Design on the Rise: How Smart Design's Decision to Shutter Its SF Studio May Mark a Fundamental Shift in the Industry

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Apropos word that industry stalwart Smart Design is closing its San Francisco studio after nearly a decade and a half in the Bay Area, our Discussion Boards are abuzz about what may well be an industry-wide shift that finds its epicenter in Silicon Valley. OP jarman65 follows up to his opener with a link to a Peter Merholz blogpost unpacking the phenomenon; forumite Cyberdemon initially chimes in with the pros and cons of in-house vs. consultancy and a general shift in the industry, later concisely summing it up: “Smart and the big guys got contracts from the mega-corporations who could afford their hefty price tag, and those are the guys who now have fairly large and mature design teams internally.” Meanwhile, Surface Phil puts it bluntly:

I think it’s time to face the music that if you are an agency whose core offering is industrial design alone (i.e. designing plastic) chances are this service can be found elsewhere. Whether it be in-house design resource or outsourced overseas. You better be bringing something else to the table. UX, business innovation, commercialization strategy. Something…

Commentators also note that Smart Design recently opened a London office (after quietly dissolving a Barcelona satellite) and there is no indication that the company is in anything less than ship-shape—which is precisely why some, such as Merholz, conclude that the trend is a symptom of the ascendancy of tech companies. In short, these juggernauts are increasingly investing in design, which may spell the demise of the brand-name consultancy as we know it. That, or maybe it’s simply the case that Shoreditch is the new SoMa:

All told, it remains to be seen as to whether the shakeup at Smart Design is a Bay Area bellwether or an isolated incident. The second page of the discussion thread broadly addresses the facts, with more of the nitty-gritty from industry vets bepster, Yo, FluffyData and slippyfish; speculation though it may be, their comments speak to the dynamic—and sometimes outright political—nature of the relationship between consultancies and their clients.

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