an online conversation
about design management

The business of design in Canberra

Looking inside three Canberran design studios

We recently visited Canberra for an AGDA panel discussion facilitated by Greg and organised by Liz Grant, Steve Hugler, Anita Lyons and the AGDA ACT team.

It was great – for two hours, three designers talked openly about how they managed their design businesses, while Greg added comments/case studies based on his book, The Business of Design.

What quickly became apparent is that even though the businesses were quite different, the issues remained the same.

Claire Connelly is founder and creative director of Papercut. She heads a team of five: an administrator, a studio manager and three designers.

Alberto Florez started work at CRE8IVE as a graphic designer and then quickly climbed the ranks to business partner. Currently Cre8ive have 21 staff that work in administration, client service, and as creatives in print and digital.

Anthony Nankervis is part of a team of six at Goosebumps. Anthony too has seen both sides of management: he was originally a co-founder and part owner but is now employed as creative director. The studio is now owned by a group of partners most of whom are silent with little day-to-day activity in the business, and one who is full-time in the role of Managing Director.

The challenges of management

Alberto and Anthony know what it’s like to work as an employee, and as a business owner in the same studio – a rare insight into both roles. Similarly, Claire worked ‘on the tools’ before managing her business. All three identified managing expectations as the most difficult management issue — getting a result that made everyone in the studio happy. “Culture is a very important aspect to working at CRE8IVE Alberto said, adding that “It’s about respect. Recognising that designers can be ‘too passionate’, not wanting to handover a project until they are 100% happy with the result can be challenging.”

To Anthony it was the difference between designers and artists. “We work for clients and sometimes that means we have to design a logo in two hours. The result will be a two hour logo, but if that’s all the time we have, it’s got to be done”.

Claire agreed and added that balancing the type of work in the studio is an additional challenge: ensuring that there is a happy medium between the type of work an account manager brings in, and the type of work the designers want to do.

Adding value

With the advent of international design sites (like 99designs), communicating the value of using a design studio has become even more important.

Anthony agreed that while specific clients recognised the value of pursuing a full branding exercise, the international sites were making it harder to sell just a ‘logo’. By contrast, websites were still seen to have a perceived value — most clients are still comfortable paying for the design and build.

Writing a strategy around the design was discussed as another way to add value.

Selling strategy

Having a strategist was an important step in Goosebumps positioning itself as a partner to the client — infact a recent project spent nine months in ‘strategy’ mode at Goosebumps before any design work was started.

Now that that they have the skill inhouse, larger clients ask for strategy to be developed alongside the design and are happy to pay on an hourly rate. The smaller clients can be a bit harder to win over, but in Anthony’s words ‘if they have a beautifully designed advertisement and they still don’t get business, they soon realise it’s strategy that is the rest of the solution’.

Alberto agrees adding that ‘strategy is something that you wrap around a great design’. “To do a professional job you need all of the pieces, and strategy is part of that, otherwise you are leaving stuff to chance and that can reflect on the result.”

Selling strategy can be an issue for the clients that want to see something tangible. Cre8ive’s solution is to make strategy tangible. They sell strategy as media planning, documenting meetings and actions and effectiveness results – deliverables that previously may have been given away free.

To Anthony it’s all part of the bigger picture of educating clients that you can’t get valuable advice for free. Goosebumps recognised that valuable advice was sometimes given away in the intial meeting to get the job, so for some projects they now package strategy as part of a commencement fee.

Client relationships

Everyone agreed that building a relationship with a client was of utmost importance.

Clients have a great relationship with Papercut’s studio manager, however Claire did make the point that sometimes, they just want to meet with the owner of the studio.

Alberto fills that demand by meeting with all clients but in his words he “opens the door but doesn’t necessarily walk through it”. Building the relationship after that initial meeting was the job of his account managers.

Anthony meets regularly with clients – he enjoys building relationships with clients because relationships build trust and trust means you can push the envelope.

New business development

Referral and clients moving from one company to another seemed to be the most common method of getting new business.

When necessary, Claire shared the role of calling clients with her studio manager. While she didn’t enjoy cold calling, phoning clients that hadn’t been active for a while was an easier task.

Alberto said his account managers used the term ‘the studio had capacity’ when they had to pitch for more business.

Design value proposition

Talking about new business development naturally led to a discussion about a studio’s value proposition – just how we differentiate ourselves from others when talking to a new client.

The design value proposition is close to Greg’s heart – he’s just uploaded an e-course aimed at helping studios identify what sets them apart from others.

It’s a toughie to diagnose – we all tend to say the same thing.

For Anthony and Goosebumps it’s all about partnerships and their respective studio’s ability to be an extension of the client’s team.

As well as pushing Papercut’s strong environmental conscience, Claire pushes the advantages of a small, personalised team where the client can talk directly to the designer.

Of course Cre8ive with a team of 21 offers the opposite perspective. Alberto emphasises their capacity to take on large projects completely inhouse.

That said, Alberto conceded that it is difficult to differentiate one studio from another.

It was a very enjoyable night. If there’s a similar networking event near you I urge you to make the effort. It’s always a valuable experience talking to other designers – everyone I spoke to was open and transparent about challenges in their business. And besides, it’s always good to know that you are not Robinson Crusoe.