Question of the Week #13

Today, Carolyn Cuykendall asks, “In your practice, do you ever have trouble balancing the business and the creative aspects of design? How do you deal with it?”

For a small design office (we’re just 3.5 people) this is a constant struggle. The designers pretty much get to design all the time, though they pitch in of routine office tasks as well. As the owner, not only do I need to supervise and art direct (and even design!) the projects, I need to bring in the work, manage the project, present the work and make sure we’re billing for it. The more business responsibility one has, the less time one has for creative tasks. One of the reasons MINE™ has stayed small is so that I can stay closer to the work. Were we to become a firm of 5 or 7 or 10 designers, I’d spend more time managing the business and less plying my craft.

Staying small isn’t the only way to strike this balance, however. There are other options:


1. Partner
Some firms (both large and small) are based on partnerships in which one partner is principally responsible for financial and managerial oversight, and the other focuses on creative concerns. It takes a great deal of trust to make this relationship work. After all, the person who controls the money ultimately controls the firm. I’ve seen this work well between partners who are also a couple outside of the office. I’ve also seen this be successful in instances where the partners are long-time friends. Basically, where there is long-term trust and mutual investment in the relationship (professional and personal) the chances of success seem higher. Of course, many people will tell you not to mix business with pleasure, and that’s not bad advice. I’ve certainly seen a fair number of very messy professional breakups that dissolved friendships as well. Consider this option with caution.


2. Delegate
When a firm reaches a certain size (usually 10+ designers but sometimes fewer) they may consider bringing on a project manager. A project manager supervises the logistics of the project. He or she ensures that the design team has the appropriate skills and resources to execute the project, that the objectives are clearly articulated, deadlines met, etc. He or she is the liaison between the client and the design team, managing the personalities and expectations of both. A good project manager helps forge a long-term relationship with the client and insulates the design team from unnecessary noise, feedback and requests. They report to the creative director or design manager, and by consolidating and synthesizing the feedback and project status, frees them to focus on larger concerns.

Even small firms may have an office manager who handles routine tasks like making sure the office is stocked with supplies, magazine subscriptions are renewed, bills are paid, etc.

Senior designers may supervise junior designers at interim project stages, again freeing the principal or creative director from dealing with project details on a minute-by-minute basis.

Basically, the more hierarchy a studio has, the more distributed the responsibilities become.


3. Manage yourself
For better or for worse, designers tend to be control freaks. This usually works to our advantage in the creative realm—after all the details are the design. Operationally, however, that obsessiveness can get in the way of getting things done. It took me 8 years to get to the point where I could let my bookkeeper generate invoices. Until that point I used to lay them all out in InDesign (and kern them!). Not only that, but there are a lot of things that I’m just not very good at. By trying to control all of them I limit my own ability to do the things I actually can do well. Delegating tasks that are better managed or performed by someone else is the ideal countermeasure to this obsessiveness. If delegation isn’t an option, managing yourself becomes critical. Set aside dedicated (and limited) time for various tasks. For example, answer email from 10am to 11am. Send invoices every Monday at 2pm, etc. If you schedule regular (specific times) for the tasks you are least likely to do (and allocate a limited timeframe for each) chances are you’ll actually get them done—hopefully with at least reasonable efficiency.

Then, once you’re done, you can get back to the business of designing.