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How to start a … design studio
Build a rapport with clients, communicate your values and don’t be afraid to hire staff that are better than you
The majority of design studios are started by graphic designers, often with a degree in graphic design, who have worked for other studios. However, some very good studios are run by non-designers. And studios are often set up by a partnership of designers and non-designers, each bringing their own particular expertise to the venture.
If you are going to set up a design studio, then you need someone to design for. It is important to find the right clients and build a relationship. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. A design studio offers a service and your approach might suit some clients but not others.
Aim to build an understanding of what a client hopes to achieve from the projects you work on together. This helps to ensure all parties are clear on the ultimate aims for any design work. In my experience, clients can become ambassadors for your studio, even acting as unofficial new business developers.
There are thousands of graphic design studios, so why would a client work with yours? It is vital to be clear on your brand of your business – why you run it, what it offers, and how people might experience it.
Clearly communicate the value your studio will bring to clients and they will appreciate the benefit of working with you. Don’t worry about comparing yourself with other like businesses – spend time really considering how you can best communicate your brand to potential customers.
Eventually your studio will grow and will need employees. When looking, the best place to start is always with personal recommendations. Use any networks of trusted people you have built up and ask them for suggestions.
Do not look for clones of yourself – having everyone in the studio doing the same thing is not a good strategy. If you’re a little weak in a certain area then try to bring in people whose strengths are in these areas. One of the most important things I learned from the founder of a well-known design studio was to never be afraid to employ people who are better than you.
Character and personality are just as important as design ability. You need people who know their own mind and it is your job to create an environment in which they aren’t afraid to voice it. The worst thing you can have is someone who agrees with everything you say.
You can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything yourself. You will need other people and companies to work with you to execute most projects well.
Find your niche, be great at what you do and work with collaborators who are great at what they do. Using technology, you can work with people based anywhere in the world.
This advice holds true for external business support and specialists too. As a design studio, you will advise clients to work with you for your professional expertise in design. So don’t try to do everything yourself – work with experts in their fields who can bring their knowledge to your business.
One of the best things we did when starting out was to identify what we weren’t good at, and then found experts in these fields. A prime example is getting a great accountant or financial adviser on-board early – their fees are well worth the professional expertise they will bring.
Don’t try to hide the way you work – make it your selling point. If you work with collaborators then highlight the fact that you have built a team of specialists for a project; that you are working with people who are the best at what they do. A transparent brand has much more of a chance of being trusted.
You need people you can trust to give you the right advice. As the founder of a studio, there is no one senior within the business to give you advice or day-to-day support. Your mentors don’t have to run a design studio themselves – in fact it is very useful to get advice from non-designers.
We also found it useful to join an industry body, such as the Design Business Association, for information and advice.
There is no correct way to set up a design studio. Every studio has its own culture, way of working, processes and experiences. If you think the best thing to do is the opposite of everything I have said then great, because you’ve made your own decisions.