Design as a Product

In our work with design studios, we find that most take the view that what they do is a service, rather than a product. It’s sexier sounding, to be sure. And it makes sense: creativity is not commodifiable or something that should be churned out on a conveyor belt. We agree.

The challenge here is that offering creativity as a service brings with it a whole other side that is rooted in human relationships, further complicated by emotions and expectations. Sure, it’s not muddied by sameness, but it’s a lot more personal to your clients, making it more complex.

The irony is that the process by which any studio ideates and creates is generally consistent each time regardless of the client; and, whether they like it or not, it can be viewed as a product.

Take the RIBA Plan of Work – Stages 0-7, the process RIBA designed to ensure best possible design and construction outcomes. It is a process which is repeatable each time an architect takes on a project and it has been outlined thoroughly enough for architects to follow it.

But how each studio interprets those stages is where the real distinction happens. Some studios move quickly through Stages 0-1, jumping to Stage 2/3 before the ink is dry on the contract (if there even is one), and many work those stages simultaneously.

Others work slowly and methodically through each stage, ensure client sign off between stages, and don’t rush anything. Most are somewhere in between. But the truth remains: all follow their own version of the process.

No design studio reinvents the wheel each time a client comes along with a new project (or at least they shouldn’t). The studio will follow a process they’ve designed from a framework they already know, to create an outcome that, in the end, is­ completely unique.

Unfortunately, in most cases, studios do not take the time to fully articulate the specific creative process by which their work comes to life, and that which is unique to them is left unspoken, undefined, yet distinctive all the same.

This is how creative services can become products and give your studio a competitive edge. Moving to this way of thinking has profound effects on a creative business both from an operational and a marketing point of view.

Operationally, fully articulating your product (i.e., how your studio delivers work) leaves zero gaps for interpretation. It means over time the process can become so efficient, that it makes your work more profitable. Repeatable systems and processes provide opportunity for growth if that is part of the vision. Clear processes also ensure your team knows how to deliver your studio’s style of projects to its defined standards, thereby removing the mental load for ‘how do we do this project’.

But, what about creativity? The fear is that process kills creativity, however on the contrary, systems and process do not make creative work less innovative. In fact, creativity thrives in this way of working.

The key is the creative structure: keep the early stages of a project as open as possible, to allow further space for creative thought and innovation. Systemising the delivery takes the guess work out; the ‘how’ has already been defined, leaving greater opportunity for creation, ideation, and telling new stories.

But, I hear you say, what about the unknowns or things outside of our control?

Well, I balk at this excuse if I’m honest. If you’ve been doing your design process long enough, you can work out 75-80% of the known “unknowns” and build a robust enough process that allows you to retain as much control as possible. It does require you to trust your experience so far. If you go into a project expecting unknowns, you will be better prepared for them when they inevitably happen. And it shows your client you’ve thought about their project holistically – I know no client who wouldn’t be happy about that.

Thing is, as in life, there will always be unknowns in projects: delays, spanners, something the survey didn’t pick up, but building that into your process means you’re proactively mitigating against the damage those unknowns can cause. It puts you on the front foot of delivery and makes you attractive to clients with your strategic thinking.

From a marketing point of view, this productising of your process addresses the age-old challenge of setting oneself apart from a very crowded market. We hear marketers and coaches bang on about niching but often those “experts” have forgotten what it means to be a creative entrepreneur: the creative act is the heart of the business.

Niching is antithetical to the creative opportunities that any or all briefs hold – every commission is an act of freedom, expression and discovery. The unique challenge with our brand of entrepreneurship is that it does make it incredible difficult to differentiate yourself from your competition.

Creating a product out of your design service fixes this. First, if you’re clear on what you’re selling, your clients will know what they’re buying when they come to you. They know that the product, which includes your creative process, creates and outcome that is right for them. It also means that your “niche” is less about a specific sector, and more about people who want to work the way you do, who come to you because of the threads that bind your work together: your approach.

They buy into the journey, as one architect we know put it. It is how you stand out.

Everyone talks about what they do but if you can be a business that talks about the results you bring, how your process makes it better, less painful, and why you do it, you will easily differentiate yourself from those that simply stick to standard sectors and follow the same script as everyone else.

Seeing your work as a product doesn’t cheapen it. It makes it something that is repeatable and saleable. It doesn’t mean you can’t wax lyrical about your creative process, about what you believe, all the touch-feely stuff. Dive deep into all that because everyone buys in emotionally first and then post-rationalises.

All that is incredibly important to getting clients to buy in to what you offer, but what they will also know is that you can deliver on what you say. You’ve built the process because it’s the best way you know how to do things properly. For a client, what’s more sexy than that?