A practical guide to surviving

It’s unprecedented times and it’s easy to feel overawed by the scale of this pandemic. But the same way you eat an elephant – bite-by-bite — is the same way design studio owners can survive.

There’s lots of information out there about staying mentally and physically well while working from home. It’s all great, so we’re not repeating that. What we’ve done is compile some practical steps each design studio owner can take. Our aim is to share the information that helps you make the right decision faster.

Here’s 5 steps we think each design studio owner can take

Step 1: Work out exactly what you need to survive.

In a time like this, data = knowledge.
Understanding the numbers behind your studio will give you the knowledge to make better decisions, faster.

Use last year’s profit and loss to total your basic overheads. Include only the figures that you must pay regardless of income. These include:

  • Accounting
  • Bank charges
  • Computer/software apps
  • Insurance
  • Light & Power
  • Motor Vehicle expenses
  • Wages / Superannuation / Workcover
  • Rent
  • Leases

Divide the total by 12 to give you an absolute bottom line. This is the figure you need to earn each month to survive. Knowledge is power — the situation may not be as bad as you thought.

Step 2: Reduce your costs as much as possible – control the controllable.

Contact your accountant to discuss what you can do to reduce their fee.
Can you deliver the information they need in a better way?
Can you amortise their yearly fee over the 12 months rather than pay one large figure?

Contact the bank to negotiate bank fees.

Reduce your Adobe fees to the minimum. It is not unusual for studios to have an extra licence for freelancers, or to pay for ongoing access to the photolibrary. Identify all the fees and where savings can be made.

Use a broker to combine and seek savings for insurance. Ditto for light and power. If you’ve not shopped around for a better deal, now might be the time.

There will probably be motor vehicle savings as we all move around less.

We’ve not heard many stories where designers have successfully negotiated with their landlord, but it’s worth a try.

Wages/Superannuation/WorkCover will be the largest component of your overhead. It’s paramount to treat your design team with respect but there may be hard decisions to be made. If the work isn’t there explore all the options before termination: perhaps your designers cab take accrued holidays, long service leave or even leave without pay. In today’s climate, reducing working days may not be the answer – it seems designers may get paid more on Newstart than a wage when working three days a week.

Step 3: Know where you can get your help

Understanding your figures means if help is needed you can get it earlier rather than later.

Small business ombudsman Kate Carnell has said sole traders and small business owners who met the requirements could access Newstart without having to seek a job, get payments from the government and continue to run a business. She said sole traders and independent contractors could still pick up contracts and gigs without jeopardising these payments as long as they were not more than $1000 a fortnight.

Banks have advertised they will reduce fees and freeze loan repayments.

The Federal and State Governments have both offered packages for small businesses – they’re changing, updating and increasing daily.

Step 4: Contact clients one-on-one, not via a group EDM

Firstly the bad news: look at your client base and assess their sustainability. Be aware of the potential for bad debts.

Now the good news: designers and design thinking can help clients use this down-time wisely. One designer’s client has decided to use the downtime to rebrand / refit their hospitality venue. Another is using the time to write – they want a report published to coincide with the upturn in the local market.

So, there are positives. What we can do is take the time to focus on what is possible for each of your clients.
What can you do to make sure that this sudden and quick transition is working for them?
What can you do to make communication with their clients/customers better?

Step 5: Protect your physical and mental health.

We’re in it for a long haul. Spending long hours at a make-shift desk, unshowered and in stretchy waist-band clothes will not end well. Be proactive to protect yourself from feeling lonely or isolated and stay healthy, productive, and vibrant.

There is a lot of easily-accessible information online about mental health and remote working. Rather than repeat that, here’s 4 quick points:

  1. Work to your ‘usual’ routine. If you’re not usually at your desk until 9:30, don’t start any earlier and finish at the time you would normally leave work. If you usually have a morning meeting, continue to do so. Reject the urge to merge travelling time into your work day – instead use the additional time to do something new.
  2. Talk to others. Mindfully schedule remote morning tea or collaboration calls to stay connected.
  3. Don’t stop learning, even if the learning is about how to connect. For example, use new tools to collaborate – Zoom one day, Google Hangout the next. Create new ways of WIP-ing, discussing, and presenting. Bring your clients along for the ride – help them understand how to remote work and give them confidence that it will work.
  4. Expect productivity to decrease. Allow more time for each task. Not everyone working from home is working under optimal conditions. Not everyone has a dedicated, quite space. Children are at home. Desks are being shared.

Above all, don’t under estimate the energy change takes, nor should you expect everything to work perfectly.

Rumour has it Amazon has more than 10,000 books on the topic of working remotely — that’s because it is not easy. And even if we (as in designers) are comfortable working that way, many of our clients may not. Working remotely needs constant communication to keep everyone connected. At home, people’s imaginations begin to go wild. They wonder what’s happening out of view, with clients, and with common objectives.

Be prepared to share more, and more often.

Finally, when you run your group meetings, aim for inclusion by balancing the airtime, so everyone feels seen and heard.

What we will do

We’re increasing the number of newsletters we publish – we think sharing information may help.

Next article we’re discussing how to run a successful online meeting… there’s protocols to follow that can bring order to chaos.

We are looking at our online programs to see which ones we can offer for free. Stay tuned.

Finally, if you have a question, or a challenge, don’t hesitate to make contact with either Greg or I. Happy to help…


Carol Mackay

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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, Carol pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council she uses her experience, and research, to 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 mbdesign.com.au.
Her current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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