Design has never been bigger or better. Whether it’s factories in China that are managing pretty competent industrial design without ever consulting outside designers, to Fortune 500 companies practicing design thinking as a way of life–and even absorbing design studios to do it well–in the wake of Apple’s massive success, the waterline of design has raised across the board.
“For me, my dreams are coming true,” gushes John Barratt, CEO of the design consultancy Teague, regarding this new state of design. And yet this dream fulfillment is exactly why he’s taking Teague in an aggressive new direction. In a meeting today, he informed the company’s 300 designers that their Munich office would be closing, all work would be consolidated to Seattle, and the company will operate with a new focus:
“We’re not going to be a generalized design consulting firm,” he explains. “We’re going to be specialized in this domain at an intersection of travel and technology.”
It doesn’t appear to be coded language to occlude downsizing. In fact, Teague has increased its staff by 20% over the last year, and the team in Munich will be offered the option to stay on, albeit stateside. For the last few years, Teague has been winnowing their client base toward travel. While they’ve worked with travel clients like Boeing since the 1940s, and they currently work with an unspecific handful of airline operators, many of us know Teague for their industrial design. They’ve partnered with Microsoft on products like the Xbox, along with hardware manufacturers including Samsung, Panasonic, Intel, LG, and HP. But in fact, Barratt says that only 10% of their current business involves industrial design. The other 90% includes–due in part to their own pruning–NDA-bound business models, service innovation, apps, and digital design.
Their new commitment to the Venn intersection of travel and technology is in response to a combination of their corporate heritage and coming market trends. “We know the travel industry’s growth is going to outgrow global economic growth. It’s growing faster than the rest of the economy,” Barratt says. “It’s also looking for differentiation. They’re desperately looking for differentiation. We know they’ll increasingly be looking toward technology to offer that differentiation.”
Teague recently released a case study of the tech-forward travel experiences they could both imagine and build out in the concept Poppi–an airline imagined around social networks, better middle seats, and unique bag stowage. It’s an example how UX, industrial design, and the interior design of planes could all mix to create a larger, better experience. And Barratt is banking the company on Teague’s ability to repeat and scale that specific type of design consultation.
The potential clients include the major airlines, sure, but also companies like Uber or Airbnb, or even software companies like Microsoft that might want to break into the travel space.
“We have consultations with people in the automotive industry that are trying to understand the implications of autonomic driving cars. They’re asking, ‘How do we position ourselves?’” Barratt says. “We’ve got clients in space travel, looking at space tourism. If ever there’s been a place where travel and tech need to come together, it’s in that.”
It’s no secret that the traditional design consultancy has had to adapt in the ever-shifting world. Acquisitions are commonplace–and sometimes the only alternative to closure. Firms I’ve spoken to have to constantly juggle large, but one-off paid client work with small, equity-based bets in startups. It can be a never-ending hustle to make payroll that doesn’t benefit from any economy of scale like other businesses do.
Teague’s solution is to, essentially, bow out of most generic design studio work. But in giving up all that real estate, they hope what they do still offer is all the more valuable.
“I believe it’s important in this economy, and this design context, to know what you’re great at, what you’re better than anyone else at, and to focus on that. And I really believe that customers are looking for that, what you’re great at, they’re not looking for other things anymore,” Barratt says. “My ambition is not to have a number of offices doing pretty good work in a number of different industries. My ambition is to make Teague a fabulous firm, a leader forging new futures, challenging the status quo. I believe firmly, to be that leader, you have to focus.”