On Starting a Design Studio

In the beginning we were just making stuff.

Alex Ryan
3 min readMar 25, 2015

A November 2008 email to my friend Lane asking for advice on a proposal is the earliest trace I could find of Distill. At the time I was freelancing, doing a hodgepodge of projects. Amadeo was contracting at IDEO. I was asked to pitch for a project designing and building websites for an alternate reality game. I asked Amadeo to help me with it. We wrote a proposal and got the gig. About 6 weeks into this project, the client asked us to help them make a proposal for the Oakland International Airport (OAK). That’s when I emailed Lane for his advice. Apparently it was good -we landed the contract. In the next year, the other company stepped aside, but OAK wanted to continue working us. A friend helped us file the LLC paperwork, and Distill was born.

We made all the mistakes.

It seemed so simple: Open a bank account, make a website, print some business cards, throw yourself a party, and head off in search of more work. Looking back, our approach was foolish. We were particularly bad at businesses development. We chased after every client and sprinted in any direction they pointed. I scoured Craigslist, Freelance Switch, LinkedIn, Krop, Behance, and Coroflot for potential leads, pitching anything that moved. We would take any project that earned us a thousand bucks, regardless of how insane the client was.

Despite all this activity, for some time, there was little advancement towards a specific goal. We went out to “do good work” and “make money” but we were unclear about who our customers were, and why we were right for them. We spent a lot of time learning about new industries, and developing our special way of handling each new challenge. We used the word bespoke a lot. There was no template for the work we wanted to do, and we weren’t really sure how it should be done. Hard work, diligence, and enthusiasm we had, a plan for where we were going, not so much.

We tried a number of different business models and offerings along the way. We did production work for larger agencies. We resold marketing software along with the consulting services to support it. We worked on retainer. We spent many hours debating the merits of hourly work based on estimates vs. fixed price projects. We worked for equity, for trade, and for pie.

At some point, we realized that there was a problem with our lack of focus. Amadeo and I began spending time talking about what we wanted from our business, and where it was going. We worked, fought, discussed and worked some more. Like a married couple in the self help section, we bought every book we could find on the business of design. Countless blog posts were read. Eventually, we created a few processes to streamline our operations, and we started applying the design process, to our own business.

Taking a Break to Work for Ourselves

Distill has evolved over the past 7 years. We’ve built relationships with some awesome companies, and we make a decent living, but we still think there is a better way for us to help organizations through design. To figure out how, we’ve taken a break from client work, and have been focused on designing the future of Distill. We’ll be sharing the story of this process on our blog. We hope you’ll follow along.



Alex Ryan

I design for love and money. Weird shit on the internet since '92.