LEAN design studio

Better clients, better work – the ‘LEAN’ way

I have now clocked up more than 30 years in the design industry, the last 13 years having worked with thousands of designers in seminars, workshops and mentoring through the Design Business Council.

One of the things I constantly observe is that designers are too generous. They readily give away their intellectual property.

In the process of developing concepts, designers do extensive research and develop strategies and tactics. Too often this is given away as part of the design concept and is not separately billed. This is what led me to look at the concept of the minimum viable product (or service) which is a core part of ‘LEAN’ manufacturing. My investigation has helped me develop the minimum viable design service approach as part of a LEAN design studio.

LEAN manufacturing began as the process of defining what adds value and then reducing everything else. In the manufacturing model this meant reducing materials, reducing waste, reducing superfluous activities and just building the minimum product that a customer needs. This idea was then extended by Eric Reis and Steve Blank through the idea of the LEAN startup (I think we should see ourselves as constantly in the startup phase – more about that in a later article). Eric Reis and Steve Blank have gone on to establish very successful businesses that show entrepreneurs how to develop a LEAN startup.

According to Eric Reis’
Too many startups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want. They then spend months, sometimes years, perfecting that product without ever showing the product, even in a very rudimentary form, to the prospective customer. When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it is often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. When customers ultimately communicate, through their indifference, that they don’t care about the idea, the startup fails.

This point applies to design studios offering their services. They may not take years to develop a service offering but they certainly spend many months planning the business.

Say or do

Too often they make assumptions about the type of service clients want and then start a business, build a website, employ people and promote their service without first testing the assumptions. They have often based their business on listening to what clients ‘say’ instead of watching ‘what they do’.

Clients say they want a brochure design but in reality they want a solution to an undefined or ill defined problem. In this case the designer needs to sell a service that defines the problem. Then they can look at the solution.

It’s not just that initial testing that they bypass, they also fail to set up a method to constantly test their assumptions. This means they miss opportunities as clients change direction. Clients make these changes as they perceive their market shifting. Often they have not understood the reasons why customers are leaving them and they make a knee jerk change. If design studios had a system of constantly examining their clients’ moves they could help them understand their customers better.

The starting point for this LEAN approach in a design studio is to develop a minimum viable design service. The minimum viable design service involves a process of understanding client needs and delivering the minimal service that will meet those needs.

In the example of the client who wants a brochure to solve an undefined or ill defined problem, the minimum viable design service is the analysis of the problem. This may involve customer research, inhouse workshops, customer journey mapping, empathy mapping or interviews. The design studio would choose the quickest, simplest most effective method (you would be LEAN in your choice). While they probably do this type of research already, in the minimum viable design service model, they have put it forward as a design service in itself – and they have billed for it.

So how do you develop a LEAN approach and a minimum viable design service?

In working with design studios I use the Design Business Model Canvas to rapidly develop a LEAN approach and a minimum viable design service. This model allows the studio owner to quickly get out and test it with clients and then ‘pivot’ if the model is not working. The pivot may involve adding extra elements that meet the client needs. Or it may mean stripping back the service to meet client needs and budgets.

This model allows them to regularly look at their business, their competitors and their clients and make changes to improve the business, stay in front of competitors and meet clients’ (real) needs.

This makes them a LEAN business delivering a minimal viable design service.


Greg Branson

Contact Greg Branson if you would like to learn more about the many programs the DBC offers.

Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.

Greg has developed The Design Business School to help owners manage their business better along with showing designers how to get more involved in the studio and develop their career path. Contact Greg.

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