How to start a design studio – a beginner’s guide
Rob Coke, February 2016

I’ve just given a talk to a group of third year design students. The organisers wanted me to share what it’s like to set up and run an agency: “We’re trying to show the students that people in the industry are the same as them, just at a different stage in their career.”

I found this interesting, because in the industry we seem to feel the world has changed so much since I graduated in 1997. But two things that certainly haven’t changed are the nervous excitement of the unknown, and the unshakable belief among designers that we can make things better. Running a studio was something we used to talk about, but none of us had any big plans for how it would happen.

 

It made me think about the things I wish I’d known when I was approaching graduation: How do I make myself employable? How will I find my dream job? What skills am I lacking? How should I deal with clients? Are people more interested in technical ability or how I think?

But these questions aren’t just about entering the world of work or starting a business – they feel relevant to anyone facing up to what the future might hold. I believe the mindset you need to start a creative business – and keep it going – is the same one you need to take on any new creative challenge, and to be successful in any aspect of the design, branding and marketing industries.

Of course, there’s much more to cover than could ever fit into a blog post, but let’s make a start here. For me, the key steps are these: prepare yourself, start small and embrace change.

 

Step 1: Prepare yourself

(You don’t know everything yet)

If you’re keen to start your own studio, my first piece of advice is this: don’t do it – yet. First, benefit from people who’ve done it before you. Find out about their successes and – more importantly – their failures. Learn from other people’s mistakes. Read blogs, track down books like Adrian Shaughnessy’s excellent How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul and speak to anyone you can within the industry.

Although it can feel intimidating, you’ll find that people open up if you ask the right questions and be polite. In fact, ‘ask the right questions’, is pretty much universal advice for anything you need to achieve that involves other people.

Get a job

So if not yet, what should you be doing? Take a job. Any job. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ first job. The experience you gain from being around other professionals, and from taking pride in performing a role will always be valuable to you. Not to mention having that first job on the CV.

When you’ve got that job, make yourself indispensable by showing how you add value to the company. This is what entrepreneurial thinking is about: understanding that every business needs to grow, and seeing how you can help. It’s not just about running your own business, but thinking about how to improve processes, add services and find new areas of revenue – wherever you’re working.

Be a thinker

Don’t stop using your brain just because you’re leaving college. Of course learning your craft is essential, but over the next few years, technical skills will increasingly be replaced by cheaper people and more intelligent machines.

 

As this change happens, the most difficult thing to replicate will be creative thinking. Whereas a robot performs its tasks in isolation, you can see the bigger picture, so think how the work will be used and why. Care deeply about the writing, the user experience and the overall impact of the piece. This can make the difference between just doing the job and showing real empathy and attention to detail. Fall in love with every part of the process and eventually success will come.

Be a sponge, not a Hoover

Learn from everyone and anyone, and bring your personality into the studio. You’re not expected to know everything, so don’t hide if there are gaps in your knowledge. Ask questions, listen to the answers and put it into practice.

Respect everyone’s opinions – you don’t know the internal politics of the agency, and you certainly don’t know your client’s business. Ultimately, you’re learning how other people do things – whether good or bad. So when you see something you’d do differently, you’re learning a bit more about how your own studio will operate.

 

Step 2: Start small

(But plan for growth)

When the time is right, start small. This allows you to take risks and learn what works before too many people are relying on your business to put food on the table. We started Studio Output in Nottingham as three partners: Dan and I had worked together at our previous agency, and Ian was one of our clients. This gave us a good understanding of how a project develops between the designer and client, rather than in isolation.

 

We always planned to be ‘bigger’, using Adrian Shaughnessy’s maxim that ten people is the optimum size for a creative team. But the mistake we perhaps made was not thinking beyond that, meaning that once we did get above that number we were already ‘off plan’.

Do your homework

We wrote a really thorough business plan – it’s not just for the bank, but is a really useful guide to work to. It forces you to think about where your work will come from. It helps you understand your competitors. Think about what their clients are looking for, that they can’t currently deliver. Is that your niche?

 

Your new ‘unholy trinity’ will be a profit & loss sheet, planning pipeline and cash flow forecast. Learn to read these – I can’t stress this highly enough. It’s probably the most painful thing for a designer to take on, but you’ll only get a real sense of how the business is doing once you can ‘read’ the numbers.

This will also teach you to watch your cash flow and debtors. Cash flow can kill a profitable business, and I know at least one high-profile agency went under because the cash flow dried up.

I’ll stop talking about numbers now.

Plan to grow

Write an ‘operations manual’ to get into the detail of who does what, and how often. Which jobs will need to be done daily, weekly, monthly and who will do them? Plan all the roles a bigger agency will need in the future – then do them all yourselves. We’d go from designing a piece of branding for Radio 1, to doing the invoicing, then ordering the stationery.

 

Understanding every job that needs doing keeps you in touch when you don’t need to do it any more. This gives you a recruitment strategy. When the time comes, you can prioritise which position to hire first, and start shedding some of your extra jobs.

Find ‘your way’

It’s vital to establish what your studio’s vision is. Why does it exist, where is it going, and what do you stand for? As you get bigger it’s all to easy to lose sight of your own vision, so when things change you need to be clear about what makes you, you.

One of our challenges was starting out as print designers. Like a lot of agencies, we had a period of trying to catch up and make sense of where things were going. It made us realise we could never really sit back and say we knew one thing really well. So we learned to apply our principles and approach in lots of different ways, and to think more about the challenges we could help people solve.

 

Step 3: Embrace change
(It’s not just unavoidable, it’s essential)

Our first experience of working with clients in a different way came when we won the Ministry of Sound club contract in 2005. They wanted us to work in-house, and embedding designers with a client was a new challenge. It’s much more common now, and we often work with clients or have them working with us throughout a project. But at the time it forced us to think about how someone working remotely could feel involved and part of a bigger team.

 

We adapted our methods and gained another perspective of the client-agency relationship. Over the years, the Ministry work was some of the most directional we’ve ever done – and we used it as a testing ground for new designers to really push themselves.

Hire the best you can

The learning from that was to hire the most brilliant, creative people we could find. It may seem obvious, but in a service industry like ours, people are your most valuable resource – perhaps the only one that really matters. When the time comes, hire the best people you can afford, and make sure they can do something you can’t. As Daniel Levitin says in The organized mind, a business is like a brain, and all the parts work together to create the output. Each new recruit should fit your values, but also bring something new with them.

Look after your team, and make them feel part of what you’re building. You’re asking people to hook themselves up to your dream, so there needs to be something worthwhile there for them.

And if there are people you admire but they’re not quite right for your team, collaborate with them anyway. Some of our most experimental work has been with freelancers or other studios who extend our network and our capabilities. We co-founded Glug as a way of celebrating and showcasing the talent we worked with. It’s now grown into a regular ‘notworking’ event for the creative community, with events in 12 cities across 8 countries.

 

Create a new normal

Over time this way of working became the new normal for us – always pushing boundaries and working with the best people we could find. It’s exciting starting projects without a fixed idea of what the outcome will be, but instead focusing on the difference we want to make.

We’ve seen agencies come and go, sometimes because they stuck to their guns in a world that moves quickly. Although you gain confidence through only doing what you know, it’s vital to recognise that your principles and ways of thinking are much more important than your immediate skill set.

 

Never (ever) stop learning

So don’t just assume things will always stay the same. Actively push to change things, and always be curious and experimental in your approach. Of all the points I’ve made here, the most important advice I can give is to never stop learning – ever. Whether you’re a design student about to enter the world of work, or someone with an idea for a new studio, prepare yourself, start small – and embrace change with open arms.