8 tips for starting a design studio

Designers from one of the world's most iconic firms share their tips for setting out in business on your own.

You've risen through the ranks from designer to art director to creative director – or maybe you're just tired of creating logo designs and flyer templates at someone else's studio. Whatever your reasons, there comes a time in every designer's career when the idea of starting your own studio is hard to ignore.

It's nerve-wracking though: how do you build up the courage to start your own studio? How do you get new work? Who do you employ and what's the best model for your studio?

Start studio

tDR designed the covers for most Warp artists, including Autechre and Aphex Twin

Sheffield-based design studio The Designers Republic (tDR) is one of the most iconic firms of the eighties and ninties. Famed for producing one of the most distinctive bodies of work ever seen – including numerous album covers for electro label Warp records – tDR changed the rules of design, building a worldwide following with its ultra-complex, retro-futuristic style and refusal to conform.

It was the studio every aspiring graphic designer dreamed of working for.

tDR founder Ian Anderson still runs the studio, while designers Michael C. Place, Matt Pyke, Nick Bax and David Bailey have each launched award-winning studios in their own rights.

The five haven't been in the same room for over 10 years – until now. You can read the full, exclusive interview in Computer Arts issue 250, and catch some of their invaluable advice in a five-part series of short films, below.

Read on for seven tips from the world-class designers for launching and growing a successful design studio…

01. Don't let fear of failure stop you

Start a design studio

David Bailey ran his own studio Kiosk, before becoming creative director of UX&D at the BBC

"I was in a lot of turmoil about whether I should leave [tDR] because I had responsibilities – I had a young family at the time, I'd just bought a house, all that sort of thing – and I met somebody on holiday who'd set up a business and it had failed," recalls David Bailey, who ran his own studio Kiosk from 2005-2013 before becoming creative director of UX&D at the BBC.

"He said he learned so much from that failure that he was then able to do it right. That was a bit of a penny-drop moment for me: that I shouldn't be so fearful. If I was going to live in fear, I'd hesitate and it would go wrong."

02. Know yourself

Start a design studio

The Designers Republic: Shop 33 posters

"It's kind of idealistic," begins Ian Anderson, "but it's still relevant. It's very easy to say, 'Oh, don't take the first job,' or whatever. But if you believe in yourself, then you should know yourself as a designer. If you don't understand yourself, it's very difficult to understand other people – like clients."

03. Like attracts like

"When we wanted to get into doing more video work, we released our own DVD – and that attracted so many different commissions because people thought: 'Oh, they're the video art guys now,'" says Matt Pyke, who founded digital art practice and design studio Universal Everything in 2004.

"Clients rarely have the imagination to think, 'Oh, that's a nice music video: let's get them to do a chair.' If you want to design chairs, you need to do the chair."

04. Don’t be a slave to the client

Start a design studio

Build's visual identity and stationery created for typographic design studio Studio Aves

“I shudder when designers are slaves to clients,” says Build founder Michael C Place. “We all need clients, but question them. For us, a huge part is listening. You need to really immerse yourself in their world and figure out how you can solve the problem.”

05. Do what you love

Start a design studio

Artwork for Maksim Dark’s 2016 EP Acidstage created by Human

"It's a lot easier to stay up late, or take out a third mortgage, or whatever you need to do [to set up a business] if you're doing something that you love," states Nick Bax, who founded creative agency Human in 2007. "When you're meeting people, when you're recruiting people, it gives you a natural enthusiasm."

06. Manage your growth

Start a design studio

Recent work from tDR includes the Manchester School of Art prospectus

"For young designers who are looking to set up their own business, you have to be careful about the work that you take on," warns Ian Anderson.

"Is it the kind of growth that you want? Do you want to move into that market? The money that you're making – can you afford to get a freelancer involved, can you afford to get somebody new in? What if that client ditches you for whatever reason in six months time?"

"That's probably why Designers Republic went bust, because of ridiculous numbers – clients that are spending just short of a million with you a year. When they go, you can't just go on Facebook and say: Anybody got any projects they need doing?"

07. Shapeshifting is a good model

"What I've consciously done as the structure of my studio is we've got four full-time people, but the projects that we do, each one is so different – one of them might be an installation with interaction and sound, another one might be just a branding project, another one might be one I do entirely by myself – it's more of a film production model," says Matt Pyke.

"You bring freelance people together and form a team around each project, so you can shift… If all those people were full-time, it would be a nightmare. Keep your core team really small."

08. Only take on jobs that you're proud of

"My rule is that we only take on projects we would want to show on the front of our website," adds Matt Pyke. "I feel [that] motivates people, because they get exposure for the work they've done every time. There's no secret logo for a carpenter or something that no-one ever sees."

For more tips on starting your own studio, watch part two of Computer Arts' Designer Series with the Designers Republic...

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Julia Sagar is a commissioning editor and writer for Creative Bloq, Computer Arts, net, 3D World and IFX magazines. Tweet her @JuliaSagar