Design business collaboration

No one starts a business to be small

… so reads the headline of an Optus advertisement I recently saw. It’s part of their new small business campaign fronted by Mark Wahlberg.

I think it’s a dated way of thinking.

It’s thinking that springs from a mindset that bigger is better, and the only way to access talented people is to employ them. But in a world of lean start-ups and a multi-skilled workforce there’s a plethora of alternatives to running a big business.

Forming short-term partnerships

I explain my business to clients as being similar to a theatre ensemble.

Under the directorship of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, STC had an ensemble of six resident artists. I have a similar concept – a team of skilled individuals that are brought together in different combinations to deliver projects. I lead the team and have most of the client contact.

Greg and I recently met with Shel Perkins, a graphic designer, educator and mentor with more than 20 years experience managing the operations of large design firms in San Francisco. Read the full account of our meeting in this post.

Currently Shel teaches post graduate students and most leave the course knowing they won’t find fulltime employment. Their solution is to collaborate to pitch for large projects. The team adopts a name and members come and go as needed. At the end of the project the team disbands.

Forming long-term partnerships

In the same trip to San Francisco, we also met with Rob Duncan of Mucho design.
Rob runs a successful studio but SF high rents and wages mean that his overheads rival that of larger firms elsewhere in the world.

Rob leads a team of five designers, and rather than growing, he’s joined Mucho – a collective of self-sufficient studios all working under the one name. Mucho currently has offices in Barcelona, London, Paris, New York and San Francisco.

The full story on Mucho is in this post.

Each studio is a separate cost centre, so they have the autonomy of a small business with the back-up of similar business owners and a global pool of talent. They can access each other’s studios for large projects, or for designs that would benefit from different cultural perspective. Similarly, for a large, urgent project, work can continue, literally ‘around the clock’.


Collectives have similarities with both short and long-term partnerships. Collectives are often designers that share space, so they have the advantage of presenting as a cohesive group.

They are often a less formal relationship – sometimes it’s simply a group of friends with similar skills that collaborative at every opportunity.

Gabby Lord recently wrote about three collectives in her weekly blog OMGLord.
I suspect as the number of shared spaces increases, so will the number of collectives.

Business to business partnerships

Another way for a small design business to compete for larger projects is to join forces with another business.

Recently I was asked to submit for a website that was outside the scope of my skillset. It was for a long-term client so my product and market knowledge was extensive, but I fell short on the needed deliverables.

My solution was to jointly submit with a larger, more experienced company of web developers.

It was a win:win solution.

It worked for me because I was able to continue the relationship with my client.
It worked for the client because they had continuity of supply, and there wasn’t any downtime as they briefed a new supplier – I could do that for them.
And it worked for the web developers because they entered a new market segment where they had not previously worked.

The moral

The moral to the story is that some people do start a business to be small. And many small businesses are successful without needing to compromise on the type of projects they do. Sure, it can take ongoing research but it’s refreshing to be able to work with a variety of people and skills, and it’s a great way to continual learn new skills.


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Carol Mackay

Carol is the owner of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating 32 years in business.  Her expertise is in the use of design to package complex content into bite-sized chunks of information that are easy to understand and digest. She does that with clients in the corporate, cultural, government and not-for-profit sectors. More at