Can designers run a successful design business?

We’ve featured two contrasting case studies of how to run a design business on Design Week in the past few days.

The DesignStudio office
The DesignStudio office

Our profile of DesignStudio shows how the consultancy was established by two designers, Paul Stafford and Ben Wright, who felt frustrated at how design and creative work was overlooked at big consultancies.

Five years after it was set up, DesignStudio has grown to a 40-strong independent consultancy with offices in London and San Francisco and last month unveiled its rebrand of Airbnb.

Stafford and Wright put the consultancy’s success down to its focus on designers over account directors or client services: ‘One of our founding principles was that design and designers were always in the project from start to finish.’

Providing a contrast to DesignStudio’s story is the interview with Jerry Hall, the non-designer managing director of DECIDE.

Hall, a former corporate tax planner, took on his role at DECIDE 20 years ago after advising on a management buyout. Since then he has steered them through two recessions and a rebrand to become a 42-strong business with offices in Newcastle and London.

Hall says his outsider’s perspective gives him an advantage as a design business leader: ‘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”.’

So which example to follow? Should your design business be led by designers, or could an outsider give a more objective view?

The model put forward by DesignStudio is a compelling one, based as it is on the value of design. But the consultancy founders admit that DesignStudio’s growth was at times ‘painful’ and that for the business to work they have to recruit the right people.

Non-designer Hall at DECIDE, however, seems to suggest that designers are by nature ill-placed to run businesses (although he does say that any professional background can prepare you to lead a business). But can this this really the case for a business that is, ultimately, selling design to clients?

So which is best? Can designers lead a successful consultancy based solely on design skills, or do thriving businesses need an outside perspective? I’d welcome your thoughts in our comments section.

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  • Mark van Keulen November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Carve was set up in 2010 as a partnership between a passionate designer – Simon Palmer – and a former self taught publisher turned account manager – Mark van Keulen – and has functioned well ever since. We feel that we’ve always struck a balance between the two worlds successfully – we both have an appreciation for what the other one does and can pick up each others bits as required, however our strength lies in doing what we each do best on a day to day basis and then coming together to discuss the business as a whole as required.

  • Simon Manchipp November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Designers are entirely capable of not just shaping other peoples businesses but also running their own.

    SomeOne for example is entirely run by Designers. Was set up by Designers, and works to help designers do better design. It’s all about design.

    Of course there are stacks of great practices that are out there doing the same thing. Set up by creatives to work creatively with people who need their services.

    Just as there are stacks of miserable money machines owned and run by people entirely uninterested in the creative output, but utterly obsessed with growth, margin and profits.

    The point I suspect is — it’s not a case of **if** Designers can run a design business, it’s if designers **think** they can run a design business.

    Because most designers, simply think they can only be a designer. Not venture into paths that terrifyingly lead to cashflow, invoicing, employment law and tax.

    At school, the many are told —or it is inferred that — the ‘creative subjects’ are what one ends up doing if you can’t spell or add up.

    So there’s a deeply held belief in many creatives heads that the running of a business, the reading of a P&L sheet or the planning of a contract is beyond them. (Which they are not! That stuff is a doddle after you’ve been shown once.)

    It’s tosh to suggest Designers can’t run businesses.

    And even greater tosh to think a design company can be better run by those unengaged in the product.

  • John Moore November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Designers can run a business but they need to learn how to do it. Just as you study to be a designer you should study to run a business. It’s not for every designer though so get a partner than can do it if you can’t. We all know that everyone fancies themselves as a designer nowadays so don’t just try having a go at running a business without getting training or a consultant to help.

  • Rosalind Pearson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    An interesting question. We (Ideograma Consultores in Mexico) are totally run, and successfully so, by 2 designers. Perhaps the secret of our success is that one of them, our MD, did an MBA and so that helps a lot. However, I would say that knowing how to lead is the importan factort. A leader needs to inspire his team and without that it’s very hard to succeed. We are lucky to have 2 inspirational leaders and despite the vagaries of the Mexican economy – it’s like a rollercoaster at the best of times – we have celebrated our 15th anniversary, we have more people than ever on our payroll, and we have a second office in Montreal. We must have done something right!

  • Bradley Smith November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I think, as a designer, if you can step back from design and look at the bigger picture every now and then you should be able to avoid getting ‘sucked into design’ at the right times, and steer the business successfully. Yes, if you do nothing but play with type and colours all day it won’t work. It’s about balance – the ability to know when to play designer, and knowing when to look at the raw numbers and play account director.

    I also think there’s an element of persuasion/passion/sales punch that designers can portray (when selling design) that account managers simply cannot get themselves, and more importantly the clients, excited about.

  • Agostina Ciccone November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    In my opinion whoever want to run a design company can, if does it properly.

    I agree that is not something for everyone. However the point is not the background of who runs the business but how is run.

    DesignStudio’s approach involves designers from the very beginning of the projects, so they become key players and they can better manage themselves, because they are aware of the whole project structure.

    The thing I most struggle with, being a designer, is having accountants and project managers, that are not designers, coming out from clients meetings and briefing me on design things… in this important process details, that for designers might be important, could get lost.

    The classic “Chinese whispers” effect.

    Involving more the design team in all the creative and non-creative processes, in my opinion, could bring lots of benefits to businesses both on time and quality side.

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

    I’ve recently spent a year researching the obstacles facing owner-managers of UK design businesses as part of a Masters degree in behavioural change at Henley Business School.

    The journey from ‘hands-on’ designer to ‘hands-off’ business leader requires a profound personal transformation – one that the majority of owner-managers in the study were unprepared for and struggled with. 20% of the businesses I interviewed were run by non-designers and these were well financed, had clear direction and (importantly), regularly won awards. The remaining 80%, run by creatives, were a mixed bag but mainly were not as healthy.

    Crucial to the success of a business is a clear understanding of why it exists – what it is in service of – and this must be from both the perspective of what it is doing for the individuals running it as much as what it is doing for the clients it serves. This is different from the tyranny Big Hairy Audacious Goals, (BHAGS) or “inspiring Visions” that business books (and branding types) tell us we must invent and nail our colours too.

    As the owner-manager, the health of your business is inextricably linked with your own health – physically, mentally, intellectually and spiritually. In my research, there was a clear relation between the self-awareness of the individual running the business, and the health of the business. Individuals who know who they are, what they want, and why, seem to have businesses that know who they are, what they want – and why.

    As a coach, I have worked with people who are running businesses for all sorts of reasons. Often the individual does not know why until it is brought into conscious awareness in a coaching conversation. But once this happens, the transformation is often profound and the individual experiences a deeper sense of purpose and energy. One thing’s for certain, though – setting up a business because it’s the next logical step from being a creative director, is not enough.

    Leadership is as much about who you are as it is about what you do. So be clear about who you are – why you’re doing what you do – and then take the necessary steps to achieve what you want. If that means hiring someone with business skills to run your business so you can make your own creative dent in the universe, do that. If they’re good enough, they’ll do the numbers, so “we can’t afford that right now” is no excuse for starting a conversation with them.

    Lastly, know thyself. Working on yourself IS working on the business.

  • Paul Brennan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Clearly the answer is both can run a successful design company as demonstrated

    What chimed with us here at Missouri (a 14 strong design studio one year in) is how similar Design Studio’s experiences are to our own. We have two founding partners both designers who left a large agency in order to get closer to our work and our clients. Many of our clients have expressed that they enjoy working with smaller hands-on agencies where they have direct access to the senior creatives on a daily basis.

    However in support of this ‘design first’ approach, getting business advice from those that have been there before along with a finance director that buys into the vision is a massive advantage.

  • Nick Capehorn November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This great piece got me thinking as to the process we use here at Theme Group and how that impacts on our work.

    I can see both sides of the argument – if you’re business-minded you should, time permitting, be able to run an agency whether you’re a designer or not. And if you’re not a designer, there’s still no reason you can’t look at work from an outsiders point of view and make constructive criticism.

    Although not a designer, our MD has nearly 30 years’ experience in the industry which undoubtedly helps – he’s watched trends come and go and seen which campaigns and gimmicks have worked. In fact, someone needs to ask whether it works as marketing material rather than just a nice design piece.

    All in all, it’s certainly not a hindrance to have a non-designer in charge – especially if it frees up the creative director to be creative, and they in turn free up the boss to focus on the business and client relationships.

  • Thomas Manss November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thomas Manss & Company has offices in London, Berlin, Florence and Rio de Janeiro and is run by designers.

    Whether you regard that as a good or a bad thing largely depends on your understanding of the designer’s role. If designers see it as their primary task to make things look pretty, they will inevitably find the entrepreneurial pressures and any commercial scrutiny of their creations a distraction. In that case, they should probably not be running their own business.

    However, if we, as an industry, promote design as a valuable business resource and believe that we can make a difference to the companies that commission us, our first task is to understand what adds value to a business. I don’t see why designers who help their clients’ businesses succeed should not be able to run their own business as well or even better than somebody from an unrelated background. We just have to shape our organisation in a way that suits our design objective.

    The structure of the large design consultancies, with hierarchies not unlike ‘design armies’, requires an elaborate administrative infrastructure and dedicated managers to deal with the inevitable red tape and office politics.

    Thomas Manss & Company operates more like four small special forces units. None of our offices have more than eight staff. These small teams organise themselves. There is no need for managers, no room for office politics and we have designed away the best part of the administrative burden. What little is left is shared between the designers, who also deal with clients and run their own projects. This requires a savvy type of of designer, someone who can analyse challenges and articulate ideas. When recruiting, we are therefore looking for clarity of thought in addition to any aesthetic preoccupations.

    Many of our former employees have gone on to run their own design businesses, which according to one client makes Thomas Manss & Company not only a design company, but also ‘a finishing school for aspiring graphic designers’. Whether you regard that as a good or a bad thing…

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