Why too many designers spoil a studio

When it comes to marrying team size with top creative output, there's a magic number, says Ben Parker.

Made Thought was voted best UK design studio in Computer Arts' UK Studio Rankings 2015. Co-founder Ben Parker reveals the perfect studio size...

Image: Żaneta Antosik

For Made Thought, the discussion about size and dynamic is a constant one and we have found that the answer really depends on what sort of business we want to be and what sort of work we want to take on.

Walt Disney once said: "We don't make movies to make money; we make money to make more movies." I don't think I could say it any better.

I really believe that to produce the highest quality work it must be 'involving' – by this I mean it has to be enjoyable and must push a designer's creative abilities constantly. After all, we need to feel dedicated to the projects we take on and not obligated. But to be involved tends to mean remaining relatively small(ish) in scale.

Focusing on fewer projects

The success – and appropriateness – of our work has been the ability to fuse big 'visionary' thinking with 'obsessiveness' of detail and craft. This approach typically has meant focusing on fewer projects in order to maintain a high standard of creative output.

Made Thought

Made Thought's work for Stella McCartney is one of the seminal projects that have helped put the studio on the map

We have however grown steadily as a studio over the last few years as we really want to work with the most inspirational clients on the most inspirational projects and still ensure that we are close enough to obsess and feel that each solution has been pushed enough to deliver the best creative output. However, we do believe that our current size of around 20 is the right formula to allow us to operate in this way.

Being self-restrictive on our size does bring its own challenges. As we continue to develop as a company and new opportunities present themselves, particularly outside of the UK (at least 50 per cent of our work is overseas), we still want to take on different creative briefs which tend to be increasingly challenging and complex.

Getting the right people

This puts pressure on ensuring we have the right people in our studio and the right dynamic to keep things at their best. We consciously have a very low proportion of freelancers as we believe it takes time to develop the right approach, audacity and attitude to design.

Key to the right dynamic for us is also the need to ensure that there is a diverse spread of creative briefs at any one time in the studio so that our thinking and sources do not become constrained.

Made Thought

Made Thought for Design Miami/Basel

We are known for a lot of work in beauty (& Other Stories, Charlotte Tilbury, Stella McCartney) and design (Design Miami, Tom Dixon, Established & Sons) but also like to find interesting briefs in drinks (Grey Goose, Bacardi), property (Greenwich Peninsula, Ballymore, Derwent London), technology (Ableton, Naim Audio) retail, restaurants and furniture.

Design culture

This broadness is a critical component to ensure that we as a team – and our work – don't become stale. Another aspect to studio size is the culture in which our team – and our work – can 'thrive'.

It's really important that we share a common culture where we all adopt the same practices – driven by 'heartfelt' strategy; to find opportunity in everything; and to attack every project with ambition and the same level of enthusiasm and energy.

This mindset is crucial to create good work and with too large a team this becomes more difficult to indoctrinate. As a result, we work in small dedicated teams which allows greater ownership of a project. This ensures it is always passion, opinion and belief that drive projects through more than anything else.

Allowing for creative chaos

Finally, structure plays an important role in delivering our work. Staying intentionally small has allowed us to not be overly structured and allow for a little 'creative chaos' which is an important part of our creative process at Made Thought.

Writing this, the thing that occurs to me, is that after 15 years we are still learning and constantly questioning ourselves about what our business is, and whether we are doing things in the right way. But this constant self review and soul searching is a good thing as it means it keeps you on your toes.

Words: Ben Parker

Find out how more about Made Though co-founders Ben Parker and Paul Austin run their world-class studio, and why – over 15 years – they've never had to court new business in this short film from Computer Arts.

The full version of this article first appeared inside Computer Arts issue 246, on sale now, which reveals the UK's top 30 studios and is packed with advice for freelancers.

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