Design Studio Management Program



At the end of this unit you will know more about the Australian design industry, and understand how to develop a profile for your studio.


The design landscape in Australian is not static; it has continually evolved since the first studios were set up in the 1960’s. The difference now is that change is dramatic and fast. Past successes are less relevant and traditional design studios are struggling to survive.

Here’s some of the reasons why:

  1. Large management consultancies (PwC, Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group etc) are buying up creative agencies of all types. They are the new competitors to independent design firms as they deliver a true one-stop-shop from strategy to delivery. They are also expanding the market by creating more knowledge of design value within large corporations. This knowledge should eventually have a trickle down effect for all design businesses.
  2. Inhouse creative teams now rival privately owned studios in quality, experience, and skills. There was a time when inhouse designers were seen as lesser skilled designers. This has changed as more businesses see the value that highly skilled designers can add in all areas of the business.
  3. It is widely accepted that technology (digital) is disrupting. This thinking focuses on the outputs rather than the outcomes. If you focus on the outcomes you will see that the four areas that cause disruption are; people, processes, systems and clients (customers). Technology merely aids these areas of disruption.
  4. Design has moved from the aesthetic to the empathetic level with clients wanting design that reflects a deeper understanding of their customers. A new type of studio has embraced this thinking leaving the traditional studios in their wake.
  5. Competition has never been more intense with studios based in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (88% of the Australian design market) all able to compete without having to establish separate state studios. Zoom presentations are now well accepted by clients.

This topic will help you understand the Australian design scene and also understand your competitive advantage.


Read Factsheet 1: Australian design studios.

Resources and references

Read The life of a design studio pages 30-31 Business of Design

Australian Design Radio episodes (all have value, but this one specifically)

Episode 58 with Graham Barton


This unit clarifies the differences and similarities between a general manager, studio manager, design manager and client service manager.


Most designers don’t choose a creative career to become a manager. They choose a creative career because they want to do the hands-on creative stuff. But at some stage in their career – even if it’s short term – most designers need to take responsibility for managing others.

It doesn’t necessarily mean a move away from creativity – managers are still creative, just in a different way. Rather than ‘doing’, design management is more about directing, coordinating and facilitating others’ efforts. This is the creativity of the film director, the conductor, the creative director, the record producer, the entrepreneur. And the manager.

When you’re facilitating, you don’t get to do the fine detail, and you often don’t see much of the limelight. But you do get to shape the big picture. So if you really want to work on a big canvas, management gives you the chance.

How you manage, and the role of a design studio manager, differs depending on the studio size.

One of the roles of a studio manager is delegation, and in the smaller studios there’s no-one to delegate to.

In a mid-sized studio there is more opportunity and in a larger studio it’s mandatory.


Read Factsheet 4: What is design management? and Factsheet 5: Possible career path of a design manager.

Do online research to find a general manager, studio manager, design manager or client service manager working in an Australian design studio.

Contact them to ask for a description of the role of design manager in their organisation.

Write it up and submit for a response.

Resources and references

Managing Creative Talent.  Management from eBay, New York Public Radio, Yale University and Harvest Earnings discuss ways they manage creative teams. Shot at Yale University.

Harvard Business Review Being a new manager.

Harvard Business Review article Working with colleagues



This unit explains the advantages and disadvantages of different studio structures.

Studio Structures

There are many ways to structure a studio. Analysing the alternatives makes it easier to understand where the role of design studio manager sits within each one.

Many studios grow organically. It may start with a designer, or a designer and business manager/strategist. The first hire is often another designer to share the load, and then another, and then another, all reporting to the partner(s). And so the family tree begins to grow.

A common and traditional structure, especially for start-up studios, is a waterfall or family tree-like business structure. They are often headed by a principal, a chief decision-maker whose name is on the door. The principal – often a designer – is usually forced into the design manager role through lack of resources. In a best case scenario there may be a non-design partner whose sole purpose is to manage the non-design side of the business.

That traditional structure isn’t the only business structure available: it is worth exploring alternatives because there may be another that suits you, and your clients better.

All structures are modifications of the generic two part value chain that underpins all businesses:

  • The first part includes all the activities associated with designing and producing a solution for the client.
  • The second part includes activities associated with selling design: finding and reaching clients, getting a commitment and delivering the service.

How you combine the two is both creative and scientific; creative as you develop an idea, scientific in that you start with a hypothesis, which you then test in action and revise when necessary.

A later unit discusses the Design Business Model Canvas, a tool for exploring the right business model for your studio and your clients. The canvas’s strength as a planning tool is that it looks at all the elements of your design business and delivers a holistic approach.


Read Factsheet 6: Studio structures describing different studio structures and use this information to analyse the structure of the following studios:

Resources and references

About arguably the most famous studio in the world:

An interview with Marina Willer, a Partner at Pentagram.

Clare Newsam and Ana Rachel, two of Marina Willer’s designers discuss how the collaborative side of Pentagram works in practice, and share their advice for pitching to clients remotely.

One of the studios discussed in this unit:


At the completion of this unit you will be able to analyse the talents and aspirations of designers.


Recognising the range of skills available in your team is an important skill for a design studio manager.

The majority of Australian studios offer clients exactly the same traditional services. That means selling services won’t differentiate your studio from others. Differentiating yourself by the human skills of your design team is a better method.

Every studio has a unique mix of talents. The skill is in packaging that unique mix and making it attractive to a client.

The first step is to analyse the skills and talents available in your studio.

Determining what you do better than others helps build your ‘competitive advantage’ and knowing that advantage helps identify your studio’s ‘onlyness’. Your ‘onlyness’ will be explored in a later unit but it’s basically a collection of things that makes your studio different to others.(See Resources and References below.)

One way to identify skills, competencies and knowledge gaps is to complete a personal appraisal form. It’s a time-capsule of where you are in your career and where you would like to be.

A personal skills audit is slightly different. It’s a self-diagnostic tool about specific skills.

These two forms have enough information to build your professional development plan in the next unit.

Armed with this information, you could even build your own inhouse university. Here’s how.


  1. Analyse your personal skills by completing Factsheet 11 Personal appraisal form.
  2. Audit your confidence/competency using Factsheet 12 Personal skills audit. ( Refer to Factsheet 13 – it’s an example provided for guidance.)
  3. Ask two other designers to complete their personal appraisal forms.

Upload for feedback.

Resources and references

Nilofer Merchant The power of Onlyness video on youtube

Article: skills a studio manager needs


At the completion of this unit you will be able to write a professional development plan for a designer.


As part of their career path everyone should take responsibility for their professional development. As I read recently, “your company owns your job, but you own your career”. You can’t outsource investing in your own personal and professional development.

And you can’t invest effectively without a plan, you can lose valuable years heading off on career tangents.

A Professional Development Plan (PDP) is a blueprint to which you can compare prospect jobs to see if they are part of your bigger picture but it should never be considered PDP ‘final’. It’s not written in stone. It can—and should be—revised on regular basis. Goals shift, people change and circumstances present new challenges or opportunities. As a growing professional, you have to remain nimble.

As a studio design manager you are not only responsible for your professional development, you also have a role helping your team fulfill their professional development aspirations.


Read Factsheet 14: Professional development plan.

Using the information in Factsheet 11: Personal appraisal form and Factsheet 12: Personal skills audit to build your professional development plan.

Submit for feedback.

Resources and references

The Designer Republic founders reflecting on what they would have done differently.



At the end of this unit you will be able to understand and identify the different character traits of creatives and how best to work with them.


Managing creatives can be challenging.

On the one hand, you need to foster an environment that encourages exploration, experimentation and risk-taking. On the other hand, you need to push people to produce work on time, on budget and on brief.

This unit is aimed at understanding how creatives work and think. From understanding comes knowledge and the more knowledge we have about someone, the easier it is to work out how to successfully work with them.

Creatives are usually employed for their design-thinking and craft skills. An ability to think outside the box. But we also want team members that turn up on time and follow instructions. These two attributes do not always come in the one package.

Add to that is the fact that each day we often work alongside our colleagues for a longer time than we spend with our loved ones. That means we get to see the good, bad and just ugly side of their personality.

Not everyone copes with the stress of a deadline the same way, and nor should they.

A good design manager will understand who works best under pressure and how to help those that don’t. They know how to get the best out of their design team, and why colleagues may react the way they do.


Read Factsheet 16 The three stages of learning. Write 50 words identifying where you are in the three stages of learning.
Read Factsheet 17 Managing creatives. Do you have a management style? Identify which style best suits the way you work.

Resources and references

#afFEMation – youtube channel featuring the stories of Australian women graphic designers.

Harvard Review articles:

Why manager’s shouldn’t be afraid to show their emotions

Build your resilience

Australian Design Radio episodes (all have value, but this one specifically)

Episode 66 with DesignStudio


This unit helps understand how job descriptions can help the efficient management of a design studio.


A good job description is more than just a laundry list of tasks and responsibilities.

Job descriptions are important for a studio design manager on two fronts; it’s important that you have a document that accurately describes your role in the studio and it’s also important that you can help write and define others’ job descriptions.

Additionally, to be an invaluable asset to the studio owner, a design studio manager would be involved in management decisions and processes such as job postings, recruitment, selection, setting expectations, compensation, training and performance management. A job description is integral to all these tasks.

A good job description is well written and gives the reader a sense of priorities involved.

It serves as the basis for an employment contract and when used as a means to communicate expectations, the document is also a basis for performance management. For the team members, having a clear job description helps them to understand the responsibilities and duties that are required and expected of them


Review Factsheet 18: Job descriptions.

Write a job description for a junior designer. Submit it for feedback.

Resources and references

Harvard Business Review article reminding us to talk skills


At the end of this unit you will be able to identify successful ways to negotiate.


The role of design studio manager is a balancing act: between management and staff; creative and clients; the studio and suppliers. Each step of each day includes negotiation.

Of course, in a perfect world we wouldn’t have to negotiate. Colleagues would accept direction without question. Suppliers would deliver on time and on budget. And clients would accept designs with an open mind.

But that’s not the real world. Design firms are democratic, collaborative spaces where creativity and passion are to be embraced. That leads to many different viewpoints and much discussion about anything and everything.

Typically a studio design manager may need negotiation skills when:

  • talking with a designer about outputs
  • evaluating work against client expectations
  • managing scope creep
  • requesting more time / budget from clients
  • discussing expectations at client meetings
  • hiring/firing
  • working with suppliers
  • brought in as a third party to diffuse a situation.

Even approached with the greatest care, negotiation is a form of confrontation and not everyone likes or copes with confrontation.

In a design management role, coping with requests and demands is part of the role. The more you do it, the better you get and the more you can enjoy your job.


Read Factsheet 19: The skill of negotiation.

Use these skills to solve the hypothetical issue posed in Factsheet 20: Negotiation hypothetical.

Submit for feedback.

Resources and references

August article: how to enjoy negotiation

Harvard Business Review articles:

Tips of managing conflict within your team:

What to do when you work with a bad listener:

Case study in managing co-founder conflict


At the completion of this unit you will understand how to manage a senior manager and team members.


A design studio manager is a conduit between upper management and team members. This unit covers how to manage in both directions.

The key to good management is communication: knowledge is queen. If everyone is up kept up to date, expectations are managed.
But how do you do it? By being proactive. Preempting the needs/questions of others means you can get to them before they track you down. That means you can take control of your tasks rather than reacting to what other’s need. It’s a much more satisfactory way of working.

This unit offers two solutions on how to manage up and down.

Managing up means giving the people that you are responsible to enough information that they can do their job well. Your job is to make them look good and their job, in turn, is to make their boss, or client look good. When everyone does their job, everyone looks good and everyone is happy. Factsheet 23: Managing up covers the type of information that can help design managers manage up.

Managing down is just as important.

Traditionally the design industry buys talent rather than develop, teach, evolve, educate, or transform. This approach to talent is not sustainable. Think less about buying talent and more about retaining.

Start as you wish to continue, by warmly welcoming new designers into the studio. Especially graduate designers. The sooner they settle, the sooner they will start to act independently and be financially viable. Our solution was a buddy book – a welcoming book to help newbies settle into the studio. See Factsheet 24: The buddy book.

Managing multiple designers of different skill levels and abilities is no easy task, but it can be made easier by introducing a buddy system throughout the studio. And it works as well for senior designers as much as junior designers.

Buddy systems are tried and tested methodology. It’s often used in teaching – get the students who finish work quickly to help those struggling. It works because those struggling will often ask the hard questions and make the ‘expert’ think through the challenge in a completely different way. It also works that way in a studio.

More information on Factsheet 25: Studio buddies sharing skills.


View the Managing up and down hypothetical video (or read Factsheet 26: Managing up and down hypothetical) and prepare a list of possible options that Skye will need to outline for Rob and Toni. Submit for feedback.

Resources and references

Review article on decision-making techniques

Harvard Business Review articles

On managing up and down

Improve your career, your family and yourself


Online essay: Being a bad manager



At the end of this unit you will be able to identify, document and assess different studio workflows.


Traditional studios were built on the same model as a restaurant carvery. One person is responsible for all the work (the lovely roast pork) and oversees how it is divided among the team. Some might get the delicious crackling, while others the chewy sinew.

This methodology was based on recognising skills and rewarding seniority. It often led to high staff turnover as designers grew bored, working the same way for the same clients. We now know there are better ways of working.

Studios built on silos — one designer, one client, one task — will find it hard to compete in the new disrupted marketplace. Design firms no longer deliver products, like campaigns or websites. Now designers combine creative, strategy and technology to deliver solutions that meet strategic business and marketing goals.

Multidisciplinary teams do that best because they can approach creative problem solving from various perspectives. That means getting everyone involved. It’s acknowledgment that having different levels of knowledge and different levels of skills is valuable.

Everyone is a grown-up.

The first step to designing a studio workflow is to upgrade everyone to a grown-up. Share the responsibility. Acknowledge no one person has a monopoly on great ideas. The power of teams is the ‘collective intelligence’.

The design studio manager’s role.

The design studio manager directly influences how a team functions. If the team shares common values, they can share a common purpose. As a leader, you can build team cohesion by uniting ways of working that support the shared purpose and those values.

Team based cultures.

A design studio can work within a team base culture regardless of the chosen workflow.

In strong team based cultures, certain values produce more effective ways of working than others. For example, if each studio member is equally respected, if leadership is distributed, if everyone listens with an open mind; the team is able to manage with less direction and intervention. That means design managers can spend valuable time on other relevant activities.

Successful studios manage their workflow. The studio design manager may have a role as a conductor, a facilitator or a team member – there is no ‘perfect’ workflow plan to be replicated and refined. It’s about understanding the variations and identifying the right one for the right job.

This unit outlines the advantages of directed, self-directed and agile teams.

Regardless of the type of workflow, the most successful studios have a documented process, from the moment a new business calls a prospect to the time a job is delivered.


Read Factsheet 27: Studio workflows and Factsheet 28: Studio workflow diagram, demonstrating the workflow of a traditional directed team.

Find (or create) a workflow using co-creation and an agile team and explain the differences.


At the end of this unit you will understand and be able to demonstrate the RASQUI form of delegation.


Delegation is a critical skill for design managers yet it remains one of the most under utilised and underdeveloped management capabilities.

It’s critical because studio management is about leadership and leadership includes teaching others how to think and ask the right questions

So why is delegating so difficult? The most common excuse given is that they are too busy to delegate, but that may be an indication that they are hoarding work that others could be doing. Similarly, if you are crazily busy while others in your team/studio are under utilised, it’s a fair guess they’re not sharing the love.

Understanding why someone is not delegating is part of the solution. It could be that they like to be the ‘go to’ person; or maybe they find it difficult to identify the right person to delegate to. Similarly, many creatives are perfectionists that don’t believe anyone else can do a job as well as them. All are common excuses that don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Successful leaders delegate to team members. It frees leaders up to lead, and helps skill-up others in the team. It’s one process in being a team coach rather than dictator.

Delegation isn’t a task, it’s part of a workflow process (discussed in an earlier unit). It should be documented and discussed.


Here are three different videos about RACI – a cut down version of RASQUI that is outlined in Factsheet 29. Ha Ha Ha Bizarre but strangely helpful 🙂

Read the factsheet and then watch the videos.

Construct a RASQUI chart for a project/situation within your life. Could be a work project, could be a social function.

Resources and references

Harvard Business Review article titled Why aren’t you delegating?


At the completion of this unit you will understand the functions needed in studio management software.


Every studio needs a an electronic management system. It is preferable to have one that covers all of the management tasks from new business development through to invoicing and reporting.

It is difficult to compare products because they don’t all deliver exactly the same thing, but here’s two interesting comparisons:

There is probably no perfect system to fits every studio. There will be some compromise. You need to analyse your studio needs and analyse the features on offer


If you are not working in a studio interview a design studio manager about the software they are using and assess it using the checklist. Submit via Showbie.

If you are working in a studio use the checklist to assess your studio management software.

Resources and references

26 time management tricks I wish I had known at 20


At the completion of this unit you will understand the best practice for running a WIP meeting.


One of the key roles of a design studio manager is to bring cohesion to the disparate. Different designers, jobs and clients need to be brought together in a logical and coherent schedule. Then the schedule needs to be shared with key stakeholders in what’s usually known as a WIP (or work in progress) meeting.

It’s important that the WIP is shared regularly and publicly.

Regularly because things change: some tasks take longer than envisaged, or clients may change their mind and request massive amendments making a job take longer than first thought.

Sharing it personally (not online) is important because it’s a perfect opportunity to share ideas and discuss jobs. It’s a chance to share who’s busy, doing what, and who is available to share the load. It’s also an opportunity to share information about new clients and new jobs. It’s a great backdrop to informally chat about what’s working and what’s not, especially when used as a post mortem discussion about the previous week.

Traditionally the sharing was done in a meeting led by the studio design manager and a whiteboard but there’s better, more collegiate ways of running a WIP meeting.

Factsheet 31: WIP meeting methodologies documents a few alternative ways to share the work. And don’t forget RASQUI is another method to document WIP.


Brence is an ex-studio manager at ROTO, he was replaced by Skye. Watch his video and describe how he ran his WIP meetings.

Ask another studio manager (or use the other interviews) how they run their WIP meetings.

Resources and references

How to run an effective meeting


At the end of this unit you will understand the importance of management designers to deliver projects on time and on budget.


Most people want to excel at their job. They want to do the best job possible and provide a result of which everyone can be proud. Designers are no exception. The difference is, what can be seen as advantageous in many careers can be problematic in a design studio. That’s because a design is ongoing.

Designs can develop and evolve in a continuum, forever changing and amending in chase of the perfect solution. Unless the brief is very clear at the beginning, it is very difficult to identify a point when the project is finished and ready for delivery.

It can be a real challenge for the role of the design studio manager to solve what is arguably the most common cause of cost overruns and missed deadlines: how to get a job out the door.

Here are four blockers in getting work out the door could be:

  • a design director tasked with checking work but continually stuck in meetings or too busy to help
  • designers being bogged down in mundane tasks and not working efficiently
  • time-management software that’s hard to use or not intuitive
  • designers not participating in the WIP meetings and then complaining about deadlines.


Read this article on blockers.

This article Structure That’s Not Stifling makes some good points.

Suggest solutions to the blockers shown above.