How to set up a design business – advice from those who’ve done it

We speak to designers who have struck out on their own and ask: “What one piece of advice would you give to designers setting up their own businesses?”

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James Greenfield, founder and creative director, Koto

“Before we started Koto back in January, I went on a fact-finding mission and talked to a number of designers whom I respect. I asked about their experiences starting, owning and running their respective studios. Everyone had a different piece of key advice, from accounting to staff to new business. Lots of it stuck with me and three months on I find myself reflecting upon it daily. My one piece of advice would be to learn how to write a great proposal. You’re obviously confident in your creative ability if your starting out and you’ve got experience in the managing of creative – if you’re not, don’t start up – but we can all fall foul of what we promise in terms of our services in return for money. Time and time again clients will push you to get the most they can and shift the goalposts. Get them signed up to a cast-iron proposal and make sure you get some money up front. You will soon get rid of the time-wasters.”


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Jamie Ellul, creative director, Supple Studio

“If I had to give one piece of advice to a designer setting up a new consultancy (rather than the long list I would prefer to give them), it would be make sure you have some clients. It sounds obvious but not everyone does – there’s nothing more disheartening than excitedly registering your agency name with Companies House, only to spend the first three months in business ‘crafting’ your own holding site and stationery range. On both occasions I’ve set up consultancies, it was in the knowledge I had a handful of great clients to work with. And there’s another equally important piece of advice (sorry I couldn’t keep it to one) – get a good accountant who understands the creative world. Designers aren’t renowned for their business nous – but you don’t have to become Richard Branson if you get an ace accountant to deal with that side of things. That way you can concentrate on what you’re good at.”


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Michael Place, creative director, Build

“Never underestimate the business side of the business. Plan an afternoon – or more – a week dedicated to making sure invoices have been sent and chasing invoices. You’ll probably need to put more time aside for this, believe me! Alternatively partner with someone who is great at that job, they will be worth their weight in gold.”


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Jenny Theolin, director, Studio Theolin

“The biggest piece of advice I can give is to study the industry like crazy, network like crazy, and find your focus. I’ve been successful – so far – due to my 10 years’ previous agency experience and the vast network I managed to get together in that time. Early clients have also come through word of mouth or have been clients from previous years. If you’re setting up fresh from graduating, don’t worry about failing. Don’t be afraid, and just do. Keep moving. Always do something. Learn from it. Do it better next time. And even better the time after that. Be available. Be flexible. But, most importantly, have fun!”


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Christopher Waggott, co-founder, Common Works

“Start producing work for other people before you graduate, even if it’s just designing T-shirts for your mate’s band. It will give you experience of designing for a client, build a contact network and help you develop the self-management skills needed to be out on your own. Don’t fall into the trap of stopping designing once you graduate, even if nobody has commissioned you yet.”


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Daniela Nunzi Mihranian, creative director, Studio Minerva

“We would go with Pixar’s John Lassiter: ‘Quality is a great business plan’.”

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  • Richard Mott April 23, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    You could do worse than buy my book Managing a Design Business (http://amzn.to/1GbnRyw) as it tells you everything you need to know about starting and running a design business.

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