Khoi Vinh: “Design doesn’t scale well”

I always enjoy reading Khoi Vinh’s writings on design and development — they’re incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking, whether he’s writing about the importance of grids in design, blogging, or technology in general.

His most recent post, on the topic of design agencies and studios, and the quality of their work, hits especially close to home:

When a design operation scales up the equation becomes much more diffuse. Beyond a certain point, a business of designers is no longer a studio — focusing on a specific niche of design, or devoting energies into a small number of projects at once — but rather an agency — a provider of multiple services, staffed by different kinds of specialists. Ideas must travel more complicated routes from brains to hands, and reconciling conflicting signals becomes difficult.

It’s certainly not the case that agencies are inherently staffed by inferior designers. That’s not what I’m saying, let me be clear. In fact, I’ll freely grant that designers employed at agencies are very often more talented than those employed at in-house design groups (except for those in my group, of course).

The problem is that the structures of most larger design businesses cannot effectively facilitate the the transmittal of ideas. They don’t allow good design to happen, because they are overburdened with the organizational overhead of running a business: org charts, jurisdictions, inconsistency, poor communications, etc. All the complications that large groups of humans create for one another when they work together, complications that are not about doing design.

You can read the full post here.

I say this hits close to home because one of the responsibilities of my day job is ensuring that a disparate group of people — all of them very talented — work together efficiently to create solid work without getting bogged down too much by the bureaucracies and politics — the organizational overhead of running a business, as Vinh puts it — that are unfortunately inherent to large groups of people working together.


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