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3 posts from May 2011

The Building Blocks of Design Studio Culture

Building Blocks of Design Studio Culture

Studio culture is everything people in a design studio do that supports the process of making work happen. Culture can create joy, while process can facilitate profit.

A studio’s culture is not created solely by the business owner. It is generated from ongoing contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees. With this in mind, the following are some building blocks of a design studio’s culture—some of which the studio owner can invest in, and others that studio staff can own in order to create their ideal working environment.

They are divided into two groups: hard building blocks are created through a budget (money and time) as a formal part of studio overhead. The soft building blocks can be created through the decisions employees make over the course of their daily work, life, and play (with little material investment by studio owners). Both types of building blocks provide emotional and material stability to studio employees in the face of ongoing work challenges, and are often perceived by clients, family, and the general public as ingredients of the company’s brand.

The above chart was generated by me and David Conrad, Studio Director at Design Commission, for our workshop this Wednesday about how to structure design agencies for success.

When Should I Decline Client Work?

Yes, Not Yet

The failure most of us frequently face in the business of design? The failure to recognize that a client project is something you should decline. Here are common situations where working designers fail to decline an opportunity that may be a poor fit.

The client thinks you want the work they're offering, no matter what.

This is the beauty of establishing strong client relationships from your first contact—if you connect during those initial dialogues, there will be a strong reservoir of trust that will fuel your first projects. They like talking with you, and expect that working with you will be the same. They genuinely care about your shared success. They just don't realize that what they're throwing your way is not the best fit. Right client, wrong project. And we're afraid to say no, for fear they won't come back.

Your long-term client knows you need work badly.

The studio has been quiet, except for your primary client's big project. This client, when they're in the studio or communicating with you, is aware that the studio needs business. You might have even asked them directly for more business. And in return, they bring you a project that can keep the cashflow running, but is a poor fit for your short- and long-term goals. So, you take it.

The client doesn't know that you lack competency in an area… and you don't tell them.

Designers don't like to admit weakness in a specific area, especially if they are hungry to keep work rolling in from a client. Example: You design their identity system. They're offering you some motion graphics work to animate it for a video. You've never used AfterEffects or Flash. Now may not be the time to crack the manual and dive in. There's too high a risk of failure. This holds even more true for facilitating development work. Are you really going to learn enough HTML 5 in three days to do front-end development for that hybrid mobile app? Disaster comes in many flavors, and this is one you don't want to inflict on any client. Bring in the appropriate specialists. Mark up their time. Get it right.

The client doesn't want to work with anyone else.

This is similar to the previous situation, except the client knows you don't have the expertise they seek—and they still want to give you the work. They are willing to trust you with something they know you may not fulfill effectively, either out of trust or desired convenience. This is dangerous. Making an error on a project in a known area of weakness is still an error.

The client wants you to do work that's part of their job responsibilities.

Designers are frequently hired to fulfill tasks that are outside their client's job description. But sometimes design projects come along that are part of a client's everyday work responsibilities, and you often don't recognize that you're doing their job until you've signed the contract and started the project. The risk with these kinds of projects is that you usually don't get to follow your standard agency process and have to work through the same politics as your client to gain approval on the work. This can be a burn on your time and resources, making a prospective project an unprofitable venture.

The client desires your bid to establish agency selection criteria.

"If you say no, there are plenty of other agencies yearning to tackle this project." This threat is always half true. If a client threatens to take the work to another agency, they're taking this tack because they want something from you: your participation, your investment, your attention. Either that, or they just need a third estimate to see who is the best fit.

You really do need the money.

Yes, you need to pay rent. Yes, this work is not beneath you. Yes, the work will hopefully lead to better things. You have staff you need to keep busy. It'll be over quick and then you'll be on to better things. Projects stroll through the studio that are purely money-makers and never appear your portfolio. (Does the Regional Design Annual accept PowerPoint templates as a category?) But if word spreads that you are really good at the very projects you don't want to specialize in, you risk being offered those projects over and over again. The old adage reads: "Be careful what you're good at." Can you afford to promote yourself as an expert in one area and end up spending your time working in another?


You will be continually thrown opportunities you don't really need or have the depth of knowledge to fulfill well. You need to be prepared to walk away gracefully as part of any ongoing negotiation. So you've recognized that you should be declining a prospective project. How do you do it?

  • You need to show humility. Declining work is a form of power that you hold over your shared client/designer relationship. You should not let the client feel like you are declining the work because of ego.
  • You need to do it early enough in the new business process. Once you’ve moved too far down the sales cycle, such as the point where you’ve already generated a proposal, it can be unprofessional to say “No” to an extended offer on your part.
  • You need to leave the door open for the possibility of “No." You should be honest that a project may not be a 100% perfect fit for your studio in early discussions, until you've gathered the necessary background information.
  • You need to encourage future opportunities. “The trick is to turn down work, but have the client remember you as a positive person/agency that they want to work with in the future,” says project manager Fiona Robertson Remley. “No” should never be the last thing a client remembers about their interaction with you.
Declining an opportunity is not a sign of weakness. It's a continuation of an ongoing relationship. Use your refusal as a chance to describe what kind of work is a better fit, and be willing to make a reference to someone in your network who can fulfill their needs and return the referral in the future. Such a dialogue would sound something like this, delivered via a phone call or in a face-to-face meeting:

"I’m sorry, but it looks like the project we’ve discussing won’t be a good fit for us at this time. Let me refer you to another designer (or two) that would be able to help you out with it. And we should put something on the calendar for coffee in a month, as it was really great talking with you this week about our shared passion about Web analytics.”

This is a subtle art, especially in the midst of any critical negotiation with a long-term client. But remember: this is not the last project opportunity you will receive. And if you do it correctly, your potential for reward may only increase in the future.

I'd love to hear your stories regarding this topic. I'm sure we all have a few of them…

This post is part of an ongoing series I've been publishing every other week on PRINT Magazine's website, Imprint. Read the most recent ones, which are about risk assessment, client confidentiality, and proofreading like a pro, which have been previously discussed on ChangeOrder.

People Don't Pay Much for Umbrellas

Take It Anywhere Raincloud

Working in New York City more than a decade ago, I was always charmed by how the cost of umbrellas would magically increase during a downpour. Those umbrellas never lasted. They just worked until you reached where you needed to go.

Riding the subway, watching people struggle with their half-broken umbrellas—aren't all umbrellas half-broken?—was an object lesson for me in the value of selective innovation. There's a reason GORE-TEX jackets cost so flipping much: a guarantee of staying 100% dry is almost impossible to deliver. This is a valuable problem, with a valued solution for products that last.

But there are so many short-term solutions, it's almost overwhelming. Mr. Wikipedia says that there are four people at the patent office employed to sift through patent proposals for umbrella-related inventions, and a fellow at Totes was quoted saying that "it’s difficult to come up with an umbrella idea that hasn’t already been done."

That's some market for innovation for the problem of "staying dry." It's a valuable problem that people keep solving over and over again, seeking new niches to monetize.

Now, let's think about web pages. Proper placement of where the search box should go, and how it should behave: pennies or millions, depending on the scale of traffic flowing through a web property. The impact of poorly considered design decisions can be like accidentally nicking an artery while shaving. At times, this is the value we provide to our clients, often in the context of seemingly small yet critical decisions in creating an existing product. But such decisions map back to a much larger context, grounded in customer and business considerations. People will always be searching for content on web pages. Do they need an umbrella or something more durable?

Back away from solving small problems at key points in each of your projects and consider: How valuable is the larger-scale problem I'm trying to solve? With regard to human need? From a business standpoint? Where do I need umbrellas, and where do I need to invent something that will durably last? That can't be easily copied?

This kind of thinking is useful when clients come in crowing about their new umbrella idea, when really they need a waterproof jacket. When discussing a potential new project, ask your client about what problem(s) they're trying to solve. Then, ask them how that problem came about. Usually, that points to a much larger, more valuable problem—where the rain is currently pouring. Gauge the value of the largest problems you can help your client solve, then consider the effort (and decisions) that will be necessary in your current project to move you towards influencing them. It takes more effort to make that waterproof jacket, but it'll last them longer and retain its value better.

How does that change your conversation with the client? Is that a problem they're willing to let you discuss openly? Look at it from a few different angles or higher-order perspectives? Change the nature of what kinds of projects you'd like to retain?

Once you start seeing what you do as a designer in this way, you'll have greater clarity regarding exactly what kind of value you're providing as a designer. Solve valuable problems, charge your customer what the market will reasonably bear. And remember that people won't pay much for umbrellas. At any price point, they always vanish into the closet.

Now, please excuse me... this was one of the few sunny days we've had in Seattle all year, and I'm going to go get my yearly Vitamin D allotment.

This post was inspired by recent discussions with David Conrad, studio director of Design Commission and the co-presenter with me for an AIGA Seattle Design Business for Breakfast next week about how to structure a design studio for success.