Many years ago, at a previous practice, one of my co-directors and I traversed from Shoreditch to Marylebone to scope out a potential new project. It was a tiny commercial site, with great bones, barely enough room for 30 covers with a budget of about £50k, including fees. The client also wanted to be fully operating within four months. It was pretty clear that this project was, while strong in its creative potential, simply too small for us in our current trajectory. Our studio was about four years old at the time, we had a small team, and our work was starting to gain traction. We were seeing increased demand and a better calibre of clients was surfacing; ones that valued good design and had bigger budgets than what we were used to.
At the time, I felt it’d be best to tell the client we wouldn’t be able to do the project. Small or large, projects require resources, and we should spend them on better projects instead of simply saying yes to a small one because it might be fun to do. Fun is absolutely part of the qualifying process, but it can’t be the defining element. My colleague knew it was too small but still wanted to pitch for it. He was partly worried about how saying no would impact us but really, he was more excited about the project’s design potential, regardless of the size and budget.
In the end, we put in a big fee which, of course, the client declined. He walked away thinking we were too expensive, and probably that we wasted his time.
Client relationships are a subject for another article but what I want to talk about here is the culture and process around decision-making that happens in a studio. It’s not so simple as being good at making decisions. The issue is that when you’re young and starting out, and the answer is always yes to projects, it can’t become the standard position leading into the future. Passivity towards clients and work is not how you create a beautiful and successful creative business in the long term.
Don’t get me wrong: projects must dictate what work your business does in the first few years of a practice’s life. You’re creating a business that pays while providing the opportunity to put your creative stamp on your output. It’s an important time for a studio, and it makes good sense to willingly take what you can get. And yet while this is happening, it is an opportunity to figure out what your business will focus on in the future. In these early years, you don’t have the luxury of being choosy, but once you start to build that portfolio and build a name for your studio, the ability to choose becomes available, and here is where it often goes wrong for so many studios.
This is what I call that stick or twist moment. Once a studio has a few years under its belt and has built a portfolio that reflects capabilities for a certain calibre of work, a choice must be made — plateau or grow.
For most studios, in my experience, this moment usually happens between their fourth and seventh birthdays, but it could be sooner or longer in a practice’s life. Up until this moment, whenever it does occur, the business part is always secondary, the creative output primary. But something starts to happen a few years in — the fun of being creative for the sake of creativity starts to wane. It’s all well and good having a great time doing cool shit and not worrying too much about money if you’re making some at least, but the feeling won’t last forever.
There may or may not be a few people working for the studio freelance or permanently, but their role is design support, not to help the founders build something that lasts. The business begins to tread water and founders are faced with the reality that something needs to change; like a shark, it’s got to keep moving or die. Okay, perhaps it’s not the literal death of the business — many businesses continue this path and build design studio beasts that must continually be fed — but definitely death to creative thriving entrepreneurship, inspiring briefs, and great clients.
The truth for all business is that passivity breeds mediocrity.
In these moments you can continue to do more of the same, or you can decide to make something real with your company. The purpose of a business is not found in its output. Purpose-driven companies galvanise around a belief about how things should be and design a successful organisation to move the world towards that vision. Making money through the designing of beautiful things is a by-product of a focused company, and while having purpose is not essential to have in a business, it is vital to having a successful business.
All of this comes down to an ability to trust in your decisions. If we go back to Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”, he talks a lot about getting clear on why you do what you do. It can sound a bit fluffy and Pollyanna-ish to get hung up on purpose, especially when it is often used more as a marketing exercise than being rooted in something real. Except purpose is innate in all of us — humans are intrinsically purpose-driven. It doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant or an artist; there will come a point when you ask, why am I here and why am I doing what I’m doing?
The answer to that question is difficult to articulate at the best of times, but this is even harder when you’re creative. It’s like trying to define why Michelangelo carved the Pietà out of marble — it is intangible. The act of creation is simply innate to creatives, but unless we articulate it, why remains elusive and fleeting, and it is impossible to build an enduring, successful business around indefinable feeling.
The why exists all the same, and just because something is hard to define doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. Whether it is to leave our mark on the world, work through our deepest traumas, or build spaces that give people a feeling of safety — there is a reason behind our creative output, and with further exploration, it can be uncovered. It needs time and process to be found, but when it is, we can design a company around it.
Why becomes the source instead of the output. Instead of being forced to choose between creativity and business, we can build a business that embraces the creative. These two are always pitted against each other in the creative industries, but that thinking is fundamentally wrong. Business and creativity aren’t in opposition, they’re two sides of the same coin.
The fact my colleague and I couldn’t say no was down to our own lack of long-term vision for the company. Better projects and bigger fees are not a vision, they are a means to an end. It was the beginning of our stick or twist moment and because we couldn’t get clear about what it was all for, we continued down the same reactive trajectory.
Had we twisted instead of stuck with what existed, we would have avoided wasting our time and the client’s, knowing full well that that sort of project wasn’t supporting our vision. Had we known our why and created a business around it, we would have been able to approach the client with a mindset of service and clarity, instead of opacity and game-playing.
Despite the instinct that restricting one’s business feels rigid and limiting, the truth is exactly the opposite. Vision creates clarity. It narrows your focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing, helps you avoid distraction and opens your business up to incredible opportunities. Imagine how great it would be if you could build your design business around what drives you, and that drive also helps you reach your goals and gives you a sense of meaning and purpose behind it.
Stick or twist, it’s always a choice. Own that, and make it a good one.