How did you make the transition from designer to creative business consultant? I realized after three to five years as a practicing designer that I was never going to be a great designer. I simply didn’t have the passion or the talent that others I worked for and admired had. Thus, after seeking out the advice of others and much self-reflection, I came to the realization that I was better suited to do what I truly love and am good at, which is kicking people’s butts! This allowed me to naturally transition into a project management role with a small, growing design firm and therefore continue working in the industry I love. This transition also leveraged the equity I had already built up, both in terms of my experience and knowledge and also in terms of the many great connections I had made along the way. I began to help a range of old and new contacts with their creative businesses, which turned into a full-time consulting practice that has kept me happy and stimulated for more than 25 years.
Over your career, how have the needs of your clients’ clients changed? Many of my client’s clients—at least the smarter ones!—are now looking for big-picture services. Design firms are being asked to provide strategy and help brands develop their positioning and messaging. The design industry overall has the opportunity to be less tactical and request-driven by meeting this demand for critical thinking. Designers need to become more business savvy and be able to look at their clients’ businesses holistically and strategically. Of course, my clients’ clients also have needs for more diverse, integrated service offerings, including but not limited to editorial, digital and interactive, experience design, social media, and video. Clients need design firms to understand their industry and business—hence the increasing demand for more specialized, industry-focused design firms. At the same time, design firms need to have the ability to create an array of branded assets across a variety of visual platforms. This is both an exciting and immensely challenging shift in the industry.
What are some specific things you did in order to carve out enough time in your schedule to write your new book, Brutally Honest: No-bullshit business strategies to evolve your creative business? Honestly, I was planning on turning down new clients while I dedicated four to six months to write it. In the 25-plus years of running my business, my workload has always been steady, often crazy busy and certainly never slow. Ironically, when I decided to write this book, the universe heard my message and rewarded me with fewer new business requests, and I had more time on my hands than I expected! As soon as I finished writing, I got busy with work again. But I also worked nights and weekends to complete the book and utilized an army of allies to help me get it moving forward. Luckily, my incredibly smart daughter and biggest supporter, Hunter Vargas, helped me throughout the process. She led the launch and management of my Kickstarter project and social media campaign and took on a range of important tasks that kept me on track. She also provided a much-needed voice of reason. I honestly don’t think I could have finished this project without her. This just goes to show, we can’t do anything alone.
What does it mean for a design studio to grow? It really depends on how you define “growth.” Growth can be accomplished by growing in size, offering expanded services, making more money—sometimes this involves quality over quantity, and sometimes quantity over quality—or all three. One can even define growth more personally and creatively, in terms of learning new skills and improving or expanding work developed. Each of us has to decide for ourselves where we want to grow and how that can be accomplished. One undercurrent of successful growth is to have well-defined goals and plans for the future. You can always pivot, but without a clear direction, you may meander into areas you didn’t want to go.
What does it mean for the design industry as a whole to grow? As our industry has grown, we’ve seen exponential increases in the number of design firms and, as a result, have evolved—or devolved—into an “every person for themselves” type of market. One very dangerous change is that we, as an industry, have lost control of our value by allowing our clients and others to undervalue what we do. For example, it’s becoming increasingly common that clients ask us to sign contractual terms that limit our right to show our work. Or they include work-for-hire language that transfers ownership of all our work product, including rejected or preliminary concepts, to them without appropriate compensation. There are many firms—both large and small, local and national, famous and emerging—that are practicing behaviors that hurt our industry. We need to do a better job of working together to develop and communicate a key set of best practices that we should all be held accountable to. This could be in the form of a manifesto or, dare I say, a professional certification program.
Can a design studio stay small and still make more money? It depends on how you define small, how much money you want to make and what kind of work you want to do. However, in my book, I make a strong case for why having a one-person firm is largely unsustainable. I understand that there are many solopreneurs out there running their own businesses just fine, but unless you are Superwoman or Superman, running a design business requires many different hats, skills and roles, and no one person can do it all—at least not well. The “not well” aspect is what makes solopreneurship unsustainable. Eventually, solopreneur businesses become irrelevant in terms of the quality of their work; staying ahead of trends; and expanding their capabilities, profitability and reach. They stagnate.
Yes, many solopreneurs have virtual teams to support them, but rarely are they entirely out of the trenches of doing the actual work, whether it’s designing, managing clients and projects, writing proposals and contracts, or bookkeeping. Solopreneurs have their hands in many different pots. As such, they are always fighting fires instead of preventing them.
All that said, I do think a small firm can be very profitable if they are focused and driven and have at least one full-time employee and an army of colleagues and strategic partners to collaborate with. In fact, the size of a firm has very little to do with profitability, as the bigger you get, the larger your overhead and the more financial risks you take.
What tips do you have for maintaining work-life balance? I have a few recommendations, although, if you ask my family, they may disagree that I’m an expert in this area. The first is to make sure you have passions and hobbies outside of work, as those passions will naturally become a priority and force you to take time off. I also recommend that you don’t check emails after 6:00 pm or on weekends, as the minute you do, you get sucked right back into the vortex of work. Lastly, it’s about learning to say “no” more often and when appropriate. Most creatives are people pleasers and aren’t comfortable saying “no” in certain situations, including to clients with unreasonable demands or to new business opportunities that don’t align with their business strategy. We also can be control freaks, so learn to let go, delegate and spend your valuable time more strategically on responsibilities that have long-lasting value.