For some time now, I've been questing for a template that describes the ideal components of a self-sustaining design studio. This template would be something that any designer could use to start determining the kind of studio they would want to own, or work at in the future.
In partnership with David Conrad at Design Commission, who helped me with creating the content for our presentation regarding fiscal sustainability for AIGA Seattle, I think we've finally stumbled upon the beginnings of a useful tool. Apologies to Jesse James Garrett, whose framework I've massacred.
Click on the below image to enlarge as a JPG:
This chart represents the balance between the tangible and intangible components that make up a properly functioning design studio. Each piece in the chart, from the philosophy all the way up to the portfolio, must be well-considered (i.e. designed) in order to create a sustainable business practice.
Many designers understand intuitively what their "secret sauce" is—the philosophy that governs both their decisions regarding how they earn their money (their design studio as a business) and decisions regarding how they spend their time (their design studio as a practice).
But when they aren't able to describe this philosophy clearly to their peers and co-workers, they put their studio at risk. So this is the critical foundation that undergirds the entire framework. The most common materials used in constructing a creative business are time and money. They are two sides of the same coin. And what binds them together is meaningful effort. They have a business, but it's not an experience that everyone enjoys living through.
From a stated and ownable business philosophy, we build upwards, noting the reflection between the public-facing activities of the design business—attributes such as perceived market need, the overall design process, and your chosen clients—are reflected in your design practice by cultivated capabilities, the proper culture for your studio, and hiring the correct staff to fulfill the work.
"Design businesses are little more than a collection of people," Cameron Foote says. And the way in which you organize and align them must be designed. That design should reflect not only the kinds of projects and income that you hope to earn, but also the overall philosophy your employees should be aware of, and ideally, share with you. Everything else in your business is built from that foundation. And at the end of the day, your portfolio will abide as a reflection of your business philosophy.
Sure, many studios evolve organically, in reaction to clients continuing to walk through the door. Staff are hired, space is rented, and pretty soon you've got a business going that brings in a fair income.
But in the long term, however, this business may not be sustainable. There may be gaps in the chain I've described here, which will cause eventual missteps. Using this tool, it's my hope that you'll be able to locate those gaps, answer the included questions, and design a sustainable business that will last many years to come.
The PDF included with this post also includes a framework with blank areas, that you can use as a worksheet. And please feel free to leave comments and/or send us feedback on this chart, as we'd love to continue improving it for the future!