Secrets of design success

On Manhattan’s bustling Sixth Avenue – the street that stretches from Central Park to Tribeca, and running adjacent to its more famous neighbour on Fifth – sit the offices of karlssonwilker: a studio that’s successfully riding the storm of global recession. “A small studio like ours bobs around the ocean,” reflects founder Jan Wilker. “We’re concerned only about our immediate microcosm, mostly untroubled by global tides.

“While some of the biggest agencies have been forced to let go of half of their workforce, small studios like ours have kept somewhat busy, not maligned by huge monthly overheads and payrolls,” he goes on. “We live from crumbs that fall off the table in good and bad times.”

Established in 2000, the New York City design firm has first-hand experience of running a profitable studio in both times of economic downturn and uptick. Wilker and partner Hjalti Karlsson made a conscious decision to keep their setup small – currently numbering five, including an intern. When the recession hit, this proved a shrewd decision. The reason karlssonwilker remained compact, however, had little to do fiscal thinking.

“We’re what you might call bad managers,” Wilker smiles, “meaning we’re not good – and ultimately not interested – in telling people what to do, or checking up on them. We’re hands-on designers.”

There’s a lesson to be learned from karlssonwilker. Although far from being part of some great master plan, the firm proves that smaller ships can sometimes weather stormy seas better than larger ones. But aside from staying tight-knit with minimal wastage, what other steps can you take to run a profitable studio in the current climate?

Austerity’s pinch is one felt by all. The credit crunch that began in 2007 was a financial meltdown by 2008. In the subsequent recession, few have escaped cuts and austerity measures completely unscathed. Belt-tightening and downsizing is commonplace across all business, and the design industry is no exception.

But history tells us design thrives in lean times. In the winter of 2008, Design Council Magazine wrote: “From forecourts to textiles, IT and the cinema, the record shows that, in economic downturns, investing in design is not a luxury, it’s a competitive necessity.”

Is this true of the most recent, ongoing recession: does design loves a depression? “I’m not sure I agree with that statement,” reflects Wilker. “Design seems to be an easy expense cut for companies. It’s seen as a luxury; an appendix; beyond-the-bottom-line thinking.”

He continues: “Austerity doesn’t breed creativity. People who say it does don’t have proper design budgets. My guess would be that austerity brings with it repetitive solutions, safe outcomes and behaviour detrimental to strong and excellent work, like pitches, crowd sourcing and underbidding.”

While this may be the case, Darren Jessop, managing director at Leicester-based creative consultancy Six, believes studios can use decreased budgets to their advantage. “Trade the reduced budget for more creative freedom,” Jessop advises. “This is a smart move, as the designer or agency can, potentially, come up with a real grandstand piece to help win more lucrative work and generate some good PR .”

Six was founded in December 2007: recession is the only financial climate the studio knows. This has moulded its ethos, and particularly the way Jessop works – he’s the team member charged with finding new clients, and looking after existing ones.

“We’ve been very numbers-focused,” he continues. “Creating a solid sales pipeline, building a war chest for any leaner times ahead, keeping costs under control and strengthening existing client relations are all sensible measures for enabling your agency to come out the other end of the recession in good shape.”

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The Creative Bloq team is made up of a group of design fans, and has changed and evolved since Creative Bloq began back in 2012. The current website team consists of eight full-time members of staff: Editor Georgia Coggan, Deputy Editor Rosie Hilder, Ecommerce Editor Beren Neale, Senior News Editor Daniel Piper, Editor, Digital Art and 3D Ian Dean, Tech Reviews Editor Erlingur Einarsson and Ecommerce Writer Beth Nicholls and Staff Writer Natalie Fear, as well as a roster of freelancers from around the world. The 3D World and ImagineFX magazine teams also pitch in, ensuring that content from 3D World and ImagineFX is represented on Creative Bloq.