What you need to know about working in the design industry

Last week, as part of the London Design Festival, Design Week held two sessions at the Victoria & Albert Museum, looking at how to break into the design industry and how to run a design business.

We will be presenting full reports on the session in due course, but in the meantime I wanted to highlight some of my key takeaways from the sessions – advice for working in the design industry, from those who’ve been there and done that.

Be passionate about who you want to work with

This was unanimous advice from all the panellists – and is applicable at different stages of your career. When you’re working with clients, make them feel like they’re the only client for you. When you’re looking for a job with a design consultancy, the experts said, don’t just carpet-bomb them with applications but really think about where you want to work and why it’s the right fit for you (and you for them). Then make them realise how much you want to be there. You might not want to go quite so far as 1977 Design co-founder Paul Bailey, who revealed than when he was starting out he was so desperate to work for a particular consultancy that he found out which pub they drank in, then waited there for them every evening. They did give him a job though. Eventually.

Be practical – and seek advice

When you’re setting up a design business, there will be any number of things that you have to do that you might not have realised. These range from sorting out a financial strategy to buying chairs. SomeOne co-founder Gary Holt said it was vital to take advice from anywhere you could find it. If you have a friend who knows about tax legislation or HR, then pick their brains as much as you can. He also had some more hands-on advice: don’t buy a colour printer. “You wouldn’t believe how much consultancies spend on colour printing” he said, revealing that SomeOne has only ever had one black-and-white printer. “If the client wants a colour print then charge it back to them” he says. “And it makes you environmentally friendly…”

Keep some perspective – and enjoy yourself

Working in design, and running a design business, is hard work. Fundamentally you’re spending a huge amount of time listening to, and trying to solve, problems. All the panellists agreed it was essential to get some perspective and also to talk to other people in the industry. They might be competitors at times but they can also be friends and, as illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen pointed out, its far better to treat them like the latter. When it comes to enjoying yourself, you could go down the SomeOne route and take your company on all-expenses-paid trips to Ibiza (and make your accountants tear their hair out) or you could simply let people enjoy themselves in the office, for example playing rounds of darts to decide who has to make the tea. Which brings us to…

Make the tea!

If you’re an intern looking to make an impression, this is one of the most important things you can do, the panellists said. Not because designers want a dogsbody to make the tea for them, but because it gives the intern a chance to talk to everyone in the business and make themselves known. As Magpie Studio co-founder Ben Christie says: “When I was interning I always tried to make tea for everyone. How else are you going to get a chance to make an impression on everyone in the studio, from the chief executive downwards? And who doesn’t respond well to being offered a cup of tea?”

Huge thanks to our panellists Ben Christie, Jack Renwick, Gordon Reid, Gary Holt, Paul Bailey and Lizzie Mary Cullen and to the audiences who came to see them.

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