertise in a particular branch of design, but should have a breadth of knowledge/experience in other facets of design
  • Teague likes working on projects that explore the relationship between humans and digital interfaces
  • Teague highly values visual impacts
  • There are 70 people in Teague’s headquarters, and the rest of the 300 designers do work exclusively for Boeing
  • Teague highly values participatory design, meaning that the client is always heavily integrated in the design process
  • Teague designs B2B products just like consumer products
  • If you are a user research designer, you travel a lot. It can also be stressful at times, as you are traveling around 3–5 months on average. Work = life sometimes
  • User researchers have to hire local guides, translators, and recruit agencies to do some external work. They also need to get screeners for the people you interview, and the job requires deep synthesis and observation which they pull into themes and insights they incorporate in their design
  • Designers at Teague are task-based
  • Meetings usually dictate designers’ work schedules
  • Teague uses 10,000 ft, the PM tool that Artefact designed
  • In terms of cities that are known for design, the San Francisco design industry has more energy, movement, and tiny bundles of opportunity. Seattle’s growth is primarily led by Amazon and Microsoft, but there are a bunch of startups as well. In Munich, designers highly value tradition, and Berlin typically has smaller design firms.

Tips for Potential Interns

  • Recruiters look for fit in terms of style and personality
  • Teague is currently taking juniors and seniors
  • Lead by example
  • Have a passion for learning
  • Be willing to fail, and fail fast
  • Don’t try to make your designs perfect the first few times around because you’re always going to be iterating anyway
  • Work on your soft skills. For example, writing and being able to communicate your decisions are important in design. Be articulate and concise.
  • Portfolio is the #1 most important thing. You don’t need a formal education in design to succeed in the design industry, although it would be helpful
  • Think through making
  • Make things physical. In other words, always try to create a conceptual model for your designs
  • Just make stuff!

Portfolio Tips

  • Tell stories in the problem, role, issues, process, solution, outcome, reflection order
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Your pieces need to have a good understanding of form and rendering

Check out the rest of my story here!

This post is cross-posted from Medium.