132 posts categorized "Design Business"

Creating a Design Studio: The Elements of Design Studio Experience

The Elements of Design Studio Experience

There is a constant tension between the demands of your business—receiving monetary reward for your level of effort—and the knowledge that what you make has some form of meaningful impact. As design business owners and leaders, we wrestle with certain fundamental questions: What if I can’t earn a living running a design business? Am I going down the right path? Does this work make me happy?

Exactly how do you balance the competing demands of sustaining a profitable business with a joyful design practice? In the coming weeks, I'll be sharing the worksheets that comprise the last section of my new book Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers. You can use them to determine what your ideal design studio experience should be like. David Conrad (studio director of Design Commission) and I devised them, and we hope you can use them to better structure your design business to support what you love. Profitably.

The worksheet that kicks off this section of the book is The Elements of Design Studio Experience. This is a revised version of the framework I first wrote about two years ago on this blog (read more about it here).

Here's the new version of the worksheet, which you can download from SlideShare:

In the coming weeks, I'll be providing activities and accompanying worksheets that help you determine the five key elements in this framework that are necessary to create a stable design business: 1) Philosophy, 2) Customers & Staff, 3) Process & Culture, 4) Market Need & Capability, and 5) Product. By working your way from the bottom up, you’ll better understand how structure your design business to support your goals. I'll also provide you with an additional activity you can carry out to course-correct your business every three months.

Note: The worksheets I'll be sharing are covered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. For details on this license, go to creative-commons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0.

My Second Book "Success by Design" Is Officially Out!

Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers Book Cover

My second book, Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers, came out early! You can purchase it at your usual online retailers, including Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and My Design Shop. You can also grab a copy at your local fine bookseller when it arrives in stores on December 4th, 2012.

Concurrent with the print edition is the release of the eBook, which you can get for Amazon Kindle and through iTunes for your Apple devices.

Want to read a bit of the book before getting a copy? Other than clicking to look inside on Amazon.com, you can also see a preview through Google Books.

Here's how I've introduced the book on the back cover:

In your career you may have been like me: Trying to keep projects on the rails and clients happy. Digging through blogs for useful advice. Wondering if there was a better way to handle all of the demands of being a design professional and running a creative business.
The wisdom contained in Success By Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers will help you become a stronger businessperson and better plan your career path as a design leader. This book was born from in-depth interviews with a slew of successful designers, studio directors, project managers, and client service professionals across a wide range of creative industries. It contains the business secrets I needed the most when I started as a designer sixteen years ago.

If you'd like some background on how this book came about, I was recently interviewed by GraphicDesign.com about what inspired the book. In the coming weeks, excerpts of chapters from the book will be appearing here on ChangeOrder and in other publications. There are also a number of free worksheets and resources mentioned in the book that I'll be blogging about. Links to them are aggregated on my website at http://www.davidsherwin.com/success.

Here are some kind words from people who took a peek at an advance copy:

"The best design business secrets are out of the bag--and it is about time! David has found a pithy and brilliant way to share the wisdom and knowledge that most of us had to learn the hard way. I wish I had this book when I was learning to run a design business unit at IDEO."
--Dr. Kristian Simsarian, Interaction Design program Chair at the California College of the Arts and IDEO Fellow
"With your nose up against your monitor, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture. This book reminds you to step back and take inventory of all of the things that impact the success of your projects, products, and teams."
--Kendra Shimmell, Director of Cooper U
"The world of design is famous for its mystique, secrecy and "special sauce" but David Sherwin breaks it all down into the three fundamentals of team, client and project management, taking out the complexity of what it's like to run a design practice along the way. He organizes the book with straightforward concepts and follows up with easy-to-understand language. But make no mistake. This is not a primer, but rather an insightful work drawn from a keen understanding that the essential element to being successful in design (and therefore with clients) is the human element."
--David Merkoski, Chief Design Officer at Greenstart
"David's comprehensive and thoughtful treatment of the business of design is an education by proxy. As any experienced consultant, he maintains a fine balance of caution and enthusiasm yet withholds nothing, offering a depth and care typically only found in the classroom."
--Christopher Butler, Vice President of Newfangled and author of The Strategic Web Designer: How to Confidently Navigate the Web Design Process

If you want to delve deeper into the book design, I've created sets with most of the chapter illustrations on Flickr and Pinterest. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

Success by Design: Accounting Spread

Success by Design: Negotiation Spread

Success by Design: Process Spread

Business Development Illustration from Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers

Freelance Illustration from Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers

Budgets Illustration from Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers

How Do You Grow a Design Business? A Conversation with Ted Leonhardt

Ted Leonhardt quote - Your business must become your project

As part of the research for my new book, Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers, I interviewed a wide range of people who had run successful design studios. When I drew up my shortlist of who I should talk to, Ted Leonhardt was at the top of my list. Specifically, I wanted Ted's perspective on what it's like to grow a design business.

Ted and his wife Carolyn founded The Leonhardt Group, an agency that they grew to $10 million in fees and a staff of 50. In 1999, they sold their agency to Fitch. Ted went on to the position of Chief Creative Officer for Fitch Worldwide with responsibility for 27 offices from London. In 2003 Ted began his management consulting practice. Carolyn provides support while creating and bringing new vintage homes to market in St. Helena, California.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation in April 2011.

DS: How do you grow a design business?

TL: My favorite quote on this is from Michael Gerber who says, “Work on the business, not in the business.”

Design business founders who want to grow must move from being an expert in a skill area, like design or strategy, to being an expert at running their business. That's a very fundamental shift. You can't concentrate on growing your business if much of your time is taken up in project work for clients. Client work is all consuming and it should be. Great work is the result of that total focus. But, your business needs the same kind of total concentration if you want to grow. Your business must become your project. Many designer/owners are reluctant to make this necessary change.

The single most important factor in successful design businesses is the people. And the most common problem is poor people management.

Design comes from people. Great design comes from happy, committed people. Happy committed people see a bright future for themselves and are receiving coaching, praise and regular constructive feedback. If employees feel they are a valued part of a team, doing work they respect and enjoy, the firm will grow and prosper. Carolyn and I used to say: “great work plus happy people produces profits.”

Ironically, owner/designers can get in the way of growth. As a successful designer, you have insights into how things should be done. You develop a feel for how to produce great work and deal with management and client situations. As you transition other people into design leadership roles, inevitably they're not as good as you are. They make mistakes, and instead of providing clear, instructive feedback you take back authority and solve the problem yourself. Or, you see something that doesn’t work and you criticize instead of helping them understand why it doesn’t work. Over time these negative experiences turn people off, and instead of growing in their positions they begin to lose their commitment to you and your company. They lose their belief in the vision that attracted them to the business in the first place. And the result is that your business doesn’t grow.

Employees need clear positive guidance, instructive feedback and specific praise when they do something right. We all need this kind of clarity in order to keep on track and moving in the right direction. That’s what management is all about.

Owners who want to grow their businesses need to understand that the business is their creative project, and that empowering their people is the way to grow. That means that the virtual circle of the business is your job, but it’s powered by your people. It’s your responsibility to make sure there is enough work, that the work is being done well and that it meets expectations and that completed projects are turned into marketing tools that support your outbound sales effort by creating inbound opportunities. You negotiate new opportunities as they come in. The one area of expertise you can never give up is sales.

DS: What about an individual looking to grow a studio?

TL: Step One is that first hire. Look to your skill set and say: “What functional role can I give up? What role can I easily fill with billable work? Which role will relieve me from something time consuming?” Perhaps it's one of your weaker skill sets, something someone else will do better. Manage your employee, treat him or her with respect and honor. Keep things friendly, but professional. Then look for employee #2.

Second, you must learn to lead by setting expectations: creative expectations, budget expectations, time expectations and deliverables. You work with the team to make sure the expectations are appropriate. You ask questions to find out what is going on if expectations are not met. Another great rule of thumb for managers is “ask, don’t tell.”

The third factor is client management, and that means understanding other people’s agendas. The overall agenda and goals of a client project may be clear, but within the client team the goals may be different. One client may have a baby at home, and need to be home by four every day – putting unexpected time constraints on team meetings. The Senior VP may be focused entirely on a particular feature of the project rather than the publicly stated goal because he has been a champion of that feature in other products. So, he’s thinking “I must have a hit with this product feature” throughout the effort. Meanwhile the rest of the team is wondering why he continues to bring up a single issue. Understanding these semi-hidden agendas and dealing with them in a positive way is essential to your success and to growth. A common hidden agenda is the client team leader’s need to appear knowledgeable and effective to the other team members and senior management. Your job is always to help your client succeed and look good while succeeding.

For the success of a business, the most important group to be involved with is the client team, so you are in the meetings when the project is being discussed, and not relying on PDFs and emails. You must know why they are making decisions to push something this way or that. You must be there, listening, asking questions and refining your perspective on the fly.

DS: What factors or metrics can a studio owner use to monitor their overall happiness?

TL: Creative shops are happiest when there is slightly more work than what the numbers say you should take. You can calculate how many hours to expect from a billable employee — 35 hours a week x 50 weeks — to determine your revenue target and work load. Then focus your sales effort on achieving 5–10% more sales than that. Creative people like to be busy. The worst is not having enough to do. It's demoralizing, and it destroys budgets as people expand their project workload to fit their free time. Happiness comes from being busy, but not overwhelmed — a delicate balance. We always kept the staff load and head count slightly below the actual dollar count coming in.

The other number to focus on is fee revenue divided by staff size. Well managed firms in the US produce around $200,000 a year in fees per employees. In major markets it’s higher, in smaller markets it is less.

Rowing on Command

"Powerzaal" bij Club Gent

Four years ago, I was having a conversation with the head of client services at a large marketing studio, and somehow we ambled onto the topic of Buddhism. I mentioned that I'd been thinking about the similarities between Buddhism and design, and he said: "Well, then clients definitely make us suffer too."

We both chuckled at the joke, but there was a hint of wisdom lurking in the laughter.

We don't need clients to cause us to suffer. We do a fine job of causing suffering in our work without them.


To suffer is to endure, to carry forth in work and in life.

There is a constant tension between the constraints that bind us. Some are human needs: a roof over our head for sleep, food to keep us from starving. Some are more experiential, responsibilities we choose to acquire by studying trusted experts, emulating admired role models, or slogging through dogged failure. And in the domain of work we find daily tasks we hope to eventually align with our personal passions.

Sometimes we own the business, sometimes the business owns us. Or so we believe. All of our needs, responsibilities, and tasks become tangled up with the requirements and demands of business.


In late 2000, I landed a freelance gig at one of the top advertising agencies in America. I was thrilled I would be there for a month; I wanted to gain experience in creating high-end advertising. And though I was spending most of my time creating layouts for dog food ads, I was gleaning insight into how a large agency operated, as I had spent the previous four years working within small nonprofit organizations and design studios.

It was late Friday afternoon, and I was packing up my bag to leave. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw other designers from the production studio lined up outside the office of the creative director.

"What are they doing?" I asked the designer sitting next to me. On his screen were mechanicals for a newspaper ad that was going to run as part of a client's next campaign.

"Oh, they're getting feedback on their ads, to see if they need to come in over the weekend and work on them before they're sent out for publication next week."

Without even thinking, I blurted out, "Why?"

He paused to think, then leaned over and said to me quietly, "If they offer you a job here—and they will, because they like you a lot—decline it. You don't want to work at a place like this."


Earlier this week, after seeing some Olympic rowers on the TV, I ended up in a conversation about what it was like to row in an eight-person crew. First, the painful memories came flooding back. The training was intense and grueling: running 3 to 6 miles, doing weight training, doing sprints on the rowing ergometer, stretching, plyometrics, constant racing on the reservoir where we trained. It was the most extreme cross-training I've ever experienced. I once had to run backwards up a hill carrying my friend Brian on my back. All of this work, in the service of shaving a few seconds off the speed of a boat carrying eight sweaty men floating on the top of a river from Point A to Point B. I recall races where several of my teammates would end up puking into the water, because they had simply pushed their bodies too far. Seeing people doing crossfit, even after all of these years, makes me shiver.

But those memories were counterbalanced by the thrill of rowing itself. What you may not know is that those rowers are flying.

Once you've been rowing with a crew for a month or two and you've achieved a certain level of synchronicity, each time the oars dig into the water, the boat rises slightly above the river's surface. Months of hard work are made manifest: the boat flies through the air, if only for a few microseconds.

I think I only know this now that I’ve stopped rowing, but the saddest part about the whole thing is not about how much you’ll punish your body for those brief moments of freedom. It’s knowing that once your oar leaves the water, the boat will cease its flight. And though there may be another stroke which allows you to fly, eventually, the race comes to an end. Project complete.

I can't say that everything in life functions like this. People go a long way, sometime without even realizing they’ve passed their limits, to reach that moment of effortlessness in the midst of intense work. Outside of the oars and the boat, nothing else matters. Not eating, not sleeping, not friends or family.

But a life solely composed of work is like a house without flooring to stand upon. For too many years, I applied the same sporting logic to my design work. I believed that the intense suffering—the physical and mental sacrifices—was the necessary and expected effort I made in order to fly.

This was reinforced through word and deed by designers I greatly respected, some of whom I considered mentors. They said the key to success was a single-minded focus on creating excellent work. So I tried to do that, for a really long time.

After all, rowers don’t need to see where they’re going. They always have someone else looking forward for them.

The upshot was that I grew as a designer. I’m grateful for the knowledge that I gained during that time in my life.

The downside of this focus was what I'd excluded. I found myself spending more and more time with designers, talking about doing design work—often while avoiding a pile of life problems that couldn't be solved by writing a better proposal or having a killer prototype to solve a client need. I avoided those problems by digging into my team’s design work, helping others with their problems.

My fellow designers and I were all in the same boat, pulling and puking together, and we couldn’t afford to be concerned about what lay ahead. We could fly consistently together, maybe a little longer each time. When one race was over, we just went to another.

We might have caught a glimpse of something important on the shore, but only after it was passing us by. We were working.

We were working hard.


The above photo "'Powerzaal' bij Club Gent"/7158757302 is by E. Dronkert from Flickr.com, included via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The Cult of Awesome

Some Awe

One morning, I had a dream that I was eating a red-hued apple. With each bite, the fruit would yield to my teeth with a pleasant snap—but over time, it began to dawn on me that I wasn't making any headway in consuming the entire flesh of the fruit. As I kept eating, the fruit seemed to grow larger and larger, and the task of consuming the entire fruit was impossible.

The dream seemed prophetic, as I'd been meditating on the notion of quality for a long time. Or, in particular, our desire to be part of the Cult of Awesome.

The idea behind this religion* is simple: Devote yourself to manifesting ideas that are awesome. There are plenty of other people trying to clarify what awesome means just in the context of life itself, but specifically I'm referring to Umair Haque describing the concept behind this belief system in 2009 on his Harvard Business Review blog:

"I'd like to advance a hypothesis: awesomeness is the new innovation… "Innovation" feels like a relic of the industrial era. And it just might be the case that instead of chasing innovation, we should be innovating innovation — that innovation needs innovation."

Umair goes on to describe the four attributes of awesomeness (with regard to one-upping innovation) as:

  1. Ethical production
  2. Insanely great stuff
  3. Love
  4. Thick value (i.e. sustainable value over time)

When his post came out in September 2009, thousands of people online started to buzz about what it would take to get from great to awesome. Umair is working to create a larger, more powerful description of what makes the pursuit of awesome, well, awesome.

Umair's punchlist seems handy when talking with CEOs about how to foster sustainability practices and calibrate their engines to churn out awesome products, services, and so forth. What his list doesn't provide is exactly how the people that give ideas their form can aim for manifesting ideas that are awesome. He's aiming at influencing the top 5% of the executive pyramid, whose newfound and fervent beliefs in awesome will then trickle down to the other 95%: those who are busy churning out what will quickly be categorized as "not insanely great stuff."

I'm being a little flip here because this is nice for CEOs to digest while on their next transatlantic flight, but what does it mean for designers? Is it really so easy to say to design teams, “Go make insanely great stuff?"

I feel like there's a huge missing piece in his pursuit of awesome: the methods and efforts that everyday makers put into manifesting awesomeness while keeping your sanity intact. I'm confident there is no one true path to awesome, but perhaps there is a mind set or tools we can use when straining against the gravity of mediocrity. This is more than just a baseline design process. It's what we learn from the School of Shipping Awesome.

Which leads me to ask this not-so-simple question: How do we make things that we create awesome?** What principles define the process of making things awesome, for teams that include designers, on a practical day-to-day basis?

I sent the above text around, in an earlier draft, to people that I respected in the design community.*** I also had a ton of conversations with designers about this subject. The responses clumped into three areas of insight:

1. There are working processes that teams use, aligned around: craft, persistent effort, multidisciplinary teams, and regular gut checks with market fit and user need. To paraphrase their points:

  • Awesome products and services are intensely crafted.
  • Awesome design requires persistent effort over time for a team to realize. It doesn't emerge automatically from a great idea. It's the push towards realization that can define the idea's merit. (This is covered pretty well in Scott Belsky's Making Ideas Happen.)
  • Reaching awesome requires continuing to check your perspective, from overall business strategy to the production details, multiple times over the life of a project. Throughout each perspective check, you shouldn't be afraid to walk a dozen steps backward to make a singular gain. Most organizations don't have the stomach to throw everything away, declare failure, and start anew with a clearer point of view.
  • Awesome products and services comes from a fusion of multiple disciplines in how the thing is realized, all of those POVs informing each other. Ownership from everyone that's involved in that process is critical.

2. Creating awesomeness isn't something that can be systematically analyzed and realized. Or, in plain English: people called bullshit on the idea of an Awesomeness process. To paraphrase those conversations:

  • There is no silver bullet, process-wise, for creating awesome stuff. You should resist the notion of choosing some off-the-shelf process, which can then be plunked into your workflow and utilized with little to no extra effort.
  • You need to design each project around what it will take to achieve awesomeness.
  • If there was a consistent method of creating awesome products and services, we'd all be doing it.
  • You just have to try and keep trying. (Though one interesting follow-on observation was that awesome design can comes from having previously produced awesome design. Repetition and persistence through failure increases the likelihood of the best outcomes.)
  • Awesome products and services often comes from (initially) ignoring working process and speculating a solution—a "hail mary pass." This doesn't happen by following a checklist.

3. Awesome only becomes a factor once you see how your product or service is performing in people's hands. Until then, you can only aspire towards creating something great. Some interesting points:

  • Awesome design is a factor of constant iteration, both in the mind of the designer and the hands of the customer. There's a dialogue between the two.
  • You know when thing is awesome within 2 milliseconds of starting to use it. (This is the first litmus test of critique.) It continues to be awesome when it works like it should. In the past, it may not have ever met a person's expectations.
  • These awesome products and services then tell their own story over time, which people echo and expand upon. It rarely requires an external marketing story, which is redundant.
  • Awesome products and services force people designing the products and using the products to acknowledge their shared dislikes.
  • Awesome products and services manifest themselves via a feeling of intimacy (which leads to love). Without this, why would you be emotionally invested in them as part of your life?


After gathering the above responses over two years ago, and feeling a bit disheartened by the divergence of perspectives on the subject, I put the results of those conversations in a drawer (digitally) and just tried to focus on creating great work, hoping that I'd have greater clarity on which of the above perspectives held water after giving some of these perspectives a whirl.

After pulling this material back out of the drawer and looking at it again, I'm of the feeling that everything above has some merit.

There are working processes that teams use to try to create awesome products. Sometimes those processes get in the way of making great stuff, which requires teams to lean more heavily on their intuition to speculate about things that haven't been used (yet). And you don't know it's awesome until people let you know it's awesome, which is the most important feedback loop you can build into how the product or service operates.

That said, do you have your own POV that helps you aim for awesomeness? Is there a middle path that designers can follow in how they work with teams to let them balance the demands of shipping stuff with the ideals of making it insanely great? Or is aspiring towards awesomeness a ruse, a Sisyphean task?

If you have thoughts on this, feel free to voice them in the comments below.

That would be awesome.



* I'm calling this "Cult of Awesome" a religion because subscribing to any ideal like the above can tend towards dogma. Might as well give it a name that makes the risk clear.

** I'm sidestepping the word "design" (for now) and using the word "making," because I think that the role of design is an implicit factor in the creation of awesome products and services, whether we're talking about design, engineering, manufacturing, et cetera. While the businessmen at the top are busy trying to wrap their brains around what awesomeness means for their business, I think there's much greater value in empowering everyday workers—and designers are first and foremost among them, oft transmitting their skills to their teammates—in translating the desire for awesomeness (the shared vision) into tangible, real results.

*** Thanks to Jon Bell, Hans Gerwitz, Justin Maguire, and Raj Thiagaraian for sharing their perspectives on this subject with me, among dozens of others in casual conversation who have enriched this piece over the past two years. But those four people were most awesome in grappling with the subject at the inception of this blog post.

Details about "Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers"

Cover for "Success by Design"

Hot off the presses, I thought I'd share with you the cover for my next book, Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers.* The book will be out in November 2012 from HOW Books.

Want to be notified when the print and e-book versions begin their presale through Amazon.com and MyDesignShop? Sign up for my mailing list for the book. I'll only send one email a month, and will never sell or give out the email address to others. I will also share via this email free worksheets, templates, and bonus chapters that you can download and use along with the book:

I've wrapped designing the 325-page book, from the cover (which you can see above) to the interior illustrations and typesetting the content. While the cover does share some DNA with Grace Ring's awesome art direction for Creative Workshop, the interior balances crisp, informational charts and graphs with some tongue-in-cheek design humor that you've seen on this blog over the past few years. Over the summer, I look forward to sharing some sneak peeks with you!

* In previous posts, I'd been calling this book Design Business from A to Z, but that was a placeholder name through the writing process… this is the final title for the book.)

The Tipsy Triangle of Software Startupdom

Tipsy Triangle of Design Startupdom

In talking with entrepreneurs of many stripes over the past year, I've heard the following hypnotic refrain repeated over and over again: "If we design a beautiful user experience, we've got what we need to launch a successful business."

Whether uttered by corporate executives or designers fresh out of school, I've been surprised by this near-religious belief that great user experience is the silver bullet that will attract a huge audience base to your company's products or services. Surface solutions trump business plans. To quote Enrique Allen, founding member of The Designer Fund—a community of designers that invest in designer startup founders (of which I’m a member):

“UX can be a 'grabber,' like the shiny materials we buy but then don't end up using after a few days. Without a solid tech and business model 'holder' that provides lasting utility, startups will peak but then crash…”

Yes, to your customers, the user experience (UX) is everything: it's how your product or service is utilized by the world. But if you are a designer trying to create a sustainable business from your product and service ideas, the UX for your product is one important facet of creating a successful business. The user experience you design, the technology selections you make, and the business model you generate: all of these decisions support how you make money from your products and services. They are interrelated, to the point that you can't truly sustain a business in the long term without them all in place.

This may be obvious advice for those who have spent time creating products and services, or worked at a startup before. But for any designer that is looking to jump into the software game and bootstrap their own products or services, closely consider the following perspectives in the early stages of any new business venture.

Continue reading "The Tipsy Triangle of Software Startupdom" »

How to Conduct Post-Mortem Project Evaluations

You're it! - Tagged

This is an extensive rewrite of a previous ChangeOrder post for my next book Design Business from A to Z—so much so I'm reposting it!

The website went live last week, and the entire staff is throwing a party to celebrate! The developers are huddled in the corner with some microbrews, plotting how they'll splice into the agency intranet to add a virtual dartboard. Designers are mingling with the copywriters and account people, clinking wineglasses and bonding over the ads they saw during The Office.

Yes, the job went way over budget—and the last thing your team wants to think about is who needs to take responsibility for it. Not the best time to mention that tomorrow, you're scheduling a post-mortem meeting (a.k.a. lessons learned, post future, etc.) to talk about how the project really went.

Was the estimate wrong to begin with? Did the designer spend too long tweaking those page comps? How come the developer pulled so many late nights wrangling with the content management system, when he said he knew .NET?

Discovering how a creative agency fails to make profit on a project usually boils down to a series of in-project decisions that, while intended to contribute to project success, lead to cost overruns and errors. Isolating and clarifying those agency decisions, role by role, can be punishing if conducted incorrectly. But if carried out in the right manner and in a safe group setting, a post-mortem meeting can galvanize a team and bring them closer together. By being aware of everyone's perspectives, your team members can see repeated problems in patterns of behavior and discover ways to change them. Plus, the ongoing learning that comes from open communication and active collaboration is what makes businesses more sustainable—especially on large, multi-phase projects that continue over months, if not years.

Continue reading "How to Conduct Post-Mortem Project Evaluations" »

Making Clients Part of the Design Process

This weekend, I participated in HOW Design Live, a U.S.-based conference intended to help designers, in-house design managers, and creative freelancers gain the information and inspiration they need to succeed with their design work. One of my contributions to the conference was a talk about facilitated collaborations with design clients.

Why collaborate with your clients? Because when clients and designers work together as equals towards a shared goal, they can feel like they're part of the design process. Facilitated collaboration can inform and inspire your design team, so you are empowered to create great design work. It can also create alignment, which contributes to ongoing trust and ownership from all parties involved.

The above deck shares principles and perspectives that any designer can use to plan better client/designer collaborations. In the coming months, I'll talk more here about this topic!

Got a Startup Idea? Apply to The Designer Fund


I'm happy to announce that in the coming months, I'll be increasingly involved in a new nonprofit called The Designer Fund. This is a community of designers that will be investing in design founders through education, angel funding, and access to a network of people and resources to help them create their own businesses.

If you have ideas for your own business, or an existing prototype or early-stage app or service that you've been trying to get off the ground, this is an awesome opportunity to get serious about it. As you'll see from the other people associated with this venture, you can potentially be mentored or receive angel funding from some of today's top designers, both from early-stage designers at YouTube, Facebook, Google, and Twitter to designers at IDEO, Cooper, Jump Associates, and Method, as well as current designers at Path and Flipboard. (And me.)

Why? Because recently, I've seen a number of online discussions about ways that designers can have "a seat at the table" with their clients. How they can be part of helping to formulate product, service, or marketing strategy. How they can be seen as adding more value to businesses than just providing an aesthetic perspective. How they can collaborate more effectively with their cohorts in technology and business. These discussions are valuable for those of us who work in-house, or are hired by companies to provide the right kind of influence, at the right time, to create the meaningful impact. Designers may yield profit from providing services to these clients, but it's rare that they get to profit from creating and deploying the products themselves.

In conducting my research for my next book—talking with a wide range of designers both at design studios, within in-house studios, and working at their own startup ventures—I've come to the (perhaps apparent) perspective that both fledgling and seasoned designers can be extraordinarily effective at designing and running businesses. It's not just about having a seat at the table with senior-level executives, changing the course of how that company makes their customers' lives better. It's that they can own the table. Their passion, knowledge, skill, and artistry are all brought to bear with the right partners to create businesses that transcend the common billing-for-services model. While that model is an important path today for many of us (myself included), it is not the only way to make what you love.

A hypothesis needs to be borne out: that designer-led businesses and startups could perhaps be more valuable in the long term than traditional startups. In the best case, designers can launch the next wave of innovation. In the worst case, more designers understand how to create awesome products and services, and then enter into employment with today's leading agencies and companies.

Jump on in and apply!

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.

How Should a Design Leader Behave?

There is no subtext to anything I have said over the past four years on this blog. None whatsoever. Except for the secret access codes for an offshore bank account, hidden cleverly in blog post images.

Here's a question for you: How should a design leader behave?

My hypothesis is that any effective design leader must know how to coax, push, cajole, and conjure awesome work out of their team (and themselves).

Leaders coax stellar work out of their teams by creating space for creativity to flourish. This space is protected from harm, so incursions such as rogue client feedback or organizational politics will not derail ongoing effort.

Leaders push their teams towards a vision, no matter who suggested or informed that vision. It can come from anyone on the team, then be harnessed collectively. However, the leader must motivate the team to realize that vision. The best leaders know how suss out internal motivations and encourage them, rather than enforce a motivation from an external pressure, such as deadline, quality bar, fear of failure, and so forth. The leader can also choose to allow others to lead, trusting their direction and encouraging ownership in the process.

Leaders cajole through critique, by asking the right open-ended questions—at the correct time—to encourage the flourishing of great ideas. To quote Pelle Sjonell, Executive Creative Director of BBH LA: "If creative direction is done right, you should never have to select. You never need to resort to the role of a bouncer. Or simply giving things thumbs up or thumbs down."

Leaders must also conjure compelling design work in their own right, when pressed into service. Otherwise, they may just be serving in a managerial capacity.

Design leaders that employ these modes effectively, in concert with design teams jamming on well-considered design work for engaged clients, is what can make working at a design business transcend being mere work and become delightful.

What do you think? What would you add, remove, or change? I'd love to share your perspectives at next week's Design Business for Breakfast on Design Leadership.

What's Your Bus Number?

Idea Going Nowhere

In the shower, the best idea of your career hits you like a runaway bus. Years of hard-fought labor melt away, as the details clarify themselves in your brain like pristine, hand-rendered architectural blueprints. You pump your fists in the air, giddy with triumph. This idea will define your career. It will leave your clients awestruck. It will make your company rich.

Sadly, no one will ever know your idea. Because in this hypothetical situation, on your way into work you are hit by a bus.

Contingency planning—being prepared for the worst that could happen, even though it's likely that it won't—is a necessary part of running any business meant to outlast yourself. Business owners need to understand where critical information and actions happen across their company, while individual employees must stay aware of who does (and doesn't) have access to the results of their labor.

This is no laughing matter, but we bring it up every time we say: "If you were hit by a bus tomorrow, who would know what you know? Who could do what you do?" It happens more often than we'd like, especially when working in a freelance capacity. Your bosses worry about it. If you're in charge of a business, you have probably experienced times where such lapses in institutional knowledge have hobbled projects.

Matt Conway, an Associate Creative Director at frog design, has a great turn of phrase for identifying what project details are shared amongst employees. When a project contributor tells him something important, he asks: "What's your bus number?"

His turn of phrase is shorthand for, "If you were to be hit by a bus at this very moment, how many other people besides you and me know what we just discussed?" If your bus number is low, then you will need to capture and share your knowledge before you progress further. If your bus number is high, then you're in a good place to keep your project moving.

So, take a look at your current projects and ask yourself: What's my bus number? Who needs to know what I've been doing? Are there any new ideas that need to be socialized, and quickly? And how can I share these ideas with my cohorts most effectively? Then, take action.

Slides from "My Top 10 Design Business Failures"

This Thursday and Friday, I provided two lectures for SCAD's Entreprenurial Forum 2011 in Savannah, Georgia. This event was presented by SCAD's Office for Career and Alumni Success, and was designed for students across all majors to gain perspectives on how they can become successful as businesspeople in today's economic climate.

The above slide deck is from my second lecture, called "My Top 10 Design Business Failures." You could call this my greatest hits album of major business mistakes I've made over my career, both as a freelancer and while working within agencies of all shapes and sizes.

My first lecture, "Being an Agency of One," kicked off the event on Thursday night. I talked about the four primary areas that any designer or artist must master in order to create the foundation for a successful business practice and be responsible while doing what they love:

  • Understanding your business model and what sources of revenue can support it
  • Designing the appropriate touchpoints required for well-considered client service
  • Discovering how effective project management creates sustainable studio success
  • Crafting the philosophy and plan that drives both your personal practice and your business practice, via a framework that David Conrad and I created called "The Elements of Design Studio Experience"

You can see an 11-minute clip of me answering student questions after the first lecture on the SCAD eLearning site. Some of these student questions I will be readdressing on this blog in the coming weeks.

If you live in Seattle and want to dig deeper into this material, please join me for the Design Business for Breakfast Series in Seattle, which is going on right now. Registration is still open for the last three talks. The next one is this Wednesday, February 23rd.

All of this material is drawn from my current work-in-progress for HOW Books, Design Business from A to Z, which will be out in the Fall of 2012. Both presentations were deeply informed by the following collaborators, who deserve great thanks: Erica Goldsmith, Fiona Robertson-Remley, and David Conrad.

"Design Business for Breakfast" Series Returns for 2011


If you missed last year's "Design Business for Breakfast" series, this is your chance to catch it again—with a few new surprises! Here's the copy from the AIGA Seattle's site:

Many firms offer stellar creative work. The ones that survive and thrive understand how to successfully operate their business. To help you master that second skill, AIGA Seattle is proud to offer an encore presentation of Seattle designer and author David Sherwin's design business series.

Whether you work on the creative team, the account team, or are a one-person firm, this series has enough valuable content to fill books. [Like my next one coming out in 2012... details coming soon.] Covering key aspects of design practice—from project and account management to creative leadership—this 4-part series represents years of hard-won wisdom, yours to be had over a comfortable, light breakfast. And as a special bonus, the series will be kicked off with an exclusive presentation and Q&A with Ted Leonhardt on January 26th.

Here's the lineup:

Weds, Jan 26 / Ted Leonhardt: Identifying Opportunities in Your Time
Weds, Feb 23 / Erica Goldsmith: Connect with Your Clients
Weds, March 23 / Fiona Remley: Structure Your Projects and Process
Weds, April 20 / David Sherwin: Design Leadership

Tickets can be purchased individually, or for the entire series via AIGASeattle.org.

All talks start at 7:30 AM at Il Fornaio, located in Pacific Place. Parking is available in the underground ramp. Take the elevator to concourse and escalator to the first floor. If you're on foot, street access is from Olive Way and up the escalator. Doors will open at 7:15.

Your questions are welcome and invited. Send them to programming@seattle.aiga.org or use the Twitter hashtag #DB4B.

Being a Responsible Consultant

Elephant in the Dark

As the design community continues its slow evolution from a craft-based industry to a powerful pivot across lateral, yet related disciplines—such as business strategy and technology—we are often reduced to being hired to create artifacts first and foremost, crossing off item after item on the list of required deliverables in the contract we duly executed a few weeks back.

This is professional practice, but it is not always responsible. Design may be a service industry, but that doesn't mean you should be a servant. You should be a responsible consultant.

These are a few traits I've observed from watching responsible consultants working in our design profession. Feel free to add more via the comments.

Continue reading "Being a Responsible Consultant" »

It's Not Your Fault


There comes a time in the life of every designer when things go wrong on a project or in a client relationship. Horribly wrong. The kind of epic fail written about by Greek storytellers, passed down from generation to generation, then recorded to paper to give voice to Awfulness That Shall Never Be Forgotten EVER. Fear gives way to more fear. Your heart pulses in your ears. Adrenaline drowns out words being spoken (or hollered) at you. The knowledge of things going awry makes you physically aware of your body in a way similar to, say, jumping out of a plane. Careening downwards, a constellation of past efforts glitters behind you in the darkness, while your future career in design looms closer and closer, like the factories and empty fields that pock-mark much of northern New Jersey.

Now that I've got a few major failures under my belt, and enough distance from them to have sifted through the wreckage for a few tiny wisps of insight, I've realized that in some of those awful situations, I hadn't done anything wrong at all. It was entirely out of my direct control. I'm talking specifically about ongoing politics within a client organization—the kind of politics, no matter how strong of a relationship that you hold with your day-to-day contacts, no matter how many dinners and baseball games and late-night shenanigans at the hotel bar, you just can't suss out the bitter end until the room's been turned sideways and you're hanging from the chandelier for dear life.

Continue reading "It's Not Your Fault" »