Is the design agency dead?

Let me start by saying that as well as a brand consultant, I consider myself a designer, and have run an agency since 2003. In this time I have seen considerable change in perception towards designers and design agencies in general. As a result, I find myself now asking ‘is it the beginning of the end for the design agency?’

It was only a few weeks back when I overheard someone at a business event say ‘there are thousands of them tripping over themselves to work with us, if one doesn’t work out we’ll just get another’ they sadly were referring to a design agency. It’s true, there are thousands of talented agencies, let alone designers, who are willing to work for near nothing and the repercussions of which is that the once-revered designer is now devalued.

Now I’m not referring to the value of design, people still want their packaging, website and marketing material to look great and represent who they are. It’s more the process that has been affected and thus, so have the people that undertake that process – the designers.

I remember designing years ago and people were looking at my screen like I was performing some kind of witchcraft. Nowadays 12 year-olds are performing more advanced photo-editing and illustrations on their phones and in a fraction of the time.

Problem solvers
With so much choice people now look for guidance and reassurance online before spending their hard earned pennies. Because of which brand owners have turned their priorities away from aesthetics and onto content. They know that brands that have strong captivating personalities are the ones differentiating themselves and resonating with their audiences.

It’s therefore irrefutable that organisations are now seeking more than design from their creative agencies. They are looking for solution providers, agencies that are helping solve problems and increase ROI (not a full-service agency model, the everything to everyone approach doesn’t work in my opinion).

Many web design agencies for example have caught on that if they reposition themselves as UX (User Experience) consultants they’re going to get far greater engagement from prospects. Organisations are going to be more compelled by an agency that has a focus on improving user experience and engagement, over one that’s focus is solely about creating websites that look good. As I have written about many times before, it’s not just got to look pretty, it has to be effective.

Taking our own advice
I identified the shift in client requirements around 5 years ago and decided to make the decision to take some of our own medicine and rebrand our agency. The particularly tricky part was making the decision to change the name – that really wasn’t easy. I knew that our previous name ‘Graphic Evidence’ instantly conjured perceptions that we were a graphic design agency. Which was fine 15 years ago when we started, but not today. Today we are way more than a graphic design agency and our focus on crafting effective brands requires us to be a team of strategists, copywriters, designers and sector experts. Brandality was therefore born and we’ve not looked back since.

Moving in-house
As well as organisations now requiring more from their creative suppliers, it has also been apparent in recent years that many have taken design in-house. Employing designers to undertake every day creative support, they once relied on external agencies for. Working as a brand consultant in a few larger organisations recently I had the opportunity to ask why they chose to use in-house designers as opposed to an agency. The responses of course stated price as a factor, but mainly people had bad experiences with previous agencies, stating that communications and turnaround of projects were poor.

The end is nigh
So I fear it could be the beginning of the end for the design agency or the format of the traditional design agency at least. Maybe the ‘design agency’ just needs a rebrand? Would a design agency use a branding agency to do it?… let’s not open that can of worms!

Adam Arnold

Founder & Creative Director of award-winning branding agency Brandality.