Understanding Design Consulting (Part 2)


In case you didn’t see the first part, here it is. To recap, I spent my spring break this year touring several design firms around Seattle and I learned a ton about the industry that I wanted to share with you guys. Part 1 recaps the first half of my visit; this is the second. Enjoy!

Ziba

Ziba's Lobby

Ziba’s Lobby

Ziba was the only design firm that I visited in Portland. I had actually found out about Ziba through a friend at UC Berkeley who told me that his family friend (and founder) Sohrab toured his family around the firm when he visited Portland. It turns out that my family friend Christopher, who I was staying with in Seattle, was a co-founder with Sohrab and helped him build it from the ground up, from a garage in Portland to one of the most renowned design firms in the world. He actually designed an IDSA award-winning bathroom squeegee, which you can see in the above picture (it’s the green cylinder object on display on the bottom left hand corner)

The design library

The design library

Ziba had a presence like no other design firm I’d visited so far had. As I emerged from the staircase from the exit, the lobby with its high ceilings, wood paneling, and beautiful big walls, loomed before me. I was absolutely awstruck. Patty Willert, a recruiter at Ziba, toured me around their spacious office, which included a design library (complete with books and every fabric/mateirals you could imagine for their industrial designers) and an auditorium (which unfortunately I could not see as something was going on there at the time). Sam Jeibmann, one of the interaction designers at Ziba, was kind enough to answer some of my questions and below are the insights I gathered from the day trip:

Ziba’s lobby celebrating their 30 year anniversary

Ziba’s lobby celebrating their 30 year anniversary

Insights

  • Ziba receives around 500 applications for their internship program annually and take around 2 interns per summer.
  • Ziba comprises several branches of design, including branding and marketing, product and packaging, digital design, service design, environment/industrial design, communication design, and business design
  • There are 3 fields within the umbrella of interaction design: interaction design (IX), kinetic design (KX), and visual design (VX)
  • Ziba designers believe they are the extension of the client
  • Business design is an emerging field of design in which designers design the trajectory of businesses based on their goals. In addition to research, designers match the businesses’ actionable goals with design strategies. It’s similar to business consulting, but from a design perspective. So while business consulting asks the question “What business goals do we need to achieve?”, business design asks the question “How do we achieve these business goals?”
  • Ziba specializes in industrial design (it’s there heritage), B2B projects, consumer projects, and future vision work
  • Building trust with clients is extremely important, and requires transparency and offering what the client asks for while still integrating your own touch into the design
  • According to Sam, the design industry has been following a cycle over the last ten years in which aesthetics have shifted from being very real (think skeumorphism) to minimal (think flat design)
  • Use of color has increased recently, much like the golden era of 1950s-60s print
  • Interaction design has shifted to a 2-tier navigational structure (basically a main page + secondary pages)

Ziba's building

Ziba’s building

Tips for Young Designers

  • If you have trouble defending your design decisions, always ask “why did I do that” in the design process
  • Design as if you are the client
  • Talk to people about your design
  • Think of patterns when you design
  • Designing is a group process
  • Talk about conventions (e.g. Apple vs. Android; things become standard for a reason)
  • The #1 mistake young designers tend to make is that they think they know everything and they’re not open-minded enough
  • Be flexible and malleable
  • Never stop learning

Tectonic

The office

The office

Tectonic was vastly different from the last three design firms I visited because of its size. With only 15 designers and located in the heart of Seattle’s hipster district, Capitol Hill, Tectonic was more intimate and family-like. I liked it. A lot. Bill Flora (Principal Creative Director) Mark Gibson (Principal Creative Director), and Nate Landes (Sr. UX Designer) sat down with me and gave me the runthrough of how Tectonic operates. Below are the following insights I gained from my visit:

Insights

  • Tectonic is best known for their motion design and have created beautiful animations for Microsoft, Amazon, Beats, etc.
  • Tectonic also designs consumer tech products ranging from digital platforms and software to shipping products, to physical objects and future vision products such as concept cars
  • Tectonic’s founders led the new redesign of Microsoft
  • Tectonic likes to think about what could be
  • They also do a little industrial design really well. One of my favorite projects is the sound system they designed for Bang and Olufsen. The wood interface is so sleek and perfectly combines technology with natural material, and on the back there’s a little color wheel that stores songs according to mood. For example, if you’re feeling happy, you can touch the red/orange/yellow part of the color wheel and the sound system will play upbeat music
  • Tectonic is 80% envision and 20% shipping
  • Since there are only 15 designers, they usually work on multiple projects simultaneously
  • Tectonic is very collaborative with their client by establishing clear goals and principles together

Bill Flora reading a magazine at the office

Bill Flora reading a magazine at the office

Tips for Young Designers

  • Fail fast
  • Design through practice
  • Master flow and use cases

Tactile

Tactile was the last design firm I visited on my trip. Just like Tectonic, Tactile is a very small design firm that was started by Josh Kornfeld, a RISD graduate, around a decade or so ago (back then it was called General Assembly). They are known for working on high-touch products and interactiond design, most notably Microsoft’s XBOX. I sat down with Josh to learn about what goes on in Tactile, and below are the insights I gathered from my visit:

The sitting area

The sitting area

Insights

  • Josh was initially doing freelance work in the early 2000s. Since he was taking on more projects that he had time for, he started hiring other skilled designers to help him with the workload. This turned into General Assembly, which pivoted into Tactile
  • There are 17 designers currently at Tactile
  • Each designer works on 2–3 projects at a time
  • Projects usually last a few months
  • Each designer has a window view and a giant plant on their desk
  • Tactile likes working on medical technology and tools for professionals that require complex equipment
  • Tactile also likes working on graphic and branding such as XBOX’s special effects
  • Each group typically encompasses more than 3 designers with a PM and a design director to give guidance
  • Unlike Artefact who like to take young entry-level designers, Tactile prefers working with more senior designers given its small, intimate size
  • Tactile design process includes investigating what the process of the client company is, conducting research, and refining findings and integrating it into the design
  • In corporate in-house design teams, designers are more like managers telling design consultancies what to do
  • To maintain relationships with clients, exceed their expectations, always think of other ways outside of the scope of the assignment in which the product you designed can be used (always provide something extra), think about the big picture, and add extra features
  • You can read more about what Tactile does here

Tips for Young Designers

  • Get a job right out of school to sail ahead of the pack
  • Have a healthy process in your portfolio with a concise, brief story of your process. Tell your story eloquently
  • Build your story, conceptualize your solutions, and implement your solutions
  • Presentation skills are super important
  • If you don’t have a design major, that’s okay. Interdisciplinary majors are pretty important in design since they provide a different perspective on things
  • Designers are very visual people therefore they always look at your portfolio to gauge your taste and skills
  • Have a unique point of view/personality in your portfolio
  • Your work speaks for itself

This post is cross-posted from Medium.