Design led

Where do I go from here?

I love podcasts. I like to listen to them while walking, while driving and especially while cleaning – listening to others talking just seems to make the Saturday cleaning roster a little more palatable. While others listen to music, I listen to people talk.

One of my recent finds is the Harvard Business Review IdeaCasts and I think the latest one is worth sharing…

This HBR Ideacast discussed how most entrepreneurship graduates wanted to use to their knowledge within their own business rather than work for another. The conversation compared the benefits of funding a ‘start-up’ to buying an established business.

I found it interesting in relation to the current state of design businesses in Australia:

Currently there are approx 9,000 graphic design studios registered in Australia. The majority of studios employ between 1–3 designers. It’s pretty safe to assume there are 35,000 graphic designers in salaried or freelance employment.

Added to those figures, in Victoria alone, around 2,000 degree and advanced diploma graphic design students graduate each and every year.

That makes gaining employment difficult for graduates, and a crowded marketplace for the rest of us.

Usually, when a designer can’t find a salaried position, they would start their own design firm, either with a colleague or as a solopreneur. This podcast offered an alternative scenario – that of using your design skill within an existing business.

Buying an existing design studio is problematic. Due diligence on any small business:

  • that is built primarily on the personality and skills of the owner (as most design businesses are)
  • has no formal client contracts and
  • little infrastructure of limited value

will quickly show that it’s not a sound investment.

On the other hand, buying a non-design business makes perfect sense.

Where design studios have an average annual profit of 7%*, other industries are more profitable. For example, smartphone app development businesses sit around the 50% and painting and decorating services around 22%**.

Added to that, design thinking is the new black and that’s great for designers because design thinking is our MO.

So instead of selling design thinking to others, why not consider buying into an existing, non design business?

The podcast suggested the more utilitarian a business, the higher impact design thinking can make. That’s because in the more ‘traditional’ industries, management decisions are often based on precedent rather than innovation. That means small changes can make huge impacts.

One business Greg consults to is a perfect example: it’s an auto industry business in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. One of the executive team is a design graduate and he’s using the DBC’s Design Value Chain Analysis (unashamed plug for the workshop here) to identify where design thinking can add value throughout the business.

The results have been amazing, to morale and to profitability. Design has made an impact to the physical layout of the factory (saving time between tasks), to the inbound and outbound logistics (packaging and moving the deliveries) and to the servicing of clients. And that’s not counting the more obvious areas of branding and collateral.

Applying a new way of thinking is separating this business from their competitors. Design thinking is their unfair advantage.

That’s one example. Everywhere I look there are other businesses that could benefit from have a partner with design thinking skills.

I think it’s the new horizon for designers.

You want more?

(second unashamed plug for the workshop here) The Design Value Chain Analysis is an ideal workshop to get organisational and competitive strategies developed for your clients (or your own business).

Carol Mackay

*Creative Industries Innovation Centre research

Contact Greg Branson if you would like to learn more about the many programs the DBC offers.

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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. Connect in LinkedIn, or read more at