As we settle back at our desks after Christmas, some of us may have made resolutions that we hope to keep. This is the year we do more exercise, quit smoking and eat better. However, for those of us who run our own design consultancies, the season of self-improvement presents an ideal opportunity to examine the future of the business.
It’s easy to slip into a reactive way of working: you win a contract; you fulfil the commission. Any attempt at guiding your business, beyond plugs in the media and entering awards, seems unattainable. We say, ‘If only we got the right work’, but ask a design group what kind of work it likes and it will reply ‘the paying kind’. However, we must try to play to our strengths.
But it’s not just market conditions that have influence. During the life of a design studio, a number of events can occur to affect its voice and values. Designers join and designers leave – each bringing different skills to the creative mix. These changes affect the commissions you win. Sometimes it’s important to take stock and find out if where you are is where you want to be.
Any process of self-examination must be objective. You need to find out what clients, suppliers and staff really think of your business. One solution is to undertake a perception study. In our 16 years of operation, we’ve commissioned four such exercises, entrusting the process to an independent consultancy. A third party examines your business objectively to identify areas of both weakness and strength. Often the gap between where you want to go and where you are can be bridged with what a study will reveal.
Don’t worry, an experienced consultancy will encourage candid and constructive dialogue both internally and externally. Explaining why things are done the way they are is an illuminating experience and a simple way of changing things for the better. Also, identifying your competition and comparing your strengths and practice will reveal the factors your clients use to decide commissions.
A perception study is about asking questions, analysing the answers and using the information to make a business more successful and – to a degree – profitable. ‘Profit’ is seen as a dirty word, because we think we have to sacrifice our creativity to achieve it. But becoming profitable doesn’t mean policing the number of hours we bill against a job. It means aligning your design strengths with business opportunities. Critics say that a design group that specialises in annual reports may find its perception study confirms what it already knows. But this overlooks the lessons to be learned from the exercise itself. Why are they good; how could they be better?
Practice what you preach. We encourage our clients to use design as a way of re-evaluating their business – a perception study shows that you share this approach. We speak of forming partnerships with clients – this is your chance to do just that. Outside parties can help validate your design philosophy; by encouraging staff to shape the future of the company, they take ownership of their place within the business.
Perception studies cost money, but it is not a cost, it’s an investment opportunity. It’s also a morale booster – you’re sending a clear message to clients, staff and suppliers: ‘We have plans and we want you to be part of them. We’re not going to sit around hoping the phone’s going to ring, we’re taking control.’ Of course, you must be prepared to act on any bad news and that can be a daunting prospect. But then change is a scary thing. A perception study will not make the process of change any easier, but it will give you the confidence to make a start.
Anita Brightly Hodges is managing and creative director of Still Waters Run Deep
POINTS TO REMEMBER WHEN CONDUCTING A PERCEPTION STUDY
• It might sound obvious, but your chosen consultancy must have experience in carrying out perception studies. It’s a real skill to persuade people to open up and communicate clearly
• Any consultancy must have a thorough understanding of the practicalities of your business, as well as the values and services you provide
• You must allocate time and budget from your studio timetable
• Garbage in, garbage out, as they say, so consider carefully the questions you ask and the answers you give
• Be truthful
• An experienced consultancy will explain any shortfalls and work with you to devise a solution
• Keep it manageable. If there are too many action points the process can become daunting