I am often asked by students and young designers about the benefits of taking on a studio role versus going freelance or starting up on your own. My answer has almost always been the same: provided it’s the right fit, take the job. Though I have been wondering lately if this is right. These days I know of many successful studios born out of university friendships, but when I left university it just wasn’t the done thing. I never had any intention of starting my own business. The way I saw it, I had studied for five years but knew very little. I was meant to go off, get a job where I could learn and keep it for as long as I could. So that’s what I did.
Within six months of graduating, I was fortunate enough to find myself working as a junior designer in a small studio that was part of a large advertising agency. Having relocated from Canberra (yes, it’s dull to you, but it’s home to me) to Sydney, I couldn’t have been more excited. But I was unaware at the time of just how lucky I was. It wasn’t until years later that I realised I had been fortunate enough to have been mentored. And, to top it off, I had found a mentor in not only one, but two designers.
When I joined them, Kevin Finn and Julian Melhuish had 15 years experience, were internationally-awarded and gave me everything. Every lesson they had learned, every trick they knew, every tip they had – they happily and unselfishly handed it all over. They were never too busy. No question was too stupid. They taught me lessons that have shaped who I am as a designer and as a person. First and foremost, they introduced me to ideas-based design. They taught me how to have ideas. They made me read A Smile in the Mind, constantly reinforcing that I had to have an idea before I could design anything. They taught me that humility is king, arrogance is never an attractive trait, and the value of the right amount of self-deprecation. They taught me about the power of writing in design, always maintaining that the best designers are also great writers. They taught me how to present work. They taught me how to read a client’s reaction. How to reassure them. How to change their mind. They reminded me, often, that design – while it was thrilling, addictive and rewarding – was a job. Family and friends were more important. Over the last two years of working for myself, I have been constantly reminded of how valuable this experience was. All of it would eventually form the foundation for how I work now.
I eventually left that job and moved to a bigger studio. It was a step up and an opportunity to work on great projects with great people. It was also daunting to no longer sit beside the two people who seemed to have a solution to every problem. On my first day I was sat next to a lovely, quietly spoken senior designer by the name of Jon Chu. Jon didn’t say too much. He was very productive, very helpful and always very nice to me. Being new in a big studio can be challenging. You need to find your place, your mentor(s) and the toilets. Jon helped me with all of these things. From time to time he would also lean over and ask my opinion on things: “Which image do you prefer?”, “Should this red be darker?”. Normal design stuff. One day he took a long look around the studio, leaned over and quietly asked me, “What happens to 37-year-old designers?”. I had no idea what he meant. “They keep designing… ?” I offered sheepishly. He told me to look around the room and find the 37-year-olds. There were very few and the few there were were either design directors or creative directors. Jon’s theory was that, at some point (around 37, apparently), designers either help to run the company they work for, or leave and start their own company. I felt relieved I was only 30 at the time.
Five years later, I had spent 12 years in four studios and was asking myself, “What next?”. While I was working with people who had become dear friends, often on projects that were rewarding, I was also struggling with a lot of things. Perhaps the most frustrating of these was the fact that I didn’t feel like I was actually doing anything. I felt stuck in a cycle of meetings, brainstorms, client presentations and coffee runs. I also started to re-think the idea of a routine. For 12 years I had been expected to be somewhere at 8:30am and, at times, stay there till after 8pm. I have never understood studios that work all hours. Late nights are unavoidable at times but I believe we have built an industry where long hours and unpaid overtime are the norm. Even worse, we expect designers to be excited about it. In fairness, I rarely worked long hours at the last studio I was at, but more and more I thought that there had to be another way to structure my life. A routine that I could control. One that let me be more present as a father, still do what I loved doing, play a little guitar and, of course, make a living.
But I remember worrying about so many things. Had I left it too late? Where would I work from? Would I be better off with a partner? Would I last six months, fail, and have to return to a studio job? And, most worryingly, would I have enough work? One thing I was certain of was that I had been trained well. There is no substitute for having someone who’s 15 years ahead of you hand over everything they know. The experience I gained from working in different studios, first as a junior and later as a design director managing younger designers, is truly invaluable. The experience I gained from having to present to clients of all levels and deal with suppliers has been essential. The experience I gained from sitting in meetings and watching as work was presented, concepts were debated and budgets were signed off, before being encouraged to step forward and do all that myself, is something I will forever be grateful for.
About two and a half years ago, at age 35 (a little early – sorry, Jon), I resigned from my job and took “the leap”. I started my own design studio. The sweet irony is that, now I am running a business, I am more stressed than I ever was while working at a studio. But I am also happier. The hours are at times long, but rarely. And my routine is built around my whole life, not just my profession. Most importantly, I use lessons from my time at studios everyday. Too many young designers leave school believing they are fully-formed when, in reality, they are only about to start taking shape. They mistake ambition for experience. There is no shortcut to having those learning experiences.
Looking back, I am proud that I was humble and hungry enough to recognise how little I knew. While the road I took is no longer the only option, I wouldn’t change the experiences I have had for anything. And when I am asked about the benefits of joining a studio versus going out on your own, my answer is the same as it’s always been: take the job.
Image by Antra Svarcs