Design studio of the future

Is this the future design studio?

Will the current design studio model survive in the gig economy where design execution is commoditised?

Is the model changing to value the thinking and expertise of designers?
Is the ‘Hollywood’ production model the future structure for design studios?

A number of events happened recently that led me to question the sustainability of traditional design studios. At a Business of Design Breakfast session last week Charl Laubscher of Love and money outlined his approach to changing the design studio model by only working to 3.30pm each day. He had a very well thought-through process to make this possible. He’ss disrupting the idea of the ‘normal’ 10 hour work day in studios.

Then I heard a Never Not Creative podcast with Jules Ehrhardt of Creative Capital. He has a very interesting idea of how a design business model could operate:

Creatives should also be able to share in the wealth that is created from their work.
This simple belief…

It underpins the Creative Capital model. It stems from a recognition that creative expertise, when properly applied, generates business value. Therefore creative expertise can be considered an asset. On the one side an asset that can be bartered for a share in the value it creates, and on the other an asset that can be invested in for a share in that value.

Jules has a very interesting approach that would suit some design studio owners.

The San Francisco model

Then there is the model that we found on a trip to San Francisco that gave us an insight to the design studio of the future. It’s an interesting variation on the Hollywood model where you hire in the talent as you need it.

Any of you who have read some of our other articles or bought The Business of Design will know that we promote the idea of developing a unique business model for a studio.

It was while meeting with Shel Perkins that we came across a new design business model gaining some traction in San Francisco.

First a bit about Shel Perkins. He’s someone I’ve wanted to meet up with for many years. He’s a graphic designer, management consultant, and educator with more than twenty years experience in managing the operations of leading design firms (Clement Mok Designs, MetaDesign) in the U.S. and the U.K. He provides management consulting services to a range of creative firms in both traditional and new media.

Shel has written the Professional Practice column for STEP magazine, the Design Business newsletter for AIGA, and the Design Firm Management column for The revised and expanded second edition of his best-selling book, Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers, is now available from New Riders.

Shel teaches post graduate-level courses in professional practices and he has given presentations and workshops for many organisations, including IDSA, SEGD, HOW, Dynamic Graphics, STEP, Seybold, RGD Ontario, and the Graphic Artists Guild.

He has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association of Professional Design Firms, and was chairman of the AIGA Center for Practice Management.

Over a cup of coffee we discussed the similarities and differences between design practices in the US, UK and Australia.

Shel outlined an issue with large corporates establishing their inhouse studios (more about that in a later article) and the way that he observes his graduate students forming design studios.

The one job studio

Shel’s graduate students are working and studying and so they have to find employment. He described how many of them were pitching for projects and then forming a project team just to do that job. The team members come and go as needed and even the ‘founder’ may leave before the project is completed. The idea is that team members only stay on board for as long as their talents are needed.

This is a great model because it’s so adaptable. The team adopts a name and works under that for the life of the project. The group disbands at the end of the project.

Shel described the ‘dinosaurs’ of the industry as those owners who have their name on the door. He sees this as the old method of ‘owner as the source of all knowledge’. In his years of practice he has watched many of these firms disappear when the owner no longer wants to work.

This model has the chance to be very disruptive. Consider that you have six entrepreneurial designers who choose to collaborate and work this way. Each of them could be seeking out projects with a value of $100k or more. They collaborate to pitch for the project with an appropriate teaming up of talents. They have none of the long term costs of running a studio and hence they can be price competitive or make larger profits.

Take away point

Think about the model that you have for your business. Even as a sole practitioner you have the potential to disrupt the major players with a studio of full time designers/employees.


Greg Branson

Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.

Greg has developed The Design Business School to help owners manage their business better along with showing designers how to get more involved in the studio and develop their career path. Contact Greg.