My studio isn’t working.

I distinctly remember that moment of dread when I realised my studio was no longer working for me. The business I birthed and nurtured had grown into a rebellious teenager I just didn’t want to spend time with.

It was no longer going to plan. I couldn’t leave because it was my business, but I didn’t want to stay.

This week I spoke to three business owners with similar feelings. What are their options?

If you’re feeling like that too, the positive takeaway is you are not alone. I was not the only studio owner to feel that way then, and you are not the only one to feel that way now. It happens to many studio owners at some stage.

This ‘magic moment’ of realism sometimes happens when you’re on leave – being out of the studio delivers the space necessary to see the business anew from the outside. And that’s probably why the current increase in questioning. Working from home has given many design studio owners the space to reassess their options.

I had a few of those not-so-magic moments managing our studio. Each time it made me stop and question what I was doing and why.

Making the studio work

Perhaps what’s not working can be fixed. Is it your business model? If that’s the case, the reasons usually are:

1. it’s failing the narrative test (the story doesn’t gel with clients) or
2. it’s failing the numbers test (the revenue and profit don’t add up).

Failing the narrative test

Your offer may look great on paper, but not so good in reality. One way to avoid the reality check is (as Steve Blank of Lean Start-up fame says) to ‘get out of the building’. Test your offer to gauge real customer interest early and often.

It could be that your story is good but you’re not pitching it the right way. The offer may be lost in the communication. Soft skills are key, the more you present, the more intel you can get about what’s not working and why. Continual pivoting and reworking the way you tell your story may sort out the content.

Maybe it’s the delivery? Your voice communicates authority, experience and trustworthiness. Characteristics such as volume, pace and pitch all give non verbal signals and credibility in what you say. You may need to work on your presentation skills. Competition is tough and the ability to communicate your offer is critical..

Failing the numbers test

Maybe your studio is busy, but the numbers just aren’t adding up. Of all the issues, this is the easiest to test.

Ratio benchmarks and KPIs can be used to assess your profit and loss statements and identify weakspots.

And then there are actions you can take that will quickly turn around a business from unprofitable to profitable.

Lastly, it could be that your offer is good, and your story great, but you’re pitching it to the wrong client. In that case, you need to widen your net to attract different clients. Time to start work on building a relationship with a new set of clients.

How to get your studio working

I should stress I’m happy with the choice I made but in hindsight I don’t think I realised I had so many options. Now there are so many tools to use to self-diagnose the exact problem and possible solutions. Knowledge is king – understanding there are options is sometimes all that is needed.

Here’s some ways to get your studio working:

1. The no cost way.

Free mentoring … DBC are active members of the Australian design industry, and we’re seeing the impact of COVID across the country. Our way of helping is to offer a free one hour mentoring session for design business owners. No obligation, no fee and you don’t have to buy anything to qualify. It’s our way to help the design industry. Simply email either Greg or I with a brief description of three major issues you‘re facing. We’ll do a quick review of your business via the web and set up a one hour Zoom session to discuss the issues. Our aim is for you to go away with a clear direction to make your business sustainable. It is first come first served until November 27. We will respond and work with every studio owner who contacts us by then.

Use a Business Model Canvas to assess your business model. We’ve based our Design Business Model Canvas on the Business Model Canvas. It’s a planning tool to examine all the elements of your design business, not just creative and not just financial. It’s a great way to test a hypothesis – by filling in the canvas, you can test whether your business model is/will work, and it will identify any weak spots. Google, there are lot’s of good URL’s and YouTube references available.

Mix with other designers. We run a monthly breakfast networking group in most states (at least we did pre-COVID, and we’re planning a zoom return). It’s a chance to get together and share challenges and solutions in a safe environment. Maybe your studio isn’t ‘broke’ – perhaps your problems are common to many and can be managed as part of running a successful design studio. Talking them through may be all that’s needed. Email if you would like more info.

2. The low cost way.

Self promotion warning: our book, the Business of Design, is now $30 + GST (postage included). It’s a practical tool written from a completely local perspective about managing and growing an Australian design studio. The content is relevant to micro-, mid- or a large studios because in different degrees, we all face similar challenges. For those interested in the Design Business Model Canvas, it’s all there on pages 170-190.

3. The middle cost way.

Book a couple of hours adhoc mentoring/coaching to talk through your specific challenges, and discuss options. We offer a bespoke, issue-based ad-hoc mentoring for immediate issues. Some studios need help growing, others need help planning, and still others may just have a short-term staffing issue.We’ve been doing this type of mentoring for 15 years … we’re confident we can help solve most issues faced by a design business owner.

4. The help-me I’m drowning way.

The design Chair is a six-monthly commitment that involves monthly meetings to discuss your business. It starts with a discussion which leads to a set of agreed objectives. The meetings are scheduled, have an agenda and minutes. The accountability delivers results. Between meetings, the Chair is available for phone, skype or email support as needed.

A Chair’s role is to understand, but be independent from the operational running of the business. We give an objective and critical perspective to your studio and it’s position within the Australian design industry.

3 takeaways

  1. You are not alone, that feeling of your studio not working for you is common. Most design business owners will have that feeling at some stage in their career.
  2. You have options. Use some of the HCD tools available to self-diagnose what’s working and what’s not. If you are unsure what tools are appropriate just ask.
  3. If you would like to discuss options or a specific challenge just book a free mentoring session before November 27.

Bottom line is COVID is our latest hurdle, but in a world of disruption, stagnant design studios will struggle to remain sustainable. In other words: be proactive. It’s absolutely OK to challenge the way  change the way you think, work and do. It’s not a failing, it’s a reality. Change can be confronting but it can also be refreshing.


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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, 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 research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
My current work can be viewed at and

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