San Francisco Bay Bridge

Designing in San Francisco.

Visiting local design studios is one of the highlights of travelling. Sure it takes a bit of organising, but we get to kill two birds with one stone (as they say). The first is that we can chat openly to a non-competing fellow designer. The second is that we have the chance to meet a native San Franciscan. What’s not to love?

This week we visited Patricia Callaway, Partner, and Managing Director of Manual Creative. I thought Patricia would be interesting to visit firstly because they have a great studio and secondly because she works with her partner, Tom Crabtree — the Creative Director of Manual.

Manual Creative is run from one large room in a beautifully restored warehouse in Dog Patch – a district in San Francisco. In Melbourne, think Port Melbourne. It’s near the wharves and surrounded by other huge warehouse spaces. There’s a similar space in every city.

Manual is soon – within the month – to move to a larger space within the same complex. Patricia said that San Francisco was a victim of it’s own success. As start-ups succeed, they need more space and that increases the value of real estate for everyone. That makes growing especially hard because finding office space is difficult – it’s expensive and highly competitive. But it’s also difficult for staff who need to pay high rents to live anywhere near downtown, and if they don’t they face long commutes both ways each day.

Tom was relocated to San Francisco (from London) to join Apple’s design team, working on packaging design and art direction. In 2009 he founded Manual with the aim of running a studio that could combine creativity with highly disciplined design.

Manual do work in the tech industry but like any studio, they aim to work with a variety of industries to spread the risk. At the moment, many of their clients are start-ups and that’s why they need to move space. The inviting, open space that they have now — where all the designers sit face to face across a long work bench evenly spaced with large screen macs, and a corner area serving as a meeting space — is not conducive to the highly secretive business structure of start-ups.

Patricia said that most start-ups ask that they sign a non-disclosure statement before their second meeting. They are planning a studio space where the meeting room is visually and audibly separate from the workspace.

Similar to most studios we have met with around the world, surviving the feast and famine of billing is one of the major challenges for Manual. Although three of their designers are ex-Apple, they are working to build their client list to survive the (eventual) bust of the tech. sector.

Part of Manual’s survival strategy is slow, conservative growth. They could have grown more quickly but instead chose a steady growth which includes using interns. They do use some freelancers but the secretive nature of their business makes that hard to sustain.

The new studio will fit 18 staff, and that’s their eventual aim, to run a studio with a cross section of disciplines, and to have space to accommodate local and international interns. Patricia says that (paid) interns are not only a great way to grow the studio in the short term (they are usually contracted for three months) – but the designers learn as much from the students as they teach.

It’s a lesson to us all.

Carol Mackay

Carol is the owner 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 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