an online conversation
about design management


Designers as entrepreneurs

In researching The business of design I developed a model that shows how I think the design industry is shaped. It shows that design studios normally start out focusing purely on their craft. They rely on their creative skills to take ideas and visualise them. They demonstrate that they have empathy for their clients’ customers by honing messages that persuade them to buy, visit, read or take part in an event.

My theory is that this area of design is under heavy attack from the global onslaught of 99designs and Freelancer.com. Studios with a purely craft focus are finding their business decreasing and they have to become more entrepreneurial when they look at their business model and devise different ways to offer their services.
I have extended this idea in discussions with design educators, suggesting that they should prepare students to be entrepreneurial. I promote the idea that designers are entrepreneurial by nature and educators should encourage students to follow their passion and set up an entrepreneurial design business.
Recently I’ve spoken a lot about this idea in lectures, workshops and focus groups and some people have taken me to task for encouraging yet more design business to enter an already crowded market.

The facts

In Australia we graduate approximately 9,000 graphic designers each year.
There are 14,300 graphic design businesses in Australia.
85% employ 3 people or less.
1.5% have 20+ employees
Approximately 10,000 Australian graphic design businesses are ‘non-employing’.

This means that the design graduates stand very little chance of getting a job. The accepted wisdom is that many of them go out and set up a design business and this is dragging the industry down. The industry complaint is that the Universities and TAFE’s are graduating too many designers and they are causing the problem.

Another fact

Universities and TAFE’s have been forced into a situation where they have to take everyone who qualifies for entry. Some would say that they should raise the entry standards but I have seen the work that comes from the Victorian VCE Visual Communication and Design students and I think that entry point is already high. Universities and TAFE’s cannot refuse to take qualified applicants because they have been defunded to the point that they have to take all comers in order to survive.

What’s the answer?

I think that educators need to show design students how to be design entrepreneurs. My definition of a design entrepreneur is a person who looks at the existing design market place and says ‘I can use design in a different way’, ‘I can reinvent the studio model’, ‘I can start a design-led business that shows other businesses how design can add to the bottom line’.

The fresh uncorrupted mind of the design graduate is an ideal place for this. They have not been instilled in the traditional design studio model so they can ‘imagine’ a design business that is unique.

This means design educators need to learn to teach the tools that entrepreneurs use; the (design) business model canvas, empathy mapping, the (design) value proposition canvas, Jobs to be done tool, customer journey mapping.

These are tools that entrepreneurs use when starting their business. They are tools that I have been using with design studios to help them reinvent their businesses.
Like designers, entrepreneurs develop a concept, prototype it, evaluate it, redevelop it, test it and then put it into the marketplace.

Designers and entrepreneurs have a lot on common. We just need to start educating young designers how to be entrepreneurial and establish design businesses that at the moment are way beyond the comprehension of the traditional design studio owner.
Will some of them fail? Yes, probably quite a few. So what? Along they way they are shaping our industry to a better end result.


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