- a person or company offering something for sale, especially a trader in the street.
- a person or company whose principal product lines are office supplies and equipment.
Synonyms: retailer, seller, dealer, trader, purveyor, storekeeper, shopkeeper, merchant, salesperson, supplier, peddler, hawker; scalper, huckster, trafficker
Over the last sixteen years I've learned that if there's a word folks in the nonprofit community love to use to describe design firms, it's vendor. Maybe it's me, but every time I hear it used in conversation or read it in an RFP, the "V-word" is accompanied by the soothing sound of nails on a chalkboard. I don't believe I'm being thin-skinned here, but applying vendor to a design firm like Constructive is, well, a bit insulting.
"What's the big deal?" you might be thinking. "Why should I care?"
Both good questions. The short answer is that if you work for a nonprofit and are tasked with researching and choosing a design firm to lead your organization through a website redesign or other design project, using the word vendor is symptomatic of a bigger problem. It suggests a mindset that misunderstands what design is. That shortchanges the value of good design and the value a social change organization can get from working with a design firm. And that damages the kind of relationship any nonprofit would want to build when working with one.
Sounds serious! But if I'm overstating the case, I'm only overstating it slightly.
To understand what's so troubling about putting the "vendor" label on design firms, it's helpful to deconstruct the term itself. Take a look again at the definition of vendor and its synonyms at the top of this article. Pretty uninspiring, right? By definition, a vendor doesn't provide insight or strategic value. Vendors have customers, not clients. (Does any nonprofit really want to be treated by their design firm as a "customer"?!). At best, they are trying to sell you something — usually a commoditized product or service. At worst, the thing they are trying to sell you is a lemon.
Would anyone in their right mind want a vendor to do something for them as important as design?! Well, it depends on how you view design.
So why is vendor used so frequently in the nonprofit sector to describe the design firms that play such a critical role in translating organizational strategy into tangible experiences? I don't believe it’s because anyone is intentionally minimizing the value that design firms bring to the table. (If anything, the case for strategic communications in the sector is on the rise.) To me, it's a subtle sign of a more widespread misunderstanding that can lead to missed opportunity — one that's often exacerbated by design firms themselves and the organizations that hire them.
Why Is Design So Misundersood?
There's a certain twentieth-century quality to the word vendor (postwar America's twist on the nineteenth-century word purveyor). It’' a convenient catchall for any company that provides a good or service. For much of the twentieth century, concepts like "brands" and "brand value" were still in their infancy, choices were fewer, and our ability to access those choices more limited. In that world, strategic differentiation was much less critical to success and "vendor" was good enough for describing any company in the "posters & toasters" business.
It's in this context that the traditional client/design firm relationship evolved. Businesses and organizations had things that "needed designing" and reached out to firms in the new, growing field of design for help. Design firms, for their part, acted mostly in a "crafts" capacity, adding "beautification and decoration" to the ideas for products, advertising, and communications that were brought to them.
And for a while that worked just fine (well, fine enough).
In the twenty-first century, this simplistic view has been supplanted by a deeper understanding of what design is and what it can do. Our increasingly complex world requires a greater ability to understand, empathize, synthesize, and translate ideas and whole systems into meaningful experiences that help us make sense of it all. At their best, brands are an integral part of strengthening our sense of identity and understanding. (Think tribes). In this context, design is understood as a powerful, multi-faceted discipline that offers a unique combination of skills to connect us more meaningfully to the world. This paradigm shift is exemplified by the field of design thinking — now embraced by many as one of our best tools for solving "wicked" problems.
Change Is Hard!
Despite this shift in the client/design-firm relationship, when it comes to branding and communications it's my experience that the nonprofit sector lags the business world in understanding the role of design in achieving organizational goals. Without question many forward-thinking nonprofits — particularly social innovation organizations — have bucked the trend (If you're with one, I'd love to meet…). But the sector's traditional aversion to the "B-word," its tendency to underinvest in strategic communications, its reliance on consensus-driven processes, and the challenges any organization faces when confronted by a major disruption in thinking all contribute to the glacial pace of change.
One tell-tale sign (you guessed it!) is the widespread characterization across the nonprofit sector of design firms as "vendors." Another sign is the often mystifying RFP process that seeks to "level the playing field," keeps prospective partners at arm's length, and prescribes solutions before a design firm has even been engaged. (Not surprisingly, it's in RFPs that I see vendor used most often). Both are symptomatic of a mindset that — with respect to engaging design firms — emphasizes the more easily understood outcome (i.e., design as a noun), while underweighting the less tangible, more valuable problem solving process (design as a verb).
Unfortunately, a not-insignificant percentage of design firms reinforce this dynamic by either: 1) not having developed a mindset, culture, and practice that positions them as a partner capable of thinking beyond the deliverable (and earns them a seat at the table when strategy is being developed); or by 2) not educating potential partners who may be less informed about the strategic value that design firms can provide.
The result of this disconnect is mis-aligned expectations that lead to missed opportunities — and, in worst-case scenarios, flat-out frustration for all concerned.
Now the good news!
Always Partners, Never Vendors
As I've noted elsewhere, design firms and social impact organizations share a unique bond. And hopefully by this point I've made it pretty clear what kind of relationship I believe they should have in order to create the greatest benefit, for each other and the world.
While there's much that nonprofits and design firms can do to develop more effective ways of working together, it's my aim, with this article, to create one small behavioral change in the way the former engage with the latter. Because as strong a signal as that single word vendor sends, I believe that by simply replacing it with another word, nonprofits can put their relationships with design firms on much more productive ground.
And that word, of course, is partner.
Partnership implies a relationship based on mutual respect. It acknowledges that each party in the relationship has something of value to share — and that each party has something to learn from the other. And it affirms that the two parties are in it together.
And isn't that what we all want and are looking for from a partner?
Kicking vendor to the curb and eliminating it from our lexicon is essential to changing the terms of engagement between nonprofits and design firms — and to creating a framework for collaboration that increases the social impact that, together, we can achieve.
So won't you join me? Next time you hear a colleague refer to a design firm as a vendor, politely correct him or her and explain that there's a much better way to describe the role of a design firm in advancing social impact work. I will thank you. And, more importantly, the world will thank you.
Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at Constructive, a New York City-based brand strategy and experience design firm dedicated to helping social change organizations achieve greater impact.