Small really can be beautiful

Surviving two recessions has taught Mike
Dempsey a valuable lesson: you don’t have to be in the mainstream to enjoy life as a designer

Last December, I walked down the stairs of the David Chipperfield-designed studio of CDT Design for the last time, with a mix of sadness and excitement. It had been my emotional home and a big part of my life for 28 years.

Nine months on I feel a bit of a fraud writing a Business Insight column because I have never thought of myself as a businessman. As all those who know me will testify, I spent most of my time at CDT board meetings either trying to solve a design problem, while looking attentive, or endlessly drawing, giving the illusion that I was calculating complex strategic formulae to help propel the consultancy into the stratosphere.

My working life has, in fact, been a combination of luck, a lot of bluff and sheer enthusiasm. I entered graphic design because I love it. I feel exactly the same 40 years on, except I’m bald. And in those four decades I have only managed to squeeze in a tiny fraction of what I’d like to do. I still have masses to learn. CDT opened its doors in 1979, although then it was just the C (Ken Carroll) and the D (me). We started in an economic downturn – I’d just thrown in a well-paid and secure job. Our first studio was located in the very salubrious Bond Street – a fluke, because what we didn’t know was that the offices we were moving into had been occupied by an abortion referral service which had done a bunk, leaving behind medical records and tragic voice messages from desperate women. The letting agents were having trouble shifting the space until we walked in the door.

The T (Nick Thirkell) of CDT didn’t arrive until 1985. Over the 28 years that I was with CDT, we not only grew in size but collected a bevy of awards along the way, including an armful of D&AD Silvers and Golds. The three partners always ran, and fronted, projects personally.

We were profitable and resisted two attempts at being bought by a large ad agency during that crazy, shoulder-padded Margaret Thatcher era. Then came Black Monday, the second economic crash in the 1980s, when consultancies all around us, including a number of my friends, went to the wall. CDT had resisted expanding or bolting on new disciplines, and so weathered the storm.

In the early 1990s we put in place what we thought was a brilliant succession plan. In the event, it wasn’t so brilliant, as two out of the three ‘chosen ones’ left the company.

So what have I learned over those years? Well, you must embrace change. Don’t judge others by your own standards. Don’t grow too big. I found it unsettling being responsible for the wellbeing of others, and it took me away from solving design problems, which is all I wanted to do. At one point CDT employed 25 people – not a lot, I know, but I found it impossible to keep tabs on everything.

The lovely thing about running your own show is that it becomes a family, especially in the moments of personal crisis. My last four years at CDT were challenging, with business being erratic, coupled with a horrendously expensive court case brought by a former employee. We won, but still had to pay substantial costs. Then there was a highly stressful divorce. But throughout, the things that kept me sane were CDT, my creative spirit and my colleagues.

Much has changed in 28 years. Things that took an age are now done in the blink of an eye. Design graduates working in their bedrooms can give the illusion of being a big concern with a well-structured website. Winning work has become a cattle market, with free-pitching almost becoming the norm.

If you are a young designer with a passion for your vocation, you want to work on beautiful jobs, no matter how uneconomic. Eventually, you get an assistant, and before you know it you have an army of staff and need cash to pay them. So you start looking for larger jobs, and to get those jobs means lots of extra tedium – redefining briefs, strategy documents, procurement procedures and so on. Most of it is common sense to experienced designers, but, as time goes on, those smaller, sparky jobs fall by the wayside.

Now I have Studio Dempsey, just me and Stephanie, my assistant. It is small, beautiful and full of happiness. I will only work on projects I believe in, with people I like. In addition, I act as external design advisor to the Design Council. I am helping the Royal Society of Arts with its communications, and donate my time to the Helen Bamber Foundation. I am finding more time to write and continue with my monthly RDInsight recordings. I am also an enthusiastic blogger. I am very happy.

And, of course, we have another economic downturn. I think this is where I came in.

Mike Dempsey co-founded CDT Design in 1979 and is founder of Studio Dempsey

Business tips

• Seek out clients you like

• Hire a good financial head

• Take on interesting projects

• Don’t use business jargon

• Exude enthusiasm

• Absorb all influences – theatre, film, literature, art, music – because there’s more to life than graphic design

• Nurture those around you

• Stay close to the coalface

• Retain a sense of fun

• Appreciate the wonderful area that you work in

• Be honest

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