How to run a successful design studio: 6 tips from the pros

Illustration of a design studio manager's head exploding

Running a design studio can be very hard work. While you might have honed your design skills over years of experience and have gained expertise in dealing with clients, running a studio with several designers under your wing introduces all sorts of other skills and challenges.

First and foremost, you need to be able to manage other designers in order to let each individual shine while working for the team. You'll want to hire the right people if you're getting started – see our guide to everything you need to know about art directors, for example – and you'll want to make sure they can work at their best. Then you'll need to keep on top of multiple deadlines with a range of demanding clients.

Of course, there are all kinds of smaller details too. You'll want business cards, and you'll need furniture (see our guide to the best office chair and specifically the best office chairs for back pain) for a start. Below a range of leading designers and illustrators reveal the biggest lessons they've learned about how to run a design studio and how the lessons have contributed to their success.

6 tips for running a successful design studio

01. Give designers space to hone their own ideas

Examples of work by design studio Lippincott

Lippincott worked with Bain Capital to create a number of assets

To run a successful design studio, you'll need to manage designers and ensure that everyone is following the correct briefs and working to deadline. However, it's important to remember that designers usually shine when they have the freedom to explore their own ideas.

"It takes a village to execute a complex, global design project, but you can't underestimate the importance of the individual in that process," says Heather Stern, chief marketing officer at the US creative consultancy Lippincott

"It takes one person to have the idea, but many people to execute it," she explains. "I've learned how to protect an individual's idea and craft within the demands of a global design project. It's my job to give designers the space they need to hone their ideas. We're successful when I'm able to respect that brilliance and mobilise a team to help bring it to life."

02. Empower people

Work by design studio Wolff Olins for USA TODAY

Wolff Olins' work for media brand USA TODAY

A key corollary to this is the skill of empowering your team. Designers, and in fact anyone, can work better when they feel their voice is being heard and appreciated, so that should be made part of the studio ethos. Ownership of work and open communication is key, says Wolff Olins design director Dan Greene.

"By making people feel valued through their contribution and giving them the platform to have input into the direction of a project, it can give team members the extra 10 per cent they need to turn a job from good to great," he says.

04. Respect everyone

This is a more general tenet to follow, and one that should help you achieve the first two tips on our list. Horizontal organisation tends to work best in design studios, allowing everyone to express themselves, and to be themselves. To keep motivation high, it's vital to respect all ideas, but also every employee's life outside of work.

"Treat people like humans and with very little hierarchy," says Snask's Fredrik Öst. "Make sure that everyone is a superstar and that everyone has a life beside their job."

03. Keeping the client happy isn't enough

One of the biggest challenges in running a design studio is keeping the client happy, but it takes a lot more than that. While it's the client who pays and keeps you in business, you need to be happy too. No designer wants to see work they can't be proud of, regardless of whether that's what the client wants. If you can be selective about which clients you work with, that can help a lot, otherwise, sometimes the client will need a little coaxing to come around to your vision. 

"The biggest lesson I've learned so far is that making the client happy isn't enough," advises Sagi Haviv, partner and designer at iconic firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. "At the end of the day, you, the designer, must be proud of the result, and the way to achieve that is to show the client only those options that you believe in wholeheartedly."

05. Don't back down with tricky clients

Design studio work

Sarah Mazzetti created this giant wood "thing" for TICTIG exhibition at Casa Testori

So what should you do if you have a client who just won't give in to reason? Back down, and you could well be kicking yourself for a long time to come. Ultimately, the client is paying you because you're the expert, and sometimes you'll need to make that clear – as tactfully as possible!

"Be firm and clear about the fact that there's a reason why you want things to be done in a certain way," advises illustrator Sarah Mazzetti. That might sound easier said than done, but it can help to provide examples or explanations in layman's terms to back up your arguments when necessary.

06. Treat every project like it'll be your best

One of the biggest errors a design studio can make is to view some projects as "fillers" or less important than those that involve more work or a more prestigious client. The sure route to success is to treat each project like it's just as important as the next, and that the results will be your best work. Never write something off as something to pay the bills that won't make it to the studio's portfolio (note that this is another reason why you shouldn't give in to clients!)

"One of the most important lessons I've learned? To treat every new project as if it'll be the best of my career," says Northern Ireland-based graphic designer and writer David Airey. "It doesn't matter who the client is, or what industry I'm designing for, I'm the one responsible for just how good, how interesting, how successful the result is."

This was originally published in Computer Arts magazine, the world's best-selling design magazine. Subscribe now to make sure you don't miss future issues.

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Julia Sagar
Editor-in-chief retail

Julia is editor-in-chief, retail at Future Ltd, where she works in e-commerce across a number of consumer lifestyle brands. A former editor of design website Creative Bloq, she’s also worked on a variety of print titles, and was part of the team that launched consumer tech website TechRadar. She's been writing about art, design and technology for over 15 years.