The 2,100-person digital agency AKQA has acquired a majority stake in both Universal Design Studio, a 52-person architecture firm, and Map Project Office, the 10-person experimental design studio (and Fast Company Most Innovative Company) responsible for everything from DIY computer kits for the tech startup Kano to a three-in-one utensil called the Tritensil to in-flight service items for Virgin Atlantic.
Both Universal and Map were founded by celebrated British designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. Barber and Osgerby run a third firm, the industrial design studio Barber & Osgerby, which is best known for developing the Olympic Torch at the London Games and a sleek Vitra task chair favored at Apple’s new headquarters. Barber and Osgerby now own a minority stake in Universal and Map, and will oversee both firms as board directors. They will also continue operating Barber & Osgerby independently.
The acquisitions give AKQA coveted design capabilities at a time when many companies see design as crucial to their business strategy. Map and Universal, meanwhile, get access to the resources of an approximately $200 million company and, no doubt, the type of thorny design projects that typically go to bigger creative agencies. “The most compelling business case for this partnership has been in the market for a while now, but not taken advantage of yet,” Osgerby writes in an email. “It’s the void of a multidisciplinary practice group that serves clients with needs more ambitious or complex than one practice area can solve.”
Similar reasoning has precipitated other high-profile acquisitions in recent years. China’s BlueFocus Communication Group took a majority stake in Yves Behar’s prolific design firm Fuseproject in 2014. Capital One acquired the UX firm Adaptive Path later that year. The white-shoe consultants McKinsey & Co. swallowed up Lunar, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest design firms, in 2015. And the Japanese collective KYU bought a minority stake in Ideo, arguably the most famous design firm in the United States, in 2016.
These moves have led some onlookers to question whether today’s business climate supports independent design–and to wonder what’s lost in the consolidation of design talent. Osgerby sees it differently. Companies have complex design problems, and they have to be attacked on all fronts; you can’t simply design a great tablet or a beautiful app and call it a day. “There are fewer boundaries between the professional design services, and there is a need for greater reach and flexibility, globally,” he says. “Design practices can’t exist in silos and remain at the forefront of specialized industries because the borders between disciplines are dissolving.”