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  • August 18, 2011

Attack of the Client Services Zombies

Khoi Vinh recently shared some inspiring insights on the evolution of opportunities for design professionals in the digital realm in a post entitled The End of Client Services. He has, as of the time of this publishing, since revisited and Decorative Illustration revised his thoughts. If you haven’t read these posts, you should, because it’s good stuff. I’ll wait.

Vinh had originally come to the conclusion that if you truly want to rock hard in these exciting web times, you’ll find the most action at a startup that wholeheartedly invests in the creation and ongoing health of a product. This is a conclusion shared by other designers as well. Without a doubt, Vinh is a brilliant design practitioner and leader of thoughts, mine included. But as poignant as Vinh’s career path story is, I found the choice to dub client services “dead” (to paraphrase) short-sighted. There are many adventurous paths from which today’s modern digital designer can choose; consultancy to in-house to product is one that may be natural for some, but it’s far from the only valid one.

The Resurrection of Client Services

For this post, I’ll define client services like this: Happy Cog practices the digital design craft in essentially five disciplines: project management, content strategy, experience design, visual design, and development. Each is a special snowflake, requiring different talents, worldviews, and experiences. You could break these disciplines down further, argue that one absorbs the other, tell me the labels are wrong, or whatever. Semantics is a fun game, but it doesn’t really affect our ability to provide value to clients.

Whatever the disciplines are called this week, the important thing is that we are tacticians in these disciplines before strategists. We provide tactical assistance and support in these areas of expertise. I would humbly submit that we are pretty damn good tacticians; occasionally, great ones. We can’t all be Napoleon or Bobby Fischer every time we tackle a design problem, but at our bare minimum, we make it our job to come up with tactics that are at least as effective and interesting as Leeroy Jenkins.

There are two reasons we are able to pull this off successfully in repeated engagements, and both of them are the result of being in the business of serving clients.

Checking in with Reality

First, we apply tactics from the unique vantage point of working with a diverse range of clients. Big clients, little clients, non-profit clients, for-profit clients. Some clients are lucky enough to have robust internal resources with the diversity of digital expertise that matches our own. In this scenario we complement their expertise, creating the ultra super mega brain, validating good ideas which hopefully evolve into great ones.

But let’s be honest: this is rarely the case. The real world means limited budgets, timelines, and technologies, and within those limitations, the in-house hero is born. Heroes who are perhaps the master of a few disciplines, but not all of them. These heroes are the backbone of the production of the web. We learn and hone our tactical craft by collaborating with as many of these heroes as we can. Without being in the business of serving clients by augmenting teams, we’d never meet these folks, and we wouldn’t be advancing knowledge together in the same way.

We also wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with some of the great strategists who are really changing the landscape; brilliant minds implementing new business models only made possible by continued technological evolution.

The Problem of Problem Ownership

Certain business models require exceptionally designed experiences, but other business models don’t. Amazon, Zappos, and other e-retailers provide value by eliminating the need for brick and mortar stores to reduce the costs of purchasing stuff. Groupon and similar “group coupon” sites apply the group-level interest in a thing to lower the cost of that thing, and raise “thing awareness” in the process. Great experience and visual design certainly helps these models succeed, but it is not a dependency. People will still want stuff and things, and if they want it badly enough they will suffer through all kinds of bad design to get stuff and things.

This brings me to the second reason why client services aren’t over. In our consultancy, we don’t own the core business problem; our clients do. This is what I mean when I say we are tacticians before strategists. That is a tremendously liberating constraint that we seem to thrive in. It enables us to apply unconventional models and bring that diversity to bear in interesting and unexpected ways. What could a reference library learn from a help desk ticketing system? What could a tourism application glean from editorial design? How does a content publishing workflow affect understanding the Holocaust in its historical proper context? These are questions we’ve had the privilege to explore with some very smart people.

Vinh refers to the core value proposition of creative services agencies as “storytelling,” but exploring these questions and many more is doing a lot more than that. It’s collaborating; working together to conceive of and build things that would not be possible as separate entities. We’re making mind babies and, intellectually speaking, it’s very sexy.

It’s a Lifestyle Choice

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Khoi’s career path isn’t a smart one for many designers, and there are many that would do well to consider it. I would say, however, that declaring client services have ended, simply because some respected professionals have lost their taste for it, sends a misleading message to a lot of existing practitioners and students learning their craft.

The diversity of problems we solve, varied environments in which we solve them, and collaborators we meet along the road makes us better at what we do each time, every time. If that path is dead, then I’m really enjoying the zombie lifestyle.

What about you? I’d love to hear from you in a tweet response. Are you in-house? Do you enjoy working with design services zombies, or do you avoid it like the zombie plague? Or if you are in client design services, how’s business? Eating lots of brains lately?

Mmmm. Brains.

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