The Outsider – a non-designer’s experience running a design studio

The DBA’s John Scarrott talks to former tax advisor Jerry Hall about running design business DECIDE.

The outsider's perspective…

Source: Dreaming in the Deep South

The outsider’s perspective…

Just as designers can bring a fresh perspective to businesses, so non-designers can bring some fresh business ideas to consultancies.

Jerry Hall, managing director of design and brand agency DECIDE, is one such person. Jerry heads up the business, which has 42 staff based in Newcastle and London. Twenty years ago Hall, a corporate tax planner, found his way into The Design Group, (as they were then known) when he was asked to advise on a management buyout.  He put the buyout deal together and they asked him if he wanted to join the business. Since then he’s steered them through a tough economy and overseen a repositioning and rebrand. This is the story of how DECIDE survived beyond 2008 seen through the eyes of a non-designer.

In 2005, following a further buyout, it was clear to Jerry and the other directors that The Design Group as a business had stopped making sense. He says, ‘We were all over the place, going in different directions.’

Here’s what they did:

Study the recession

‘To create a stable income stream, we became students of recession and developed what I call “a recession mindset”. We fell back on our core skills and looked at what we were good at. We looked at categories that performed well in recessions. There are six or so sectors that consistently do well and sometimes better in tough times.’

Study the competitors

‘Within our sector, there are still too many consultancies talking “froth, fluff and bollocks”. From the outside it was easy to believe that some were far more successful than they actually were. As PR engines they were great, but scratch the surface and they weren’t actually good businesses.’

Dig for the facts

‘I put together some numbers to see who had actually been successful financially. I was looking for consistent performance over five years. Snapshots can be misleading; you can be a star in one year and disappear the next. Numbers can go up and down on a five-year basis.’

Unearth your role models

‘I put together a group of six design businesses that had done well. I looked at their offer, their people and all the information in the public domain.  I was looking to understand what had made them successful. What were the characteristics of their performance, and how did we compare? How did we present ourselves? What could we leverage? What could we emulate? We worked on the following six Ps for our business: Portfolio, People, Processes (intangible/tangible), Prizes (endorsement, accolades etc), Publicity and Position (stance and geography).’

Following on from the above analysis emerged the following questions and answers.

How can an understanding of business help us position our business?

Jerry found the answer in education. ‘We developed our strategy around a three-year partnership with Durham University Business School. There is a lot of research available in academia that does not make its way into industry, particularly in the social sciences. We found we could use this to inform and inspire clients. Our partnership with Durham is now one of our USPs.’

Education is also important in terms of skilling up the people within the business. ‘We’ve put six people through masters level courses in design, management, marketing, and digital. We’ve had a big payback from this. If you build knowledge and can prove that you have it, you can sell it. Stop saying “We do this or that”, demonstrate and prove it. Keep asking, “What do our clients want? What are they struggling with? Where are the challenges?”’

How do we need to adapt to the speed of change in our environment?

The relationship with Durham was key to DECIDE’s ability to respond to clients’ changing environment. ‘We needed to change how we made our recommendations, what they were founded on. The world is moving too quickly for experience alone to be a guide. If you’re relying solely on what worked 20 years ago and reapplying that advice, you won’t stay relevant in the modern world.’

What can we take from the approach of other professional services firms?

‘Clients want to hear the evidence for your thinking. They need justification to back up their decisions. We looked into the wider world of professional services, accountants and lawyers. I was, at one time, a corporate tax planner. It seemed to me that their thought processes are similar to designers, although they look different on the surface. Design requires the intelligence to understand and interpret problems and the skill to create and communicate the solution.

‘Once we stopped looking at our corner of creativity as something “special” we could do what we did best and translate best practice from outside our sector. The book “How to Manage a Professional Services Firm” by David Maister was particularly useful.’

The challenge of leading as a designer

Jerry’s view is that any professional background can prepare you to lead a business but, ‘it’s particularly challenging being a designer and leading a design business, because if you can do design, you will inevitably be sucked into it, at the expense of running the “business”.  It’s the old working “in the business”, rather than “on the business” conundrum. Both in design and other sectors the best firms seem to be a combination of a “sales or management person” and a “creator”, be that an engineer, baker, or designer. They’re often at loggerheads but without this partnership it’s all too easy for a designer to get caught up into the design and take their eye off everything else.’

Based on Jerry’s success, being an outsider or taking an outsider’s perspective can be a useful place to take yourself to get a fresh picture of your business and what sits around it. As Jerry says, ‘Isn’t that what designers bring to their clients’ business?’

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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  • adrian wheeler November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    In my recent research for a Masters degree in Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School, 20% of the businesses I surveyed were run by non-creatives. All of these businesses were well funded, had clear direction, long-term clients and what’s more – all of the won awards on a regular basis. The remaining 80% were a mixed bag – some healthy and some not so healthy. This is no surprise – Design is an intrinsically motivated activity. People design because of the feelings they get while doing it. This has massive implications for creatives who want to run their own businesses. All too often, in the act of running their businesses, they find themselves doing activities that do not give them this intrinsic motivation. No longer in their element, they are like fish out of water, flopped up on the beach and gasping for breath as they stare up at the those who have taken their first steps on dry land and made the evolutionary step of becoming business leaders. If you want to design, design – if you want to run a business, run a business. but if you want to design and have a business, get someone to run it who is as much in their element as you are when you are designing. Mentors will help you make that transition by telling you what they did when they faced their own transition back in the day. But if you really want to engage with what motivates you deeply and understand what sort of future you wish to create for yourself, hire a psychologically qualified coach.

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