Going back to school.


I work solo now, and I love it.

I love the flexibility, I love the control and I certainly love the small overheads.

But I also loved the comradery of a studio. I miss working with and being in the same space as other designers, but if I did it all again I wouldn’t build the same business …

Employee retention is a real problem in a small business. Once you find the right designer, it’s difficult to keep them from exploring the next challenge.

Where we went wrong was in having a stable of loyal clients. For a business owner, holding onto a client is gold but it can be understandably boring for designers. Who wants to design an annual report for the same client for 20 years in a row (me! Me! ME!). Rephrase. What employee wants to design an annual report for the same client for 20 years in a row? Even when you share the love between designers, it’s far from a new frontier.

So, it’s hard to keep the good designers happy – so happy that they want to stay and not move onto the next challenge. Especially hard in a small studio where there’s not really the career growth of a larger business. Everyone wants to feel like they are continually learning and not doing the same thing again and again.

Over the years we’ve talked about various solutions and by-george I think we’ve got it! Let them learn more on the job. Learn more about how to run a studio, using your studio as a test-case. But also let them see that you run a good business and they can have an influence and a greater sense of belonging.

I collaborated with Greg to design a course we would have liked to run with our employees in our studio – the Design Business School (DBS).

We did offer professional development time but it was unstructured and hard to measure the effectiveness. Some designers spent the time wandering around the laneways of the interweb. Others taught themselves a few tricks in photoshop. What I wanted was something that we could do as a team. Something that stretched all our minds and – to be absolutely truthful – something that was of value to the business. Oh, and it had to be flexible.

*Sales speil alert*

The DBS is an eight week, four term program that designers do in the studio and in their own time. It is absolutely flexible. Each term will take about two to three hours per week to complete, and it’s all practical activities, so it’s shouldn’t be arduous. But what happens when you get too much work? Just put it on hold until you can get back to it.

The school includes business management topics that aren’t taught at uni but are valuable to all designers.

It’s a complete win: win. Everybody gets to learn. Your designers will understand your business better, and the better they understand the challenges, the better employees they are. And besides, every designer is a small business – even those long term employees will have some freelance clients on the side.

It’s about understanding your business. Where it fits into the design industry. How you work with clients, how to find clients and how to get more work from the clients you have. This is even more critical if you have designers talking directly to your clients.

Here’s some my favourite content that’s included

  • Identifying, as a team, what you do better than others – analysing your competitors and your unfair advantage then an exercise to categorise your clients – that way you can see whether your skills meet their needs
  • We all get pigeon-holed, so we’ve included an exercise that helps change the way clients see your business, that way you may be able to get more business from existing clients
  • Marketing and new business development – proven methods that Greg used and has since honed as he’s mentored other designers. The value of designers working with you is they can help shape the direction of the studio and that makes for happy employees.
  • Topics about making money: how to add value to design, how to develop a pricing strategy, how to get more work from existing clients. It’s being transparent to your team – but the more they know they more they understand the challenges of making money, the more they will understand where the money for a wage increase comes from. There’s an activity that will increase your hourly rate on all jobs.
  • Finally, after you’ve identified how design could be integrated into a client’s business, there’s a session on how to write/pitch the business case.

I think the designers we employed would have loved to do the course – they’ve all gone onto bigger and better things and many now run their own studio and I know these skills would prove invaluable.

Carol Mackay

Carol is co-founder of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating 31 years in business.
Her expertise is in the use of design to package complex content into bite-sized chunks of information that is easy to understand and digest. She does that with clients in the corporate, cultural, government and not for profit sectors. More at mbdesign.com.au