When Creativity is Not Enough

A client once told me that architects leave university with the unerring belief that their strengths lie in their creativity and originality, and that those things are what will bring a steady stream of work and ensure the business is successful.

Except when the work does come, the architects are shocked to realise that creativity and originality are only facets of a wider web of interconnected parts that make up a dynamic, creative design business. Selling originality is not to be sniffed at, and creativity is what brings clients to their door, but these ambitious architects discover the hard way that it’s not enough to ensure success for the business.

Architecture schools do not leave their graduates well equipped to run a business. How many crits talk about how to sell ideas to an ideal client? How many modules on sustainability discuss the long-term impact of a design company? None. In university, the focus is always on design and creative thinking, but the ability to earn a living from it? The basics if anything at all.

In the UK, the Part 3 does focus a little on some practical elements of running a practice, and while these are important, there are still major gaps which include marketing, client relations, brand, people management and culture, financial strategy, and most importantly, vision and purpose. The profession has a huge need for better business training, as the 2022 ARB Education Survey highlights, and yet universities and institutions are behind in addressing it.

For all of us, there comes a point where our knowledge of a topic hits a ceiling and we’re left in the dark on what to do next. We all wing it from time to time, but what happens when your Part 3 bargain basement business training eventually runs out? You’re left to make decisions on the quickest route to alleviate pain and/or stress. Anyone would naturally want to make the problem go away as fast as possible to get back to doing what they love to do.

Looking under the bonnet of most design studios, there likely will be a mishmash of apps and ad hoc spreadsheets that act as scaffolding for delivering projects. Some of these things might have been useful to the Founders in the immediate, but the long-term effects of these choices can create a mindset which will lead to structural problems, which become ingrained into the studio culture. When this happens, over time we’re left with cultural and operation dysfunction, in a business that is simply trying to do beautiful work.

It creates a disconnect between the roots that support the business and the work it produces. And it makes the whole thing a recipe for burnout and frustration for everyone who works there. No wonder practices can’t find people to hire — everyone’s tired of working in practices that aren’t run very well.

Except how can anyone really be surprised this happens? Few who start a studio have had training in business; most take what they’ve learned from previous practices and recreate (or avoid) more of the same. It’s not their fault this knowledge gap exists. It seems so unfair so many practices are left to wing it the way they are.

The creative is also working within an age-old system that believes if one chooses an alternative path, they’ll probably be broke. Sure, there’s a small chance of global success, but we all know it’s rare, so to choose an artist’s life is generally assumed to choose a hand-to-mouth existence; not all of us get to be Kanye.

The starving artist narrative is reflected in everything — from the wages paid to the fees charged — but we here at Cloudfields believe that it is a story that’s overplayed and needs retelling. We believe creatives are essential to the world because of the ideas they bring and the stories they tell, but we also believe they should be able to make a real living out of these ideas and stories.

We see so many of our clients’ clients acting almost incredulous about paying fairly for creative ideas (especially in smaller or fledgling companies). For the creative, there’s the necessary but awkward position of putting a value against their work, and also a very real fear that the clients will walk away, sales will dry up, or that a client won’t appoint you if you won’t do something speculatively (i.e. for free). It doesn’t have to be this way.

The creative is generally more passionate about the work than the business and will often give their time and ideas repeatedly without charging more. It’s also not controversial to say many clients take advantage of this passion. If you are trying to make a name for yourself or your business and opt to do “portfolio-building ” work, it can be a slippery slope. While it can be an essential part of growing a reputation, often it is done at the expense of the business and can leave it financially vulnerable. That old “carrot-dangling” promise of work is the death knell for so many creatives.

Driven by the desire to make a mark, to make a little money, to have one’s work be lauded by their industry, is an understandable dream for the creative entrepreneur. But you are forced to learn in the riskiest way possible that being creative and original won’t do much without foundational business training; making things, getting awards, and having fans aren’t enough in the long term if you’re struggling to pay your bills. Doing cool shit that costs your company more than you’re being paid makes supporting yourself a lot harder.

So, what to do then? What options does the ambitious, creative architect or designer have?

We can rattle off about five books that would help in the short term, but we believe the real key is investing in getting to know your business from the inside out. It is a priceless investment when you’re able to get a handle on what it takes to build something real that will last; a business that pays well while it makes a difference. Learning what real strategy, clear tactics, and a focused understanding of what running a business really means for you is the juice that will see you through, no matter what.

Building a thriving design studio is a far more creative venture than the work it produces.

Yes, you read that correctly.

A creative business should not be in a cycle of getting work, delivering work, billing for it; rinse, and repeat. A creative business is a dynamic organism that requires an equal marriage between the commercial and the creative.

Both are as important as the other. Without great business acumen, your work won’t be seen or appreciated; your brand will stay undefined. Without solid business thinking, your studio is unlikely to provide any long-term financial stability or bring any improvement to the world. And yet, it can’t be all spreadsheets and metrics. Without creative thinking, your business can fall into a passive relationship with clients and work. Without creativity, you can’t think dynamically about what is possible for your business. Without it, you will struggle to make something you love.

It is neither dirty nor weak to know the true value of your work when approaching clients or collaborators. Better creative business means clearer thinking, intention rooted in purpose, and consistent momentum which ensures a focused trajectory. It means a creative business that better understands that its parts are not silos; what affects one part affects another.

Business thinking must intertwine with the creative. The world, and your studio, depend on it.

Post by Lindsay Faller