Kunsthøgskolen, Oslo (Peter Vermaercke)

How to start your design studio

Nov 8, 2015 · 7 min read

At this year’s KIKK festival I heard some of the best and upcoming agencies explain what they do and how they do it. This is their advice.

Haven’t heard of KIKK festival yet? It’s Belgium’s best-kept-secret: a festival bridging art and design based in Namur, Belgium. And yes, you should definitely attend next year. This year’s lineup includes designers, artists, researchers and agencies like Tobias van Schneider, Anton & Irene, Field.io, HUGE, Joanie Lemercier, LAb[au], Golan Levin, Niklas Roy, Daniel Leithinger and many others. Last year’s conference had Jessica Walsh present how they work at Sagmeister & Walsh.

Know what motivates you

It might seem trivial but knowing what drives you is the start of everything. Anton & Irene both got promoted to directors at F-I but realized they missed the hands-on work they used to do.

“We wanted to start doing projects that are design-based, but not necessarily web-design based… other types of work that we would never have been able to explore had we stayed at a web design company.”

On a rainy day they found themselves stranded on an island in South-East Asia. They sat down to envision what their ideal design studio would look like. A rather successful brainstorm it seems as they won this year’s best new agency award.

The witty Daniel Leithinger explained his utopic vision of the future and how he wants to help us move beyond computers as devices we just sit in front of and interact with through a mouse/keyboard/screen. At the Tangible Media Group at MIT Daniel and his team are exploring all the ways we can interact with computers. This eagerness to bring his utopia to life is what drives him every day to push harder and keep going.

Sean Follmer, Daniel Leithinger, Alex Olwal, Akimitsu Hogge, and Hiroshi Ishii (2013)

Figure out your process

Job sheets with features, ready for sign-off (Anton & Irene)

Having a solid methodology and process is essential for any business. Take the time to work out your business model. How will you select clients and define how you will take on projects? How does a design project look like for you? It’s important to figure out the answers to all these questions beforehand. Once you are up and running keep track of the work you do and how everyone spends their time.

Use time sheets. Use job sheets. Stay small. — Stefan Sagmeister (src)

Anton & Irene use spreadsheets to map all the features and design elements in a project. Each element has a required timing, importance and complexity. They ask the client to sign off this document before they start any design work to avoid annoying surprises at the end of the project. “What do you mean you’re not going to design that 3D-carousel?!”

Be professional

NYC (Peter Vermaercke)

Anton & Irene explained they found themselves drowning in emails with vague requests when they started out. What do you do with all these “Give me call”, “Let’s go for a coffee” messages? They reached out to one of their former managers for advice. He said:

Reply every email with “What’s the budget?” and those who reply are probably ready for business, those who don’t will only cost you valuable time.”

This means learning to say no just as often (or more) as you say YES! Being professional also means acknowledging the fact that you’re a business. It shouldn’t be your primary concern but it’s what will allow you to do great work and keep doing it. Your studio is like a shop: clearly communicate what you sell and how much it costs.

Rotterdam keeping it real (Peter Vermaercke)

I think young designers who open design studios tend to think too little about money. If you don’t take the financial health of a new studio seriously (and put systems in place to monitor the finances) chances you’re going to wind up with money problems are high. — Stefan Sagmeister

Work fixed hours

Studiomates, NYC (Peter Vermaercke)

Design is a stressful and difficult industry that can easily lead to burnouts. Strive for balance in your everyday life and work. One way to deal with our always on lives is having fixed working hours. Anton & Irene arrive in their Gowanus studio at 9am and leave at 6.

Stopping work at 7pm each night brought about a couple of really nice things: mainly, we worked really hard until 7pm, because there was still all of this stuff to do. It created an atmosphere where there wasn’t personal phone calls or things like social media, which didn’t exist back then. We started at 9:30 or 10am and ended at 7pm; in between was hard work. It created a nice separation. At 7pm, it was like, “Whew! We’re done.” — Stefan Sagmeister, The Great Discontent

Especially when you might start running your studio from your own apartment, these working hours will help you stay sane.

Work hard during the week but don’t work weekends unless there is a real emergency. — Stefan Sagmeister

Juliette Bibasse, digital art producer and partner in crime of Joanie Lemercier, explained how having their own studio space helped them find this balance. A space for work that is separate from where you live helps distinguish both.

Collective ownership

Saint-Malo (Peter Vermaercke)

Make it a weekly habit to plan the upcoming week and evaluate the previous one. What did you set out to do? Did you reach your goals? If yes, great! If not, look at what held you back and how you can make more accurate estimates next time. Engaging everyone in the management of the project creates collective ownership.

Every designer is responsible for how much time it will take them to do a job. This means everyone has to pace themselves and manage themselves. In the end everybody feels responsible for the whole project. (Irene)

Making everyone responsible for themselves creates a culture of respect, transparency and trust. Let everyone plan their own schedule, just like freelancers estimate their workload and set their own agenda.

Family lunches

(Peter Vermaercke)

Small studios are like families. At Field.io they have a family lunch every day: everyone stops whatever they’re doing for a group lunch, no exceptions.

I recently shot a video of my friends at Central. It’s a small design studio where everyone shares a passion for food. Preparing and enjoying good food together is a holy moment that brings all of them together.

Learn from your mistakes, enjoy your successes

Yayoi Kusama (Peter Vermaercke)

When things go South: shut up and listen. Hear directly from your team what is going wrong and fix it. Always inspire your colleagues and if needed, lead by example. Keeping an open communication is necessary to maintain good work relationships.

Anton & Irene talked about their many failures and all the different emotions they went through since starting their studio. Having a business together as friends or partners makes or breaks your relationship. Listening to each other is vital.

Additionally, Irene stressed the importance of taking the time to enjoy your successes. Don’t rush into the next project but take the time to enjoy the good work you delivered and build self-confidence together.

Let your voice be heard!

Coney Island (Peter Vermaercke)

In the beginning when you’re still struggling to find clients, you might find yourself having a lot of free time. Treat this time like you treat billable hours. Create side projects, speak at conferences, update your portfolio, take the time to review your processes… Just make sure you spend this time usefully and get your voice heard.

Getting your voice heard will help you establish a successful business. Tobias van Schneider sends out a weekly newsletter with reading recommendations, useful links and updates on his personal projects. Tobias says:

It usually contains a never before shared article, or other exclusive project updates.

This opens a whole new channel for future clients that perhaps can’t be reached through Twitter. It gives you a platform to tell something more than 140 characters and give a bit more context on what differentiates you.

Niklas Roy creates videos of all his projects to increase the visibility of his studio. Videos are a great way to showcase your projects and let others help spread the word. They are a great way to land your next project.


Written by


Product designer at Namahn

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