21 tips for starting your own design studio

Essential nuggets of advice for anyone wanting to start a design studio – from those who’ve made it

Yes, we know. Considering the state of the economy and the unemployment rate, surely it’d be madness right now to put your head above the parapet and start your own studio? And yes, if that’s your thinking then maybe you’d be better off in a safe little designer’s job where you get paid on time every month to implement someone else's ideas. On the other hand, if you’re up to the challenge then there’s never a bad time to strike out on your own. Fortune, as they say, favours the bold.

For those creatives who are less experienced in the business side of things, it can be a huge challenge. That’s why we’ve contacted a pro selection of designers who have made it – and are responsible for starting some of the most successful studios around – to bring you some expert tips on starting your own studio.

Want to know more? Check out our Design Studio Handbook, which covers everything you need to know to start and run a successful design business.

01 GOOD SKIP HUNTING

Bob Gray Design director Red&Grey Design
“When you’re setting up a studio, designer furniture is not a priority,” says Red&Grey’s Bob Gray. “Our tables and chairs all came from a skip outside a major telephone company that was rebranding. If we were starting out now, we would look out for liquidation sales and office closures.”

02 TAKE THE PLUNGE

Nick Nettleton Director Loft Digital
Essentials like renting out work space and hiring new people – they’re big financial commitments, and they’re always terrifying in advance. For Nick Nettleton, these are psychological barriers – you just have to take the plunge. “Once you’re on the other side, you wonder what all the fuss was about,” he says.

03 GET A BIG TABLE

Nat Hunter D&AD Executive Committee member D&AD
Communal spaces offer many opportunities to pool your talents and bounce ideas around, so it makes sense to capitalise on this rather than just giving fate a free hand. Nat Hunter’s office must-have? “A big table for everyone to eat lunch together.”

04 THE RIGHT STUFF

Adam Jenns Founder and managing director Mainframe
“Don’t bother starting a studio if you don’t have the intention of being the best.” Adam Jenns challenges you to succeed with any other attitude. “Few people ever get there,” he adds. “But if you don’t start out with that intention you’ll get lost in a sea of one-man bands with novel company names.”

05 THE BEST POLICY

Russell Townsend Managing director Clusta
It’s very tempting to believe your own hype, and design is certainly a business that demands a little esprit de corps. But that’s not a sound footing, says Russell Townsend: “Firstly, don’t kid yourself, and secondly never kid the people that make your studio work – your clients, staff, suppliers, bank manager and the tax man. They make your world go round.”

06 CREATE A WEBSITE

Chris Brand Founder Christopher Brand
According to Chris Brand, putting up a website was one of the best things that he ever did. “It’s the easiest way to show people your work,” he explains. Making sure you have the right domain name is a good idea too. Keep things as simple as possible to use, and choose a name that’s easy to remember.

07 SPACE CONTROL

Josie Harold Managing director Dirty Design
Think about how you would like your space to work for you long term, and what works best for the business. You might want to work in an open-plan space all together with music, laughter and fun. “However, you need to think how that will work when you’ve got phone calls to make or you’re trying to write a brief – or have clients in,” says Dirty Design’s Josie Harold.

08 WORK IS WORK, HOME IS HOME

Sean Freeman Founder There Is
Working from his bedroom day-in day-out gave Sean Freeman a nasty bout of cabin fever that only wore off once he found a desk in a shared space. “Now, when I get home, it’s home,” he says. “Plus, it’s totally tax deductible, so in a roundabout way I kind of look at my desk space as paying tax.”

09 FIND SOME NATURAL LIGHT

Russell Townsend Managing director Clusta
Everyone wants a fancy studio with a hot tub and pool table, but do you really need it? There are larger priorities, says Russell Townsend. “Make sure you have a suitable environment with good natural light and good security, and that it’s somewhere you are happy to spend a lot of time in – because you will.”

10 FUTURE-PROOF YOURSELF

Tom Skipp Founder Tom Skipp
It’s true that you get what you pay for, and since a designer’s main tool is his or her computer, it pays to get the best you can afford. “As a freelancer, I’m always on my MacBook Pro, which I find sufficient – even for artworking,” says Tom Skipp. “And I have also recently subscribed to the iPhone generation, which means that I can respond to people immediately. It’s essential to appear available at all times for clients.”