I'm primarily going to be focusing on digital agencies because that's where I've been born and bred. However, I've heard enough stories from my friends who don't work at agencies (and those who do work at agencies) to know that there will be enough overlap for the two, but anything I'm writing about here will mostly be specific to agencies. I'm going to address the typical agency model that still is very much rooted in this "Mad Men"/1950s idea; it's very much still stuck in that way, and even though we don't dress as cool anymore and we don't smoke and drink whiskey in the morning (well, some agencies still do).
Avocado and Agile
Before I can continue, I need to mention avocado and Agile. These two things may have no overlap whatsoever in your head (rightly so), but in fact, they do have a bit of overlap, and they're also the exact opposite of each other in other ways. Effectively, the way I see it, the biggest widespread innovation in Australia in the last decade has basically been smashed avocado; and the biggest widespread innovation in digital agencies in the same period has been stealing Agile from "product" in a very ill-conceived manner. I actually really like smashed avocado, but on the other hand, I do not care for "Agile" at all. The form it has taken in agencies (sometimes called "Agency Agile") is obscene.
The recipe that agencies follow to delude themselves into thinking they are "Agile" can be summed up as: Fixed budget, fixed timeline, flexible scope.
What I'm getting at can be summed up in this quote from Peter Thiel:
"We were promised flying cars, and instead we got 140 characters."
There seems to be this "inverse innovation" that's happening; certainly in agencies and perhaps even in other companies as well. I really just want to address this up front before I continue.
These are just a couple of examples that have I've seen myself from other companies when I say about "inverse innovation":
One company (who will remain nameless) will talk very confidently about design systems and all this trendy new stuff, but in reality, all the designers working there still need to tether their own mobile phones in order to upload their static mockups to InVision (to get around the draconian I.T department).
Another company (who will also remain nameless) will talk about "innovating" with AR/VR, chatbots, but in reality, ths company's file hosting service has a file size limit of 10mb (the same as email it's meant to replace).
It's very much this weird internal vs external thing. Externally, everything is great, there's so many innovations going on, but internally, people can barely understand how to do their regular day job, so in reality there's actually not much innovation happening at all.
As a side note: if your marketing team is talking about things that are "innovative", they are almost definitely not innovative, and you should run away from anything they try to drag you into "exploring" (copying examples of other companies they've already seen do something) for them.
There are a whole bunch reasons for this kind of odd behavior, and this isn't an exhaustive list here, but these are just some sort of top-level points that I'll go through:
Everyone is too focused on "busy work"
Everyone is too focused on "busy work". This is a trend you'll just see basically everywhere you look, where you can observe people running very fast, but staying in the exact same place, towards no particular direction and mistaking it for work. Unfortunately for these people, the truth is that doing unimportant things very efficiently doesn't actually make them any more important.
Decisions are made by comittee/groupthink
Decisions are often a made by committee or groupthink and there's usually a lot of really good ideas from people at companies and they present them to the higher-ups or the group and then they basically get watered down and you they become the average opinion of the average person and end up being average (at best).
Assumption that hard problems will get solved automatically.
There's an assumption that the hard problems will just automatically get solved this is something we're used to so we don't actually spend a lot of time thinking about the hard problems just assuming they'll get solved
Fear of being wrong, held accountable or having risk aversion.
There's a fear of being wrong or having a risk aversion this is very common people try to like spread the blame and don't to be responsible for anything going wrong (or right). No skin in the game.
Short sighted vanity metrics instead of long term thinking.
It's a trend of short-sighted vanity metrics over the long term so focusing on things that day to day might seem very important but really have no effect in the long term .
Incompetence overrides reason.
Incompetence that overrides reason; people who are very reasonable actually doing the work they'll often get overridden by incompetent people above them who have no idea about what they're actually facing or what decisions are right.
Process trumps substance.
Process seems to trump substance so kind of just falling back to the process and not focusing on producing anything who value. This quote, also from Peter Thiel in "Zero To One", sums it up best:
"In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit)"
No definite optimistic view of the future.
This last one sums up the whole thing; there's really just no definite optimistic view of the future; It's very much an undefined optimistic version of the future, where things are probably going to get a better, but we don't actually know how or or why, they're just somehow going to get better.
Everyone ends up copying each other.
That's why we're in the state that we're in now: everybody is sort of doing the same thing, working with the same tooling, using the same processes and they're doing it because they're simply looking at other agencies and how they're doing it. This can become really dangerous, and can lead to some very weird behavior, like companies rushing to become "Agile", but they're not really sure why or what it really means.
So, there's just this really incremental back-and-forth of copying between companies, or copying things they read on the blog of a big unrelated company like Spotify, and (at best) they're incrementally improving things. Maybe it's not even improving anything at all, maybe it's actually getting worse, but the commonality is that everyone's just copying each other there's not really much original thought going on at these companies.
The distance between between design and production should be zero
Seeing all these companies mindlessly copying each other, mindlessly adopting new trends or not thinking for themselves makes me very concerned for the people working in them.
This is a quote from Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, she said:
"The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had decided not to see."
This is basically how I feel most of the time when I talk about new ideas related to design and development. As I mentioned earlier, I think the distance between between design and production should actually be zero.
This is not a popular view in agencies and perhaps in other companies as well. When you start talking about this stuff to people and they only take what you're saying at face value (not spending the time to understand why this is important), you basically just get a bit ridiculed and not taken very seriously. Everyone is happy to go back to their comfortable (and horribly time-wasting) workflows that are 20+ years old.
I think we really need to be focusing on what will have value in the future, and this is opposite to the trend that we currently see, which is trying to retro-fit today's ever-changing problems into these traditions of the past.
As I said before, the "Mad Man" model is how agencies looked 70 years ago, but we we haven't really stopped blindly chasing that. We try to cling on to all these existing ways of doing things. Instead of inventing new ways to solve new problems, we just kind of kind of mash them into the old ways we've already been doing things, and it barely works.
Woody Allen kind of sums it up much better with:
"Tradition is the illusion of permanence"
We can't just cling on to tradition and expect that to remain true for decades, because it's absolutely not true.
Some more concrete examples of stagnation in agencies (taken from a single month)
Just to really make this concrete, these are some examples of things that I personally saw in a single month (October 2018) in agency/client work. I assure you, these are all from 2018, not from 2008 (as you might think) - which is over a decade ago, and all these examples could easily have been from a decade ago, but they weren't, sadly.
Static web designs that were created in InDesign, this was the the "handover" format that was provided from the design team for development.
To receive feedback from a client on a staging site URL, they printed off screenshots of the website, wrote over it in red sharpie, scanned it back in, and then put into a PDF file as an email attachment for us to review and action in design/code.
A leading agency who gets their designers to take Photoshop (yes, still on Photoshop) files of their designs and export every screen to a JPG file, and then work with the team to put these JPG files into a PowerPoint presentation, which can then be used to present designs to the client.
Clients "signing off" (to start web development) on a very large website design that had no genuine content in it at all, so it's just "designing delusion" (as I like to call it).
Designs for a web app development handover which was provided in something that looked like it was designed for a print magazine, supplied in low resolution JPG files. There were text inputs all over the place, this was very much at the extreme degree of an "unconstrained design". This was just inputs literally put in different areas all over the screen in absolute position... how does the tab index even work on this matrix of inputs? It was outrageous.
Multiple times in the same month, I had to defend "components" against this idea of "unique pages". I was more than happy to do this, but just the level push back I was getting on just this idea of even considering component based design was nuts.
No design thought given to any sized screens below 27 inches - this is almost a constant theme.
Mobile mockups with totally different content to the "desktop" version of the exact same pages. I received two completely different sets of content, or at least the contents were in like a totally different order on both mockups. This is a decade since "responsive web design" became a term, and we still seem to have no idea what it means.
Finally, some app designs for a very large company that I received for "handover" weren't even using their design system (which they do have). They were literally doing stuff like changing the global font weights and just designing completely new inputs... it's out of control.
Existing tooling has run out of track.
Traditional design tools and workflows have basically run out of track. There's almost nowhere else we can go with with these current workflows and tooling; instead, we need to jump the curve and actually think about approaching this in totally different ways.
This isn't just my opinion, it's slightly re-assuring to know that other people in the community have a similar view to me on this.
John Gold from Airbnb said:
"Looking at the current crop of design tools after taking a glimpse of the future is frustrating."
Daniel Eden from Facebook said:
"Even the most advanced design tools are based on workflows for drawing mere pictures of interfaces"
These quotes are both very relatable to my mind, and I think they're both correct. Once you've crossed the event horizon and truly seen that the way we're doing things now is extremely stagnant and doesn't have much track left in its path; you can see how one might become obsessed with the idea that a future exists where things can actually be better and get us past what we've been doing so far.
A New Hope?
I believe that design and development type work should actually get way faster and cheaper over time, especially the "simple" tasks that we still seem to struggle so much with. However, I've noticed the exact opposite trend in our industry, where we're actually getting slow and more expensive over time. Even things like websites (we should be really good designing/building at websites by now!), they tend to get much more expensive over time and take much longer to complete, rather than the opposite that one would expect to see.
I really like this quote from Ricardo Semler, taken from his book “Maverick”, he said:
“We've all learned how to go on a Sunday night to our email and work from home, yet very few of us have learned how to go to the movies on a Monday afternoon.”
This was one of my goals for the team I used to work in. I wanted us to be so good, that we would literally be able to go to the movies during the week if we felt like it, because so many of our the tasks we used to do so poorly would be automated if we worked hard enough to make that happen.
I'm still very optimistic these (already dated) tools and workflows will become a distant memory, once everyone realizes how poor they truly are (after the things that will replace them become widely adopted enough).
Identifying these problems is a positive first step, but after that, the thing that really matters is working very hard towards a definite optimistic future where things look very different from the way they do today. I will personally be working towards bringing about this future, and I won't be giving up until we get there.
I will leave you with this one last quote (also from Atlas Shrugged):
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists... it is real... it is possible... it's yours.”
(This article was adapted from a talk I gave at DesignOps Melbourne back in 2018 called Insanely Inevitable)