Over the last ten years I’ve (literally) read my own body weight* in business books. A handful were good, some average, most cr*p. Recently I’ve read some very good books that have focused on the business side of graphic design.
One of those was Thread’s Not Dead by Jeff Finley. Jeff, along with Bill Beachy is one of the founders of Go Media in Cleveland, Ohio. To cut a long story short, Bill and I connected on LinkedIn and had a bit of an email exchange about the rewards and challenges of running a graphic design studio. Bill revealed to me that he was in the middle of writing a new book called Drawn To Business, and kindly asked me if I’d like to contribute to the book. Of course, I said yes.
I’m going to blog a few of my answers to the questions that will become some of the content for Drawn To Business. Here are the first few questions Bill asked me Expect to see more posted over the next few weeks. As they go along, some of my answers become quite revealing, which took me by surprise.
Why did you get into design?
From an early age I knew I wanted an artistic career, and I was lucky enough to have a secondary school teacher who introduced me to the art of graphic design – it was my ticket out of the sleepy village I’d grown up in. Towards the end of my school years some people who had ‘real jobs’ came in to do talks to our year group – one of them was from a printing company. I had a chat with him after the talk and asked if I could come and be an apprentice in their company. He turned me down on the spot, but he gave me some good advice: “Go to college and study design instead.” I then had a goal to work towards. I worked hard, got the right qualifications and was offered a place at the well respected Lincoln School of Art & Design. I left my village, studied graphic design for four years and landed my first job at Saatchi & Saatchi. I never expected to even get an interview there, let alone a job, so it felt pretty surreal – especially for someone who’d originally set their sights on being a printer’s apprentice (not that there’s anything wrong with being a printers apprentice, of course).
Why did you decide to start a design firm?
I thought I could do it much better than any other boss I’d ever worked for, and I wanted to be more in control of my creativity. I also wanted to see if I was up to it. And my wife made me do it so that I’d stop moaning about commuting to London from Brighton!
Is there anything dramatically different about owning your own company to what you’d expected?
I quickly learned that my previous bosses hadn’t been doing such a bad job after all. There’s the initially alarming fluctuation of your monthly income coupled with relentless bills that don’t let up just because you don’t have a regular salary anymore. And it was much harder to win new clients than I’d ever expected – they really don’t just fall into your lap. I also had to adjust to how much longer things take to come to fruition, whether it be intended growth, a new portfolio website, or an office move.
How did your company get started?
I’d been taking a break, backpacking around the world after 10 years in continuous employment in London. To break up my travels, in 2000, I worked in Sydney for a year and was really taken by their work/life balance. I worked for a great company there called Horniack & Canny. They did great work and they went home on time, usually straight to the beach for a beer. I decided early on that I wanted to start an agency that had a good balance between what I call work/life and life/life. Because as a designer, I don’t think you ever really switch off – there’s no clear boundary between work and life, they’re pretty much one. So I wanted to create an environment that fostered and championed creativity, nurtured people, and allowed us to go home on time to be with family. It’s a work in progress, but that’s still the vision.
Did you work for a design firm before you started your own? How long were you there and how did that experience help you build your firm?
I started at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1991 – an amazing company of great creativity, bold thinking and brutal simplicity in its thinking and output. I stayed there for six years and worked on some great brands with some great people. Then, seeking a pay rise, I took another job. I worked at another agency for two years, learned some good stuff on the design side, but learned a much more important lesson about not chasing money. After that, I freelanced for a while for companies like Landor (big, impersonal, cog-in-the-machine type freelancing). After my travels down under, I returned to London and became Creative Director at a mid-size agency called Kino Design. The two partners at Kino are great guys, I respected them as bosses and they knew how to treat the team well. After two happy years there, I decided it was time to set up on my own and opened Harrison & Co in Brighton in 2003. Along the way I’d learned to respect creativity, people and going home on time.
Keep an eye on the blog, I’ll be posting some more questions and answers soon.
*Currently about 78kg in case you are interested.