An ad man’s 30-day lesson on design studio culture

I’m not an ad man in the truest sense of the word — I am a digital product designer that happens to have worked in agencies, starting at AKQA and most recently Ogilvy.

Here I’ll talk about what prompted me to move from advertising to a design studio, how I set about my first 30 days in my new role, and the five lessons I learned. Hopefully these lessons are useful for people making a career move whether in design or something else.

Reasons for the move

Who knows why I decided to have what can only be described as a mid-life crisis? Leaving a rather comfortable, safe and influential existence as a creative director in an ad agency to a design director in a smaller, design and innovation studio. It happened rather organically but if I had to sum up the ambition it would be this.

“Transform brands through the products and services they design, design things that are meaningful, and design things that set the broader agenda for how technology can benefit everybody.”

Smart Design was the perfect fit, being pioneers in inclusive design and approaching product design holistically, across digital and physical.

Morning 1; an espresso, pen and paper

So I found myself on the morning of day one about to start my new role as the design director of Smart’s London studio in a Shoreditch coffee shop, sipping a nice espresso. Feeling as nervous as I did on my first day at school I scribbled down the swirling thoughts into a “to do list for my first 100 days” (more about the 100 days bit later).

Get stuck in (to projects, pitches anything), listen and learn from the team, win a pitch (make it rain), have an idea to PR the studio, teach the team something they didn’t know before I joined.

So 30 days later what have I learned…?

1. Embrace uncertainty

My ‘1st 100 days’ became 30 days. Things here move quickly, things are different, don’t get put off by the culture you walk into, embrace it, be part of it and then you can figure out the direction it needs to go and how to take it there.

2. Put some big bets down (and win one)

Being new into a role means you are given some license to adjust to your new environment. Rather than use that flexibility to ‘settle in’ use it to take some calculated risks that can reap rewards. Jump into a pitch, create a good idea for PR and then most importantly — follow through on at least one of them to make sure you have an effect on the business and the people around you.

3. Say yes (even if you have to figure out how to do it later)

Use your judgement here and don’t go overboard. The sentiment is that you will make a bigger impact if you trust yourself and your team to take a leap of faith now and again. “Pitch tomorrow? Yeah sounds good.”

4. Talk less, listen more

To make an impact on a business big or small, you first have to understand it. I have made a conscious effort to talk 33% less than I normally would. That means spending a lot of time talking to designers about their projects, strategists about how they get insights from and co create with users and the people that make it rain about proposals and commercials.

5. Put yourself out there

We live in a world where anyone can be a journalist (or a commentator), be a journalist. That means putting some care and attention into what you’re sharing as well. A tweet is fine, a well written thought piece is better.

And that’s a wrap the first 30 days at Smart has been a blast but is only the start of the journey. Stay tuned for the next chapter.