Insourcing design or outsourcing design, is there an optimum scenario? PARK’s founder Frans Joziasse is sure about this: NO!
The Dutch soccer star Johan Cruijff, who recently past away, said: “Each advantage has its disadvantage.” This is certainly true for having a design function internally versus buying design services from external design agencies. Make or buy is the classical procurement question. For sure the answer should not be a purely numerical one. One can (try to) calculate how much internal designers against external agencies will cost, but that’s a too narrow sight of things.
The question therefore companies should ask themselves first is: Do we want to build design into a core competency?
Hence core activities are the essential and defining activities of an organisation. If the organisation gave those activities to an external party, it would be creating a competitor or dissolving itself. Start to hire designers and build an internal design function.
But it is not as simple as it sounds. It all starts with the creation and communicating of a clear design vision and strategy that demonstrates why design should be a core competency for your company and how it is going to add value to the business. That would then allow them to fund and recruit talented designers.
Then it brings us to the hiring part. One the most challenging parts of any business and crucial to excel in design is not only knowing what kind of people you’re looking for but also how you do the recruitment. This turns out to be a very tricky and difficult area for designers/design managers that require special skills, competencies and a lot of experience. HR can be your friend if professionally managed. Otherwise recruiters can be a way out, but watch that space!
Assuming you have found your routine and confidence in the recruitment part, people development and people management come in place. Hugely underestimated and underinvested by most companies, especially in the area of design! Looking at designers 10 years ago in relation to today’s environment and market challenges/dynamics, you can only come to one conclusion: you have to develop the careers and the competencies of your designers constantly. At least if you want to maintain design as a core competency.
So, let’s have a look at companies that do not consider design as core competency and buy it from outside. In these cases design is critical to the success of the business, but not part of its core activities.
In analogy with the internal design function, it starts again with the hiring. Which external design partner(s) should we work with, which design competency areas do we need and which design competency area can we influence? Preferably you need many of them to create holistic user experiences. The key challenges in this model are not only to find and maintain the right partners, but more so who manages the external partners. The options are traditionally the marketing or R&D department. In smaller companies this might be the owners. Both scenarios have its advantages and disadvantages.
An internal design management function that supports those functions that work with external designers in building competencies in leading and managing Design is the ‘minimum viable service’ here. It would be even better if design management has a stronger mandate and ownership. When implemented well, full dedication and long term strategic cooperation makes the partners work like the ‘right arm’ of the business. All external creative partners are coordinated through a highly experienced internal design management team with excellence in process/tools/leadership competences.
Finally you will find companies that want challenges from both sides. They choose the hybrid solution, internal design and external design. The latter to give the internal team extra capacity when needed, fresh insights & ideas, more competition or new design areas like digital, sustainability, experience, etc. Other bring in designers from their design agencies to spar on creativity and learn them ’the client perspective’ and the other way around. No doubt this can be a good model, but it seems to work mainly for the mature companies, those that probably have gone through the waves of internal/external many times before.
Conclusion: there’s not one way to Rome, there are many ways to Rome.
Definitely each scenario has its own advantages/disadvantages that ask for professional design leadership and design management and competencies that you normally do not learn at school! So stay cool and stay ahead of the game at the same time. Get trained, learn, pilot, test and get trained again, learn again, pilot again and test again.
Living organisations need living employees! Are you one of them?