How to start a design studio

Rob Coke

The mindset you need to start a creative business is the same as any new creative challenge. Prepare yourself, start small and embrace change.

There’s a lot I wish I’d known when I was approaching the end of my graphic design degree.

What makes you employable? How do you find your dream job? What skills are you missing? And how do you learn how to deal with clients?

These questions aren’t just about entering the world of work or starting a business. They’re relevant to anyone wondering what the future might hold. Because the mindset you need to start a creative business is the same for any challenge in the design industry.

Of course, there’s more to cover than could fit into one article, 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 don’t do it — yet. First, benefit from people who’ve done it before you. Find out about their successes. 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 as many people as you can within the industry.

Although it can feel intimidating, you’ll find people open up if you ask the right questions and you’re 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

I firmly believe there’s 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. Not to mention having that first employment record on the CV.

When you’ve got that job, make yourself indispensable and find ways to add value. This is what entrepreneurial thinking is about — understanding every business needs to grow, and seeing how you can help. It’s not just about running your own thing, but thinking about how to improve processes, add services and find new areas of revenue, wherever you’re working. People who do that get noticed.

Keep thinking

Don’t stop using your brain just because you’re leaving college. Of course, learning your craft is essential, but technical skills will increasingly be replaced by cheaper outsourcing and smarter machines. Even Adobe is pushing text to image AI, and it’ll be interesting to see the reaction to bypassing the craft of making.

As this change happens, the most difficult thing to replicate will be creative thinking. While AI performs tasks in isolation, you can see the bigger picture. So consider how your work will be used, and why. Care deeply about the writing, the user experience and the overall impact of a project. This can make the difference between just ‘doing the job’ and showing real empathy and attention to detail. If you fall in love with every part of the process, eventually success will come.

Be a sponge, not a vacuum

Learn from everyone and anyone, and bring your personality into the studio. You won’t be expected to know everything, so don’t hide if there are gaps in your knowledge. Ask questions, listen to the answers and put it all 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 businesses. Ultimately, you’re discovering 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 future studio will operate.

This is what entrepreneurial thinking is about: understanding that every business needs to grow, and seeing how you can help.”

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 people are relying on you to put food on the table. We started 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.

Be realistic, but ask yourself plenty of ‘What if’ questions. We always planned to be bigger than three, using Adrian Shaughnessy’s maxim that ten people is the optimum size for a creative team. But we didn’t think what might happen beyond that, so once we grew above that number we were already off-plan.

Do your homework

We wrote a really thorough business plan before starting out. It’s not just for the bank, it’s a useful guide for you too. It forces you to think about where your work will come from and helps you understand your competitors. Think about what their clients are looking for, that others don’t quite deliver. Is that your niche?

Your new ‘unholy trinity’ will be a profit & loss sheet, planning pipeline and cashflow forecast. Make the effort to understand 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 cashflow and debtors. Poor cashflow can kill even a profitable business, and plenty of agencies go under because the cashflow dried up.

Okay, 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 start by doing them all yourselves. In the early days, we’d go from designing a piece of branding for BBC Radio 1 to doing the invoicing, or ordering stationery. (Yes, stationery!)

Understanding every job that needs doing keeps you in touch when you don’t need to do it anymore. It also provides your recruitment strategy. When the time comes, you can prioritise which position to hire first, and start shedding 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 easy to lose sight of your own direction, 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 comfortably and say we knew one thing really well.

Instead, 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.

Think about what their clients are looking for, that others don’t quite deliver. Is that your niche?”

Step 3: Embrace change
(It’s essential)

Our first experience of working with clients in a different way came when we won the Ministry of Sound club contract back 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 embed with client product teams, 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 became some of the most directional we did. It was a testing ground for new designers to really push themselves, and to work with a degree of independence.

Hire the best you can

The learning 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 hire 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.

It may seem obvious, but in a service industry, people are your most valuable resource — perhaps the only one that really matters.”

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 you want the work to make.

In 2020, we decided to take this further and step back from running the studio. Because Gemma and Johanna had become so important to the company, it was an easy decision to offer them a partnership in it. Now, Output reflects their vision, taking the next step in building the brands that will reshape our world.

Never (ever) stop learning

Output has adapted, grown, shrunk, generalised and specialised. We’ve seen agencies come and go, sometimes because they stuck to their guns in a world that won’t wait for you to catch up. Although you gain confidence through doing what you know, your principles and ways of thinking are much more important than your immediate skill set.

Don’t assume things will stay the same. Actively push to change, 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.

Rob Coke

As Output’s remaining Founding Partner, Rob (he/him) blends the problem-solving of a designer with empathy for customer hopes and fears. He knows bold ideas can only thrive when clients embrace them, and supports the Output team in producing practical, thought-provoking content as Editor-in-Chief of Ideas.