What a year it has been! With a historically rotten economy, the design industry has taken a serious beating, leaving us all looking around to see who is still standing. The main theme of Merge is the idea that, in order to survive and thrive, designers must begin to look beyond the “client service” business model and explore ways to market their creative ideas in a more direct way. 2009 has certainly underscored the relevance of this point of view.
In reflecting on the year, five stories have emerged as central to the design and entrepreneurship convergence, for a variety of reasons. Some are simply emblematic of the unique time we are in, while others may offer a glimpse into the future for designers and creative professionals. Here they are (in no particular order):
1. iPhone App Development and the iTunes App Store
According to the website GigaOm, roughly $2.4 billion were spent on iPhone Apps in 2009. That’s a staggering number for a tech category that basically did not even exist a couple years ago. The good news is that this has emerged as an area in which a wide range of designers, web developers and creative professionals have been able to bring their product ideas directly to the consumer—I’ve written frequently about this phenomenon on Merge and profiled a couple of App developers with roots in the design world.
While the media has focused on the relative handful of “kitchen table” developers who hit the jackpot with app releases in the early months of the “app bubble,” I think the real story here is the iPhone Developer Program—the back-end machine that Apple has built to facilitate the process of development, sales, and distribution of these products. Without fail, when I ask would-be entrepreneurs what holds them back from pursuing a business idea, the complications—and expenses—related to the supply chain are cited as primary reasons. With the iPhone Developer Program, which feeds into the iTunes App Store, this complication has been greatly simplified.
Ironically, I see synergy between the Apple case study and other design-friendly online marketplaces, like Etsy or Mohawk Paper’s Felt & Wire Shop. My hope is that the success of these programs will inspire similar marketplace opportunities in other categories, hence making it easier for more designers to bring their ideas directly to the consumer.
2. Necessity Entrepreneurs
Not all entrepreneurs are the same. While the classic entrepreneur is struck with that brilliant “aha” idea, and methodically develops it into a thriving business, many people starting new businesses today are doing so because they lost their job and have slim prospects for finding a new one. With the creative and design industries being particularly hard hit in this recession, one of the lasting stories from 2009 will undoubtedly be the high number of creative professionals who have opted to pursue an entrepreneurial venture rather than competing for the few remaining job openings.
While many of these new ventures will be built on the tried and true client service model, my hope is that we will see more products and services brought directly to the consumer by people with backgrounds in design, hence bringing the design sensibility and methodology to the process of building a new business.
Here’s a link to a post I wrote earlier this year about this topic:
The New Breed of Necessity Entrepreneurs
3. Service Design (or whatever you call it)
“Suddenly there is a whole population of designers trying to use their skills to have an impact on the world around them.” This is how Bill Drenttel of Winterhouse Institute and Design/Change Observer introduced the Aspen Design Summit in November. I would only argue with the “suddenly” part—in fact, I think designers have a deep heritage of working to make the world around them a better place dating back to the Bauhaus, so perhaps after decades of immersing in a relatively one-dimensional way of working, we are rediscovering how to apply our skills for a greater good.
The distinct practice of Service Design is more established in Europe than in the U.S., a result, in part, of the support and funding given to the design professions by many European governments. In fact, the term itself is not very common here—we might call it “design thinking,” “social impact design,” or even “new design.” While a single definition of Service Design is difficult to pin down, a common principle is that inter-disciplinary teams of professionals are using the methodology of design to engage in complex social problems like healthcare, poverty, and hunger.
2009 was filled with promising examples of designers putting their skills to work on such issues, as well as commenting and writing about it. Bookshelves were filled with new volumes by design gurus like Tim Brown of IDEO and Nathan Shedroff of CCA. INDEX presented their prestigious design award to Kiva, an institution that, seemingly, has nothing to do with design, provoking us all to rethink the parameters of our practice. And the Aspen Design Summit itself brought designers, policy makers, educators, and institutional leaders together for a vigorous exercise in design with a social impact emphasis.
My hope is quite simply that this trend continues, and that these exercises begin to spawn some meaningful success stories.
4. Alternative Funding for New Business Ventures
Access to a relatively small amount of seed money can completely change the complexion of a startup business plan. As little as a few thousand dollars can allow a designer/entrepreneur to produce a run of prototypes or conduct valuable user testing. But not everyone can reach into their pockets and find that kind of cash, and traditional sources of funding like small business loans are much more difficult to come by than they were in better economic times.
That’s why the emergence of alternative sources of startup funding is such an important story right now. I’ve written several times about this in 2009 and I continue to be intrigued by the possibilities it offers. Microfinancing (also known as peer-to-peer lending), a model similar to the one used by Kiva where individual donors connect with individual entrepreneurs in an online venue, offers one way that designers can get that initial boost for their startup idea.
My hope is that alternative funding sources like microfinancing will continue to mature into a viable and stable option in the year ahead—and that more designers will take advantage of it.
Here are links to a couple of the posts I’ve written on this topic in 2009:
Microfinancing: A Model that can Work for Designers?
Peer-to-Peer Lending and Other Funding News
5. The Online Social Media Wave
Creative professionals have, for the most part, been early adopters to the online social media wave, and many of us have found ways to use it to enhance our business. This is a trend that has evolved at an explosive pace over the last few years—as evidenced by the recent story that Facebook overtook Google as the most-visited website in the U.S. on Christmas Day this year—and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon. While many of us have tired of the Facebook routine, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and other online venues each provide distinct and unique ways to connect and interact.
One of the reasons I cite for designers not finding as much success as they should as entrepreneurs is that our professional networks are too narrow, and my view is that online social media provides a remarkable way to expand these networks and connect with the people who can help small businesses grow. My hope is that designers and creative professionals will continue to populate this online world (or to dive in right away if they haven’t already done so) and be involved in the continuing evolution of it.
Here’s a link to an earlier post on this topic:
Social Media 101