Lessons for building a design business

Over the past week or so we’ve profiled several design businesses at different stages of their lives.

Ustwo co-founders John Sinclair (left) and Matt Miller
Ustwo co-founders John Sinclair (left) and Matt Miller

Theo Williams Design, which is being set up by the former Habitat and John Lewis head of design, is just a couple of weeks into its official existence. Ustwo is ten years old and has grown in that time from a mobile-specialist studio into a business releasing its own IP and investing in joint ventures.

Industrial design studio Factorydesign is 17 years old – and its founders tell us about moves they are making to secure the businesses’ future. Seymourpowell co-founders Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, meanwhile, talked candidly to us about their 30 years together running the consultancy.

While these are all businesses at different stages of their lives – and operating in different areas of design – there are common experiences and lessons to be learned from all of them, which could apply to all design business owners.

Have a goal

SeymourPowell co-founders Richard Seymour (left) and Dick Powell
SeymourPowell co-founders Richard Seymour (left) and Dick Powell

Although most designers will tell you they don’t have an end point in sight when they set up a business, most will have some objective for their consultancy. For Ustwo it was to design work on their own terms and for Theo Williams it is to disrupt the product design world by working directly with manufacturers. Dick Powell, meanwhile, had a very clear goal for SeymourPowell. He says: “I characterised our objective like this: ‘If the CEO of Sony is thinking of going to an outside design business, then Seymourpowell should be one of the three names on his shortlist’.” The consultancy did, later, go on to work with Sony.

Take (calculated) risks

Ustwo's London studio
Ustwo’s London studio

There will be risks at any stage of running a business. Ustwo co-founder John Sinclair says that when he and Matt Miller founded the studio in their mid-20s “it was 50/50 whether or not it was going to work.” He adds: “We thought: ‘Well, let’s try this for three months or so and if it doesn’t work we can try to get other jobs.’ We could live off bread and beans for a bit.” Further down the line, Factorydesign co-founder Adam White explains how he and his fellow partners have worked to secure the consultancy’s future by opening up ownership to staff. But, he adds: “Devolving ownership is a complicated process and not for the faint-hearted.” Hard work and research will mitigate some risk of course, but it’s impossible to take it away completely. As SeymourPowell’s Richard Seymour advises: “Be optimistic, bold and brilliant. Or fuck off and do something less dangerous.”

Delegate and consult

The VIP bedroom in the new Etihad interiors, developed by a team including Factorydesign
The VIP bedroom in the new Etihad interiors, developed by a team including Factorydesign

You can have a vision and take risks, but sometimes you need to bring others into your business to help it to the next level. Ustwo last year brought in former Fjord managing director Scott Ewings to run the London office, and the consultancy’s co-founders have been putting a senior structure in place that allows them to step back from operational matters and focus on strategy. It’s also important to empower the people who work for your business too. Ustwo’s Miller describes how he briefed the games team that developed the best-selling Monument Valley app:  “I said to them: ‘Be a proof point for driven people, managing their own time and making their own decisions.” Factorydesign’s change in ownership structure, meanwhile, is in large part about empowering staff and, in White’s words “encourages them to think seriously about their contribution to the future of the company”.

Learn from your experiences (and from your mistakes)

Theo Williams
Theo Williams

For Theo Williams, a large part of the concept for his business comes from his experiences at John Lewis, where he developed the House sub-brand for the retailer. Williams says: “All I did was put together a pretty basic collection and brand it and package it and communicate around it in a way that it all sat together with a colour palette and a material palette. It was so simple and it exploded.” During my conversation with Sinclair and Miller at Ustwo, Miller referred several times to the idea of “succailure” (one of several portmanteaus he uses) – the idea of “successful failure”. There will always be mistakes and failures along the way – big or small – but one of the key lessons from all the consultancies I spoke to is to take these and turn them into lessons and successes for the future.

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • sally smallwood November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Having set up and run 4 different businesses and antennae sniffing out a 5th, I can confirm there is so much truth here.
    Nothing fundamentally changes.
    Principles for success remain the same.
    Experience matters. No short cuts.You can’t buy it but you can employ it/listen to it.
    People are quick to give advice but learn how to distinguish between good and bad.
    Great article 😀

  • Sophie Neilan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    SeymourPowell’s Richard Seymour sums up the required attitude perfectly: “Be optimistic, bold and brilliant. Or fuck off and do something less dangerous.” I live by this mantra every day!

  • Post a comment

Latest articles