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Managing Your Studio
by Eva Doman Bruck
A well-organized, smoothly functioning studio that is profitable and turns out beautifully-executed design work rests on three primary factors: talent, set-up and systems. In order of importance, first is talent—of high-creative caliber, and with the right combination of skills and levels of experience; second is professional-quality equipment in a clearly organized space; and third is the consistent use of efficient design and production processes, project schedules and systems for information sharing and data tracking. Some might argue that efficient systems actually contribute more to profitability, but without the requisite equipment and space, in addition to being a discomfort and irritation for the staff, it would become necessary to outsource prints, production of comps and other important elements, resulting in loss of time, control of quality and potentially profitable mark-ups on such items.
A surgically-clean, perfectly-equipped studio with outstanding organizational processes does not produce brilliant work. Talented, motivated designers and production artists are the lifeblood of every successful design firm. The key to staffing a studio is finding people with the right level and range of experience and expertise, so that there is a reasonable ratio of senior to junior personnel, as well as the requisite skill sets needed to produce the kinds of work demanded of the studio.
The ideal studio has enough managers to lead assignments along with enough mid- and junior-level designers and production artists to actually produce the work. A top-heavy studio, one that has more leaders than doers, is in trouble on two fronts—financially, because there’s too many expensive salaries being carried by fewer lower-salaried people; and in terms of morale, it’s a scenario that has high-level leaders competing for assignments and scarce staff. Too few leaders overseeing too many line staff find themselves spread thin, leading to lapses in design leadership, overall communication and quality control.
Roz Goldfarb, president and founder of Roz Goldfarb Associates, has been a major force in recruitment and career management in the design industry for over twenty years. She comments, “It’s better not to use key people for work that can be accomplished by those at a lower cost base. It makes more sense to hire appropriately, that is, not to have senior level people assigned to low revenue tasks or have them do work that can be accomplished by those better suited to those tasks. We find employers often don’t hire appropriately and the result is low morale, frustration and loss of good people.”
Is there an exact formula? Not exactly. Staffing depends on the nature of the assignments in the studio—whether a continuous stream of one-off designs or large-scale, long-term, multi-disciplinary projects—or somewhere in between. Analysis of annual revenues will reveal staffing capacity—how much and what kinds of staff the firm needs and can support. A detailed assessment of the number and kinds of assignments that pass through the studio will help to determine the specific skill sets needed. Of course, all bets are off in the case of huge, free-standing multi-million dollar accounts. These require, in effect, wholly dedicated teams with their own organizational structure and people with skills to match the project requirements.
Scale is the critical factor in determining staffing in a design studio. In terms of personnel, the difference between large and small studios is that smaller, more horizontal organizations need individuals who are capable of, and enjoy, taking on different roles and tasks, and have a fairly wide skill set. Large-scale studios can afford to support designers who are more specialized—both in their skill sets and their roles. Roz Goldfarb emphasizes that in both scenarios, “Success depends on productive team work and consistent coordination between people in creative, marketing, strategy, account services and studio management; and in the case of small studios, regardless of who wears which hat.”
While titles vary, there is usually one overall executive creative director (whether as head of the creative studio, or as a partner and/or owner) who is responsible for the firm’s creative/visionary leadership, top-level client acquisition and management, overall quality of design and profitability, corporate communications and mentoring of the next level of designers who are called either creative directors or art directors. These individuals have direct responsibility for the projects and staff they oversee. While they are capable of being hands-on and may contribute directly to some aspects of the design process, their most important tasks include preplanning (overall project organization, client/industry assessment, strategy), leadership of the conceptual phase, guidance during design development and general oversight/troubleshooting of implementation, as well as leading client presentations and communications and mentoring of their team members. Depending on the scale and intensity of assignments, creative directors may be dedicated to one project, client or industry, or may oversee a number of different assignments. They are usually accountable, along with account directors, for the design portion of a project’s budget and profitability.
In large-scale studios, design managers or, alternatively, creative services managers, form the next level of staff and are usually in charge of the day-to-day, hands-on design and management of their assignments—whether alone, or in tandem with other design managers for large-scale interdisciplinary projects. They help organize and oversee the work steps, lead design and manage some administrative and communication tasks. In smaller studios, senior designers may fill this role.
Senior designers and designers in large studios, along with production staff members, are the ones who carry through the bulk of design creation, refinements and implementation. In some instances they may take on some administrative tasks, but for the most part, their role centers around the design process.