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Whether you’re a thriving, multi-branch design agency with hundreds of employees or a 2-person partnership working to build your business, there are a few key things you should be doing to garner as much success as possible.

Having worked for and with many (many, many) of them myself, I would like to offer a quick list of the most important attributes of successful design firms.

For those out there who don’t want to start or grow their own design business, look for the following attributes as you search for an agency job.

Down to earth

There’s nothing worse than working for or with a design studio who thinks they’re so much better than you. Don’t be the firm that thinks just because you understand typesetting, CMYK vs RGB, or Jquery that you’re cooler than your client. Design firms should be down-to-earth; making an extra effort to help those around them succeed, understand, and grow.

Goal-driven

Any design firm that works from day to day without any serious goals is doomed for failure. If you’re going to build a successful design business (or grow the one you have), you have to have solid goals. Take time to frequently set and review goals and make sure they are attainable, measurable, and realistic. There’s nothing worse for a business than not knowing where you’re headed.

Self-aware

It’s important for a design firm to be self-aware. Know where you stand in relation to your competitors. Research why clients hire you instead of your competition and vice versa. I’ve worked for a design agency who thought they were the best in town. Turns out, they were losing a TON of business due to one small discrepancy, but since they never took the time to be self-aware, they didn’t realize their error for a long time!

Industry aware

As important as it is to be self-aware, you also need to be industry-aware. How do your rates compare to the going rates of agencies in your industry? What are design firms similar to yours bringing to the table that you may not be? Try to find a niche where your firm can really shine. Not sure what design niche to get into? Have a look at this list of 70 ideas to get you started.

Fun

There’s nothing worse than going to visit a design firm and finding out they are boring. After all, most clients aren’t hiring you because you’re great with finances or good at spelling. They’re hiring you because you’re supposed to be extremely creative! Chances are, if you’re not having fun, you’re not being very creative. So take time to make your workspace fun, jazz up the atmosphere, and loosen your tie a little (better yet, ditch the tie altogether!).

Personable

Clients like a design firm that is personable. Even if your company employs hundreds or thousands of people, you can still be personable. Take time to learn your clients’ names; take them out to lunch; learn about their family; get to know them. The more personable you become with your clients, the more likely they will be to hire you for the next job they have. Think of your relationship with your clients as a partnership. Be a true partner and be personable.

Responsible

Designers are creative. We’re known for our ability to turn a boring board room meeting into an energetic design pitch. But there’s nothing worse than a design firm that doesn’t know when it’s time to be serious. There’s a time to joke around and there’s a time to be responsible. At the end of the day, your client is paying you money in hopes that you can create something powerful for them. Don’t let them down by always being a comedy troupe–when it’s time to talk numbers (return on investment, goals, expenses, etc) let the jokes take a back seat to business. It’s also important not to be irresponsible in the name of creativity or art. Most clients won’t go for something like “Well, we spent $20,000 more than we agreed to, but your web site looks amazing!”

Well-led

Designers are creative, independent thinkers. So it’s important that a design firm be well-led. Whether you’re the leader of your design firm or you work for one, keep in mind the following: a group is only as successful as its leader. Don’t believe me? Try shuffling up some groups in your office. Take turns appointing a leader for a week and follow their every command. You’ll soon find that the same team can be much more productive when a strong leader is at the helm than when the leader is a goof-off or simply doesn’t know how to lead and motivate others.

Democratic

Part of being well-led means allowing every member of a team to have a voice. Not all ideas are good and few are great. But the important thing about having a democratic environment (one where everyone has an equal chance to share their opinion) is allowing people to feel like they contribute. Take time to make sure you listen to the concerns of your employees and coworkers. Some of the best ideas for success can come from the frontliners: the people who work hard every day to build the small cogs that make your business machine go round.

What else makes a design firm successful?

I’d love to hear what you have to say. Leave a comment on this post and let’s talk about what makes design firms successful.