Ask any consultancy and it will immediately give you a figure for its upper limit staffing level. Enquire again in six months and the number will probably have changed. Mysterious forces seem to be at work within consultancies to maximise and minimise the headcount, and the final number can often be a little arbitrary.
According to the experts, there are a few magic numbers which occur again and again in groups of people. Apparently, it was once 40 for the design sector. Now 150 appears to be a key figure, according to MetaDesign London creative director Tim Fendley, citing his father, university researcher Brian Fendley’s White paper The Origins and Evolution of Language (unpublished).
According to Fendley’s argument, the social groupings go back to our days of hunter-gathering. To quote Fendley Senior’s thesis, “Among modern hunter- gatherers the smallest, often temporary grouping is about 35 and the largest grouping, the tribe, is about 2000. In between are various groupings, but one of the most constant is that of the clan with some 150 individuals.”
Above the magic 150 figure, sociologists say that groups become hierarchical and can no longer function with personal contact alone. In the corporate world this will translate to heavy bureaucracy, management processes and structures.
Translating this into the design sector seems to explain the sizes of the larger groups. Taking the latest figures from the Design Week Top 100 Consultancy Survey league tables, for example, the average staff size of the top 15 UK consultancies is 155.
So how do we explain the sizes of the small to medium-sized design groups?
MetaDesign London, for example, is 45-strong and aims to be 70 by the end of the year. Interestingly, the average UK consultancy headcount for groups in this year’s Top 100 survey is 67.
According to Simon Rhind-Tutt of The Tutt Consultancy, there are various life stages that determine the size of a business. For smaller groups, these sizes tend to be one to two staff, then seven, 15, and about 35, he says. “What consultancies arriving at these sizes find is that they have to move off each plateau in order to grow,” he adds.
The fashion for staying small to stay creative, once proved by the Pentagrams (now 59 UK staff) and The Partners (now 70 UK staff) of this world, may have been somewhat foiled in the contemporary business world by commercial pressures and client demands on consultancy time.
Of course, the theory still goes that by dividing up into small creative pods, growth can be supported. But is it really that straightforward? Most organisations experiencing growth inevitably begin to employ more and more non-designers to look after the administration. It is an upward spiral. If these administrators need supervision, they will add to the non-design work of the consultancy.
The exception that proves the rule, Johnson Banks, stays small by design. Founder Michael Johnson is well known for his small is beautiful and best approach to design, and his six-strong consultancy in west London has the results to back the claim.
“The ideal size for a design team is roughly a creative director, a couple of senior designers and a couple of junior designers. Six or seven is about the ideal size for a team in which everyone knows what everyone else is doing,” says Johnson, echoing part of the Pentagram philosophy.
“The only reason to grow from here would be to get more money. But money isn’t everything. We don’t want to start feeding the monster,” adds Johnson.
The majority of design groups that choose to grow for business motives will always feel an upward pressure on staffing numbers. This may be countered by the downforce of guarding their culture or personal approach. Like market forces, equilibrium can be a shifting, almost random, compromise of the two.
One solution, says Tim Barson, head of strategy for 91-strong The Identica Partnership, is strong and flexible management.
“There used to be a magic number which was 40, but I could never see the logic in it. I know I am going to get a reaction for this, but if you are successful you cannot stay small. In my view, the more good people you have in one place the more fertile the creative environment will be,” he says.
Barson acknowledges the management challenge created by scale, but says that the key is managing through empowerment. Too many consultancies mismanage their growth, he says, particularly if one person cannot let go of control.
This argument is supported by Rhind-Tutt. “After a business grows to about 15, the founder has to start delegating,” he says.
“The larger [Top 15] groups require a whole new set of management skills. Often the power of the financial director is proportionately greater.
“The challenge is then to manage the business profitably while preserving the creativity which made the business in the first place,” he concludes.
The mathematics of people
35 – minimum temporary grouping of hunter-gatherers
50-60 – maximum size of ape communities
135 – average number of acquaintances of a city-dweller
150 – maximum size for an informal business
150 – average number of living descendants from one couple after four generations
130-170 – UK/ US average sized company of soldiers in WWII
200 – ideal size for a church congregation
Source The Origins and Evolution of Language, Brian Fendley, 1999.