A central factor which characterizes design-related innovative activities is that a major source of knowledge – that is designers – is very often located outside the firm. This raises a central management issue for the firm and unavoidably generates a tension between designer consultants and the firm which I name the essential tension.
The aim of this paper is to shed some light on this complex relationship on the ground of the evidence provided by a multiple case study. The findings confirm that designer consultants can make a substantial contribution in enhancing firms’ innovation capabilities. We show that a better understanding of the types of knowledge that designers need for their activity is key. This affects the way designer consultants are integrated within the organizational structure of the firm, and it also impinges on the strategies put forward by firms to manage this relationship in order to gain a competitive advantage driven by innovation. Implications include the crucial role played by the product manager, the strategies to foster trust and to coordinate designers.