an online conversation
about design management

What I learnt from Rob Sitch

One of the challenges of a stable group of clients and working in a small team is the continual search for new inspiration.

You can’t continually look within for inspiration – sometimes it’s better to cast your butterfly net outside of work, infact the best designers I’ve worked with have all had active social lives and been involved in many pursuits away from the studio.

One of our loves is the Melbourne Theatre Company. Greg and I have been subscribers for a number of years and one of the most enjoyable benefits is the ability to attend ‘briefings’ about upcoming shows.

The briefing always includes the director, set, costume, sound and lighting designers, and the cast. If at all possible, the writer also attends. The briefing includes ‘behind the scenes’ discussions about the production of putting on the show. That may include the set designer talking about their interpretation of the script, or the director explaining how she translated words into actions, or even how the actors auditioned for the role. At least half of the briefing is a Q+A session, and that’s where it gets interesting.

Recently we saw ‘The Speechmaker’ written by Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch and Santo Cilauro. Tom, Rob and Santo have worked together since 1993. Together with Jane Kennedy and Michael Hirsh, they are known as Working Dog Productions.

What I learnt from Rob Sitch is that even though they all work collaboratively, they don’t actually ‘brainstorm’ for new ideas as is often the case in a creative business. Instead, each of the team develop ideas independently.

The idea may be sparked from something they read, or from an overheard dinner party conversation – it’s usually from outside the office. They then mull the idea over until they think they have something of value.

When they think it’s ready, the seed of an idea is presented to the other two in the team. If the others think it of value, it becomes part of their work in progress.

That means two of the three become the custodians of the idea while the other stays out of the way so when the time comes they are able to look at the project objectively. I thought the term ‘custodians’ really interesting. They didn’t talk of any one of the three ‘owning’ the idea – from the time it was presented, it was handed over to the group.

It’s not unusual for the two ‘custodians’ to write 5-6 drafts before the material is ready to be presented to the third person. (As an aside, part of their methodology is using a white board that prints out. They had it as a prop as part of filming the ‘Frontline’ series and liked it so much they kept it.)

The next stage is what they lovingly called ‘the dental appointment’.

It is then that the idea is presented to the third person where it is critiqued without any niceties. All bets are off – they admit they are ruthless – infact, if the third person absolutely loves an idea without reservations/amendments, they worry.

From that presentation they decide whether to continue or abandon the idea.

It’s a process I found interesting because the design gurus often push the idea of collective, collaborative brainstorming of ideas and it’s something with which small teams (remembering that 85% of all design studio’s have less than three people) would struggle.

Linda Jukic (from Hulbosch) presented a similar idea at this year’s Adapt or Die 2020, an event hosted by AGDA NSW as part of VIVID Sydney.

Linda quoted a futurist named Jim Dator in saying that the future will be an ‘era of imagination’. She talked of the future being built on ideas, sometimes the result of collaboration and sometimes solo, mentioning a host of people like Einstein that had the ability to formulate ideas independently of others.

She suggested that successful designers may become ‘managers’ of the design at the centre of a network of bespoke teams that help make the idea happen.

It’s always interesting to hear how other creatives work.

What I learnt from Rob Sitch is firstly the importance of being able to formulate an idea by yourself without relying on others, and secondly, the value of a great working relationship.



managing a design studio