Or perhaps you simply want greater autonomy and creativity... or you can’t get the job you want. You decide to go it alone. You have everything going for you.

Stop and read this first.

Many excellent designers lack business skills and learn the hard way that outstanding design – by itself – won’t pay outstanding bills. So what’s the best advice for a designer starting up a business?

We turned to Paul Charlwood, of Charlwood Design, Marnie Rudd and Duncan Ward, of Satelight Design and Raymond Lee, of AE Smith Pty Ltd for some advice.

Know your intellectual property rights

Invest in formal registration where appropriate and make it clear that intellectual property ownership is included in fee negotiations.

Free pitching and unpaid competitions place designers in a weak strategic position and support the notion that design is not a business expense.

Furthermore, designers may be forced into presenting ill-considered designs often in response to poor quality briefs and can retain liability for the ultimate product if the design is used. The message is, don’t take on more risk that you bargained for.

“Don’t give away design,” says Charlwood.

Realise that design is not just about design

Rudd and Ward insist designers should be familiar with the entire process that the design will go through including production, packaging, transportation, sale, consumption and disposal.

The design will also ultimately compete with similar products and services on the basis of price, utility and aesthetics.

In addition, the designer should have a clear understanding of the client’s own internal processes including timelines and methodology, says Rudd.

Lee agrees, emphasising the importance of customer service. “Put yourself in the client’s shoes and ask yourself what advantage your design gives them,” he suggests. This may include increased profits and internal kudos within the client organisation.

“And be aware of how you communicate using all forms including verbal, written and social interaction,” Lee advises. He advocates the importance of networking particularly with potential customers.

“At the end of the day people like to do business with people they like.”

Implement business processes

Ensure the consistency of the delivery of design to your client. “The expectation is (still) that design is done on the back of an envelope,” explains Charlwood.

“It is important to have a process to design competitively and consistently.”

Systems should include design process as well as operational tasks including invoicing, quoting and responding to client enquiries and allow you to delegate more to employees.

They also provide you with high quality information about how your business operates – allowing you to pinpoint areas of strength and weakness.

Get business advice – ongoing if possible

“Attending a council run business course was invaluable,” comments Rudd, who also recommends reading management texts such as Michael Gerber’s The E Myth.

"Courses provide contacts and points of comparison with businesses from different fields.
Lee recommends designers sharpen their skills in areas where designers traditionally don’t want to get involved – such as getting customers to pay on time and account monitoring.

Advice should be from various sources. “Austrade were very helpful,” says Rudd. “We now think in terms of both local and global markets.”

Research confirms the importance of such advice. Small businesses are more likely to rate themselves as unsuccessful if they don’t use advisory services, have a business plan or train their staff, according to information in a report to the Productivity Commission.

Author Ian Bickerdyke notes the value of advisory services are rated over and above elements such as source of business funds and degree of management training.

Ask yourself if you want to run a business

“We didn’t fully realise the extent of the things we would have to do,” says Rudd candidly. “Prepare yourself for lots of hard work and question if it is better for you to work for someone else.”

One third of Australian businesses will cease operating after five years and the majority of these will do so for reasons unrelated to finances, according to the Bickerdyke report, Business Failure and Change An Australian Perspective, 2000.

This suggests that owners are unprepared for the lifestyle impact of running a small business.

In a tight job market many designers have little choice. But you can always choose to acquire skills and prepare for commercial reality if you do decide to go it alone. 

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