Running A Design Studio: The Boring Stuff

As part of our special feature on one month in the life a graphic designer in this month’s CR, Build partner Nicky Place addresses the less glamorous aspects of running a studio

Nicky Place

As part of our special feature on one month in the life a graphic designer in this month’s CR, Build partner Nicky Place addresses the less glamorous aspects of running a studio

When Michael started the “A Month In The Life Of…” feature for this issue, a teaser was posted on the CR Blog which sparked a fair few comments. Some people wanted to know a bit about the working practice behind Build, to show that “it’s not all glamour, you know” [a phrase we have laughed about many times this past month during our most unglamorous moments…]. So in this spirit, we have listed a few issues we come across in the daily grind, in the hope that it answers some of those questions. We’re sure many of you will have come across these things before but, as one blogger put it, “I can’t believe that every single agency/designer works in exactly the same way!” Indeed. I’m sure there is plenty that we could learn from other people too, or just simply do better. Nevertheless we hope that what follows is of use.

Build studio wall
The Cutting-Edge Workflow Management System

As seen on the CR Blog and above. Well, it’s not very hi-tech, but many of the most effective systems aren’t. This is the wall next to Michael’s desk, and it’s supposed to remind him what needs doing now, next week and later on in the distant and sometimes not-so-distant future. Is it effective? Not sure, as Michael does tend to forget to turn his head to look at it.

Having said that, we do use a proper job tracking system which I devised using trusty Excel. Sadly, I quite like Excel and you can do some really clever formula stuff with it…. Each month we have a workbook with a page for each active or pending job. It lists what the job is, what elements are required by when, as well as the agreed fee. When a job is done, the invoice is raised and details noted; so that when an invoice is late, which it usually is, I can send a reminder on the day (or at least know I should be sending a reminder).

At the front of the workbook is a tally of all the sales made that month, which helps with doing the VAT return, as well as seeing at a glance if we are doing OK or not. At the end of the month we check which jobs are finished and which roll over to the next, then save the book, print it out for filing and save a new one for the new month. It really helps, the only problem is sometimes finding the time to check and close the old one and start the new one… and suffice to say Michael doesn’t look at them, hence potted Post-it note version on the wall.

Sales Targets are for Estate Agents and Insurance Salespeople
Growing up and going to art college in the Thatcher era, “business” was very much a dirty word – or maybe that has always been the feeling in art colleges. Now, running a small, successful studio is the way many graphic students seem to want to go. Even illustrators now realise the value of their work in a way that never really felt healthy many years ago. Everyone has to pay the bills: your work is valuable. And whether you are a small or large outfit, you will have certain financial commitments.

Until February this year, we worked from a studio at home, but it did feel small. So when the chance to take a studio close to home came up, it was too good not to not give serious consideration to. Now we have a dedicated space with all the benefits – space for books, boxes, posters and tubes; space for meetings; space to spray-paint sheets of glass. We leave the house to go to work; we have mental space to deal with projects. But of course with that comes an extra financial burden, so by setting ourselves targets it helps to see if we are doing OK. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, and it helps us see if we need to go and find any nice jobs out there. To date, we have been very fortunate in that much – but not all – of our work has come directly to us. Of course sometimes we need to be proactive and go and see people before we really need to, so to speak.

This invoice is Now Due
Generally, invoices take a really long time to get paid. Ours state that payment “is due in 30 days”, which is quite normal. So when chasing it, after a month has lapsed, you’ll probably find that it is “still waiting for approval” before it even gets to the accounts department…who might pay up in a week or two… but who generally have a backlog of other invoices which have been waiting for two months. Why should yours go to the front? Because it’s overdue.

Pay an accountant’s invoice late and you’ll almost certainly pay interest on the bill; maybe there’s a tip there. The other tip is to invoice as soon as possible, as there is no telling if you might have to wait a month – or in some cases three or four – before the money appears, like a long-lost friend, in your bank account.

The Carrier Bag Myth
Talking of accountants, do get a good one. It’s the one thing everyone agrees on, but finding the right one is easier said than done – no offence to all our previous accountants, of course.

The problem is a matter of who-suits-who. You need the right mix of someone you get along with, who understands a creative business, and who can see where you’re going (or wanting to go) next. An accountant recommended to you with the best intentions still may not be right, but it’s certainly the best place to start. Don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work out, because ultimately you need to look after your business and not worry about upsetting your accountant. And lastly do not ever just “put all your receipts in a bag and let the accountant sort them out”, which is asking both for trouble, and an oversized bill, which if you don’t pay on time, you will pay interest on.

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