How to start a design agency

The great thing about starting a design agency, be it offline or online design, is that there's a pretty low barrier to entry. For a relatively small outlay, you can teach yourself the tools of the trade and start pitching for work.

However, this means lots of other people are doing it too. Hundreds of agencies and freelancers are all fighting for the same contracts and projects. Make sure you pick a niche and research it well when you launch your design agency. A specialist in, say, legal websites, Facebook campaigns, or pharmaceutical magazines will give you the edge in industry-specific pitches.

Many design agencies evolve organically. It often begins with a single freelancer, completing projects to deadline and making a living from a portfolio of clients. When the freelancer ends up with too much work he or she will have to take on some help and create a design network. Acclaim and experience increases, a brand is born and the agency takes off.

Day-to-day

First of all, be prepared for long hours staring at a screen. Design work is fiddly and requires oodles of patience and tenacity. The good news is, if you are freelance and working on contracts, you can choose your working hours. This can be handy when working on digital projects: if you prefer to work at night, you're better placed to pick up bits of work from the US and beyond.

As the business starts to scale and you take on employees/office space, there may be exciting brainstorming sessions where pitches are thrashed out and ideas and bandied about. Expect tight deadlines, exacting clients who don't always know what they want, and a whole lot of screens.

Check out this video from London-based agency Strawberry Soup for a sneak peek at a day in the life of a design company.

 

 

The industry and market

The design economy in the UK is huge. Last recorded figures show that £33.5 billion was invested in design in 2008, which is 2.4% of GDP. It's a hugely competitive arena: in Central London alone, there are as many as 35 web design companies (and even more freelancers) per square mile.

However, the design industry is in the sweet spot at the moment. The government is in the middle of a push to increase investment in and awareness of small firms operating in intellectual property industries - design included.

Whether this will translate into more grants and public sector opportunities for up-and-coming designers remains to be seen, but keep your eyes on the prize.

Natural skills

  • Patience: Will you keep your cool when a client sets an impossible deadline or changes a design for the 100th time?
  • A keen eye for design: Are you up to date with the latest innovations in typography or, for a digital agency, an up-to-date knowledge of web languages?
  • Are you up for some stiff competition? There are thousands of design agencies in the UK, from one-man bands to sprawling agencies. You will have to compete with all of them. Are you up for the challenge?
  • Do you enjoy the challenge of finding and closing new business? A big part of your job will be chasing new clients. As your business grows and you take on more staff, you may do less and less actual design to focus on running the business. Are you happy with that prospect?
  • Lose the ego. You may LOVE your latest version of a design project, but if the client hates it, wants the logo in grey and in a Times New Roman font, and won't hear otherwise, you'll have to swallow your design pride and do the job. There's no room for prima donnas in this trade.

Training

There is a huge range of training options available for designers. You can attend a course at a college, take a full degree in the myriad design specialist, or enrol in a web course.

  • Central Saint Martins in London has turned out hundreds of successful designers, from AdBusters art director Jonathan Barnbrook to industrial designer and CEO of Dyson, James Dyson.
  • Or teach yourself: Learn the basics of Photoshop and InDesign (publishing) or Dreamweaver and Fireworks (web) through web tutorials and product walkthroughs.

Premises

The great thing about running a design agency is that you don't necessarily need an office. You can work from home and manage a whole network of freelance designers without having a permanent base.

If you do want a bricks and mortar office, popular locations in London (where the largest number of design agencies operate) include, Soho, where rent stands at between £30-50 per square foot, Clerkenwell, at £25-45, and Hoxton, £25-45.

Staff

The speed at which you can grow your business depends on two factors: The limits of your time, resources and imagination; and your ability to recruit other designers.

There are hundreds of thousands of freelance designers working in the UK right now.  Not to mention all the design graduates pouring out of university and looking for work.

How can you track these hotshots down?

  • Or go directly to universities like Goldsmiths, Manchester Metropolitan, Bournemouth Uni and the Chelsea College of Art & Design.
  • Use LinkedIn to seek out likely designers
  • And keep a weather eye on MeetUp.com for any useful networking evenings that will let you rub shoulders with the glitterati of the design community.

Money

Presuming you already own a laptop or computer, your costs come down to software and time. Software doesn't come cheap, although many of the packages below come in Student/Teacher of pared down 'Elements' options which could be more cost-effective. However, if you want to make design your profession, it's important to have the latest tools or risk being left behind.

  • Photoshop CS5 starts at around £279.99
  • Dreamweaver CS5.5 - from £229
  • Fireworks CS5 - from £123
  • InDesign CS5.5 - from £279

If you decide to do a design course, expect to pay over £500 for a short course, and over £3,000 a year for a Bachelor of Arts.

If you don't have the start-up capital for training, consider joining an agency and learning the ropes from the bottom up (although you may be making a lot of tea, to begin with).

There are also a few standard business overheads:

  • Professional Indemnity Insurance: from £250 a year
  • Telephone & internet: around £50 a month
  • Website domain name and hosting: between £100-250 a year

First steps

  • Research your market: Make sure you pick an area of focus early on. It's important to distinguish your brand from the hordes of other design agencies out there.
  • Assess the competition. Look at all the other design agencies in your area. How do theirs compare to your proposition? Can you learn anything from what they are doing? Steal any smart ideas from their website? Remember, this industry is dog eat dog, so be the Pitbull, not the Chihuahua.
  • Create a beautiful website that showcases your ability and range. Remember, your website is your company's window to the world. Include some examples of your work, full contact details and, if you have time, a blog to talk about some of the design issues and trends that you care about. Customers will not trust you to design their magazine or build their website if yours is a disaster.
  • Open an account with a stock image library. Subscriptions start from £100 a month while image download fees start at a couple of quid and go up to £75 for a single image.
  • Get on Twitter. It's a great way to canvas for work, show off existing projects, network with other designers and read up on new design innovations.
  • Get a Dropbox account. It makes sharing large images and files a doddle. Remember, most email systems can't digest incoming messages with over 10MB attached.
  • Do a stint on 99Designs to build a portfolio of work. It's a great way to get exposure to a wide selection of clients and could provide future contact fodder.

Tips

  • Stephen Holmes from Old Street-based graphic design firm Bloody Big Spider says: "Get an accountant and get good at doing the business side of things. This will give you more time to do the design work you love."
  • Remember: everything has a value. Ideas are currency and time is money, so make sure you charge for ideas and time. The idea is to make a fair profit, not run yourself ragged without even breaking even.
  • Do your homework: Research what the average daily rates are and don't be afraid to stick to your guns. If you have a brilliant portfolio of work, you don't need to compete with cut-price patch jobs from 'production line' designers. Quality with value = a no brainer for the client.
  • Keep your finger on the pulse by subscribing to design publications like, .Net or Wired magazine
  • Control cash flow - Take a deposit, invoice in stage payments and spend at least some money on regular targeted sales activity.
  • Play to the areas you know - nothing works better than a relevant case study.
  • Reuse and recycle. Save all of your work and repurpose fonts and images that hit the cutting room floor with previous projects.
  • James Sheriff, co-founder of Barnsley-based agency Genius Division, says: It's all about communication between you and the client. Make them sure they know when you should be paid before starting the job!"

Common Pitfalls

  • Not pricing your work accurately. If you push down your prices too far, you could end up working for peanuts. While this makes sense in the beginning when you're trying to build a portfolio, once you're established, make sure you stick to your rate-card.
  • Projects often change and evolve - usually resulting in more work for you. Make sure you get sign off on specs early, invoice at every stage of production, and charge for any additional graft.
  • All your designs must be created - from scratch - by you or your team. If you 'borrow' or resell other designers' work, or steal images you could face legal action, which can be very expensive.
  • There's plenty of equipment and software out there to help you create brilliant designs. But you don't need it all at once! Start with the most crucial software - a lot can be accomplished with one or two major applications, although it may take a little more time - and you could save a lot of money. Once you have money coming in, you can buy the perfect scanner, graphics tablet and other design tools.

Support and resources

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