The kitchen-table route to creativity

Feeling that little bit older and wiser, Derek Johnston and his partner set up on their own. Here’s how it’s been working out so far

Quite possibly the most ridiculous idea that my partner Alex Durbridge and I have had in recent times is to start our own business. But fate threw us this chance and we grabbed hold and it has proved to be a very positive move.

We haven’t run away to the country, or downsized anything more than our restaurant visits. Instead, we have opted to establish a new type of model for delivering design to proper paying customers, with the same quality and attention to detail that we demanded of ourselves when working for big consultancies.

There is nothing wrong with big consultancies, mind – we have grown up in them and have run sizeable chunks of them. But there is space for a different approach. We reflected on the situation that presents itself to ’middle-aged’ senior creatives: work for somebody else, or work for yourself? Opting for the latter has improved our lot in a multitude of ways.

The net result is Family and Friends. Working out of our house, around the kitchen table mostly, we collaborate with highly experienced design industry professionals, having the capability to deliver integration across mediums from packaging to print, and from three-dimensional volumes to small-scale industrial design for consumer brands.

Family provides the clients, brand expertise, a guiding hand and the biscuits. Our freelance or other small limited company friends provide the skills in specific fields.

This new and open style of working seems to fall between traditional working models. We’re not a boutique group nor a start-up driving for design league-table domination, but we are certainly looking to develop through organic growth, based on a reputation of providing sound, friendly and honest advice. We have nothing to gain from posturing and everything to lose from trying too hard to mock up new-style branding models or act like know-alls.

So far we have worked with international brewers, juice-makers, fair trade producers, and local and global food groups as far flung as the Punjab. Our turnover has been very healthy and we are in profit.

So out of necessity has come a virtue – the working from home scenario has played an active part in our creativity and the work we produce. We are more relaxed, we have more time to reflect and the friends we work with seem to feel the same.

More than coincidentally, the optimum environment for us to produce consumer goods-focused work is readymade and real – the interplay between consumer brands, home and design has become vital to us. We’ve started designing packs that feel like they belong in the home, because they are born and debated there.

This way of working is not going to be right for everyone and, in time, we may have to move our operation off site. But if we do, we have vowed to maintain a domestic feel, perhaps with a proper kitchen and a big old pine boardroom table to meet around.

But before all this sounds like something from The Good Life, it’s important to put our approach into some real industry context.

Building reputation is tough, because you quickly realise that the status you had in previous incarnations only has a limited shelf life. It’s a vicious circle – you need to show work to support your expertise, but you also need to secure the business in the first place.

Our jump has been supported by a strong parachute – long-term contacts on the client and consultancy side alike. People we have known for many years, who, in turn, have recommended us on. There has also been a white knight in the form of a bigger group passing on business, an incredibly generous and supportive act.

Despite beginning the process ramping up our new business drive, we have learned that word of mouth and constant gentle, personal reminders have yielded the best results.

We have also found that sites such as Linked In have been an invaluable way to track past and present sources. While business-oriented, its tone and approach to allowing you to make contact is appealing to our way of working, quite like a virtual cheese and wine party.

Not being young pups or a couple of industry sages, it can be hard to establish and communicate a niche that befits our experience. It’s something we are working through.

It’s so important to strike the right balance when being consulted or asked to pitch- somewhere between enfant terrible and best friend seems to be the sweet spot. Where we have failed (and we certainly have on occasions) it is when we haven’t tackled things with enough conviction, or looked to please too readily.
We must be strong, true and open, with lots of good communication, like any good family.

Our best strategies

  • Build up your reputation by providing solid work and sound, honest advice in a friendly manner – and keep at it, for anybody’s reputation can have a limited shelf life in the industry
  • Bring in trusted and experienced professionals to provide the specialist skills that you may need
  • Use your working environment by letting it feed into your work
  • Make sure you put your heart into your pitches, present with conviction and try to hit the right note to win over the client – somewhere between enfant terrible and best friend works for us

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