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The truth about being a design studio manager

Managing creatives is not for the faint hearted – Greg and I certainly learnt that the hard way during three decades of owning an Australian design studio. Managing a studio needs a specific, part creative, part business skill-set that is certainly not taught at unis.

Many might say design studio managers, project managers, operations manager, producers et al are the unsung hero of a design studio/agency. They’re the ones at the pointy end of the creative process. They are often – quite literally – stuck between a rock and a hard place. Each day juggling many balls trying to keep peace between designers and a brief, studios and their suppliers, time and creativity.

Here’s 3 skills we think every design studio manager must have:


Design studio managers must be able to negotiate

It’s arguable that most of a design manager’s day is spent negotiating. Negotiating with clients about budgets; with studio owners about resources; with designers about timelines and with suppliers about deliverables.

The key is to remember negotiation is not about winning or losing. No one likes to lose, and those who continually lose can end up disillusioned and demotivated. So the best negotiation doesn’t have winners and doesn’t have losers. And it’s not about compromising, infact compromising is often seen as a lazy solution because often neither side gets what they need. There’s a classic tale in negotiation:

Two sisters argue over who would get an orange. 
They compromised and split it in half. One sister ate her half and threw away the peel; the other, who was cooking, grated the peel on her half and threw away the rest of the orange.

Successful negotiation is when you ask the right questions to understand what everyone needs.

Design studio managers must be prepared

A design manager often has to lead a tense conversation. In this case, preparation is the key: don’t try to wing it.

While it’s impossible to foresee how the discussion will go, think through a few possible scenarios before hand. What if there is anger? Aggression? Worse still, what if you get interrupted in the middle and need to regroup at a later time?

Being prepared is the key.

All research says the same thing: try your utmost to avoid feeling anxious while negotiating, it shows. One way to manage anxiety is to relax, and that comes from being prepared. Anxiety is often a response to being unfamiliar with surroundings and the process. The more comfortable you are, the less anxious you will feel.  That’s where role-play can be effective. Find a ‘friendly’ with which you can try different approaches and test out phrases. It’s amazing how different a phrase that sounded so good in your head can sound when it leaves your mouth.

Design studio managers must be able to debrief

Sometimes getting the right brief can be akin to getting blood from a stone! Clients are not always good at identifying, and then articulating, what they need. And even if they are, what is said and what is heard can be two completely different things.That makes a written brief imperative.

Documenting what’s needed, by whom and by when adds clarity from the beginning of a project.

In a larger studio, the briefing document may not be the responsibility of the design studio manager, it may be the responsibility of client service, or the new business development manager. Regardless, it is the design studio manager’s responsibility to make sure someone is writes the brief. And once done, it is the design studio manager who needs to assess what the studio needs to fulfill the brief, on time and on budget.

Unashamed plug

All this information is part of our online program for Design studio managers.

It’s practical professional development program we wish was around when we started our studio. All content is tailored to, and based on, Australian design studios, and every unit includes an interview with an studio manager working in an Australian studio.

Content includes information about managing people, negotiating, managing workflow, clients, new business and finally, a mini-finance course. Some designers do the program to move to management, some studio owners have done the program to hone their skills and some studios want access to the program to use as a library of factsheets and videos to dip in and out of as needed.

Here’s what Jen Doran, co-founder of consumer branding agency Our Revolution said about the program:

When starting your own design studio, you have a vision of what you hope it to be. However, there are many parts to make that vision a reality. Through the course provided by the Design Business Council I was fortunate to learn those fundamental parts to set the right foundation to establish our studio.

The Design Studio Management course guides you through the crucial elements in running a successful studio. You are navigated through potential scenarios with advice on how to resolve them, so when the time presents actual predicaments within your business you are far more equipped to solve them. The consistent support from Carol and Greg was an influential benefit that helped us reconsider and refine our approach to new business and the growth trajectory of our agency. No matter the maturity or size of your studio, the Design Studio Management program compliments and enhances your skills in the running of your studio and understanding of the business of design.

There’s two ways to enter the program, email me if you’d like more information.


Carol Mackay

Want more like this?

Want to understand how to start a design studio? How to unravel the real cost of doing business and develop a pricing approach? It’s all in The Business of Design. It’s the essential reference for all Australian design businesses, and still the only book about starting, managing and growing a design studio.

Want to identify and articulate why clients should deal with you and not another designer? Read this about onlyness and how it links to client loyalty.

Interested in building a for-purpose studio? Read this article.

Want more information like this delivered to your inbox every Wednesday? The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.


After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of her design work at
Her current work can be viewed at and

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