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Creative director and interaction designer David Sherwin launches his book, “Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers”, on December 4th 2012. In addition to being Principal Designer at global creative firm Frog, Sherwin is also Senior Lecturer at California College of the Art in the BFA Interaction Design program. Using a combination of the experience acquired within roles such as these, and a variety of detailed interviews with industry insiders, Sherwin wrote this book for fellow creatives.

SuccessbyDesign_Image-1.jpg“Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers”
Photo credit ©2012 David Sherwin

Covering thoughts from successful designers, project managers, studio directors and client service professionals, the aim of “Success by Design” is to offer up-and-coming talent the insight Sherwin feels he would have benefited from when starting out in the business 16 years ago.

SuccessbyDesign_Image-2.jpg“Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers”
Photo credit ©2012 David Sherwin

Neil Tortorella spoke to Sherwin to find out more…

What led you to write “Success by Design”?

The idea for the book came from informal group therapy.

Many years ago, when I lived in Seattle, every Wednesday night was dubbed “Burger-Drama”: an assortment of friends and refugees from various design studios, agencies and in-house design departments around the Puget Sound region blowing off steam in the middle of their work week at a local bar and grill. Every time we’d meet, there would be a point in the conversation where the “cone of silence” would lower over the table. While munching on onion rings and guzzling IPAs, we would share the successes, failures, trials and tribulations of running design businesses. No client secrets. No unverified gossip. Just lessons from the school of hard knocks.

Over the first few months of conversation, it became apparent that the majority of our problems had nothing to do with the design work itself. They had to do with being a good businessperson.

There were some business-oriented blogs and a few thinkers in the community back then, such as Andy Rutledge and Shel Perkins, that were clearly communicating how to be better business-people as well as designers. But I still had a lot of questions that I couldn’t find answers for—so I started interviewing studio owners, creative directors, client services professionals, and project managers, to see what perspectives weren’t being currently shared online. These interviews became a series of presentations for AIGA Seattle’s Design Business for Breakfast series.

I remember us being surprised that there were 40-plus people waking up at the crack of dawn to come for a lecture at 7:30 AM about topics such as project management. This is when it seemed clear there was a need for this information. At the end of the first year of doing the series, I could see the shape of a book emerging from the lectures and my ongoing blogging on the subject at ChangeOrder.

What do you believe is the primary business challenge for designers?

When most designers graduate from school and start working at businesses, they start learning about all the activities they need to fulfill to keep the business up and running. This includes accounting, marketing and promotion, cashflow management, and so forth. You need a basic understanding of all of those things to succeed, but I think the most important factor in running a creative business is understanding how to work with other people. If you aren’t able to connect with your clients, understand how to organize and motivate the people on your projects, inspire a studio team based on your leadership, and cultivate a strong sense of culture within your business based on being true to your values, then you’re going to struggle to build a sustainable business.

So I organized the overall structure of “Success by Design” around the different ways designers need to interact with people. And in cases that I go deep into things like accounting and bookkeeping, I encourage the reader to determine who are the appropriate advisors or partners to help them out.

What do you believe are the contributing factors to their business challenge(s)?

There’s a host of reasons why. Business practices are rarely taught well in design school. You don’t learn how to effectively collaborate and communicate with other people, either when framing up a project or fulfilling it effectively. You don’t track hours on school projects or try to stay within a time budget, other than your deadlines for your homework. Then, when you get into the working world, you find yourself in an in-house group that doesn’t run itself like a real studio (track hours and budgets, foster a culture supporting creative thinking). Or you work at a studio where the owners have bad business habits and don’t change them when things go wrong—causing you to repeat those mistakes. You assume that people will understand how awesome you are just by looking at your portfolio and offering you a project on the spot. I could go on…

But most importantly, there was a mantra beaten into me in school that your foot in the door was to take on projects in areas of expertise you don’t have to get portfolio experience. The only way to get some of those projects was to offer a low fee, as I didn’t have the portfolio to warrant the scale of the project. It only took me a few projects in the 1990s to realize how bad that was for myself and for other designers. So I ended up going to work at design jobs that would help me learn both the craft and the business side of things.

Do you find the business challenges are similar for both those just starting their business and veterans with several years under their belt? Or, do challenges change and evolve as a design business matures?

This is a really good question. Experience can help you make more mindful choices. Ideally, every designer should be learning from their failures and putting enough business process in place to stop the same mistakes from happening again. But they often don’t factor time into their day to reflect on these failures or hold themselves responsible and accountable for their role in those issues.

One thing that you can’t learn from until it happens is when your business grows quickly, either by staffing up or down. I like to think of the challenges that emerge as being like a song playing on your stereo, and you start messing with the equalizer. On one end of the equalizer are little things, like errors that slip into project work and cause issues with projects and can potentially harm client relationships.

On the other end of the equalizer are epic risks, like the lack of projecting cash flow causing your business to shut down when your new business pipeline dries up. As you have more employees, more projects, and more cash flow, then the volume is turned up on a certain class of risks. The scale of what you have to manage causes new sets of problems. The same thing can happen when a studio downsizes. You’ve removed certain issues that were only apparent with a large team and lots of projects, but new issues are uncovered that you have to deal with immediately as roles and responsibilities are redistributed.

SuccessbyDesign_Image-3.jpg“Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers”
Photo credit ©2012 David Sherwin

Do you find designers, due to the excitement of a new project/client in many cases, jump into starting a project without following proper protocols such as signing contracts, getting deposits or retainers, etc.?

I’ve had many conversations with other designers where they’ve started work without a contract or a deposit. In the book, I advocate that every designer has a countersigned contract in place with the appropriate deposit before starting work. I also encourage them to include discovery, research, and scoping activities in their projects whenever possible, so they don’t end up giving away weeks of work—essentially extending a ton of credit—in the hopes that they get the work.

Can you share a few solutions from the book for enhancing a designer’s success?

I think one of the biggest things any designer can do to ensure their success is to regularly evaluate if they are staying on track against their goals. For each activity that you’re conducting as part of your design business, you should be asking yourself every three months:

• How does this activity bring me joy as a designer?
• What profit do I yield from conducting this activity?
• What stable structures have I devised to support the creation of joy and profit through this activity?

There are some worksheets in the last section of the book that help a designer do this, and I’m making them available as a free download on the website for the book. I created these worksheets in collaboration with David Conrad, studio director at the great interactive studio Design Commission.

SuccessbyDesign_Image-4.jpg“Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers”
Photo credit ©2012 David Sherwin

Related to the previous question, what are your thoughts about designers participating in spec work and crowdsourcing?

The easy answer is: Don’t do spec work! But designers coming out of school often don’t realize how many different ways this position will be challenged.

There’s a whole chapter in the book on spec work, and while I think there are clear and compelling reasons why you shouldn’t do spec work, I do spend a few pages in the book explaining the reasons why designers do spec work.

For example, I note that if you want to be a Mad Wo/Man, you may be required to roll up your sleeves and give up big-money thinking for the privilege of being considered for Fortune 500 advertising and marketing accounts. The use of search consultants, who are paid to facilitate these agency reviews, adds another set of flaming hoops to the process.

Also, many agencies specialize in niche mediums, such as motion graphics for film and video. It is common in some of these industries to pitch ideas up front to obtain client work—and agencies that handle these mediums are fairly open about it. Some studios factor this pitch work into their project costs.

Does the book carry information about how some designers tend to shoot themselves in the foot by underestimating time and budgets, discounting, not applying markups, etc.?

Early in my career, I worked at studios where we would do a rough estimate off the top of our heads without the rigor of looking at previous estimates, projecting hours by resources, making sure the resources are available based on what was on the studio schedule, and sticking to a comprehensive rate card that carried the appropriate overhead.

The book covers all of these issues in depth and illustrates many of the “gotchas” that trip up designers when they put together estimates for their projects. My main collaborator on the estimating chapter was Fiona Robertson-Remley, who is a Director of Project Management at Wunderman. In the book, there are also clear explanations of how to deal with requests for discounts, the appropriate types of markups and padding to put on project budgets and hourly estimates, and so forth.

Beyond reading your book, do you have any suggestions as to where designers can go for business help?

As I mentioned earlier, I highly encourage designers to find other designers in their community to network with and share knowledge and experiences. There are only so many books and blog posts you can read on this subject, and you’ll be able to actively troubleshoot situations and network with each other to find resources and advice.

I also encourage anyone who’s running a studio, or looking to run a studio, to pull together an advisory board that includes business-people from outside the world of design. They will keep you honest and give you perspective you may not get from those within our industry.

Are there any additional thoughts about “Success By Design” that you would like to share?

Running a business can be fun. I wanted to express that fun through visual wit in the book. There were some silly charts and graphs we used to demonstrate certain concepts when I helped conduct the Design Business for Breakfast lectures, and the audience reacted really well to them. I didn’t recall seeing any other design business resources that took this approach to dealing with basic business concepts and issues, so I wanted to make sure it was woven throughout the book.

It is clear that “Success by Design” will enable readers to become empowered by the valuable perceptions that are documented within the book. Flourishing designers can gather the information needed to translate their talent into success; be it freelance or studio work.

As outlined by the author himself; “This book contains the business secrets I needed the most when I started as a designer sixteen years ago. And now they’re yours.”

Pre-order “Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers” on Amazon HERE.

SuccessbyDesign_Image-5.jpg“Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers”
Photo credit ©2012 David Sherwin

SuccessbyDesign_Image-6.jpg“Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers”
Photo credit ©2012 David Sherwin