In this regular series, Carlos Chavez and Jack Mussett present the highlights from AGDA VIC’s regular Question Time events.
Question Time is a monthly event (hosted by AGDA Victoria) where three creatives are invited to sit beneath the spotlight, providing a platform for the audience to ask questions related to professional practice, design process and the creative industry. The aim is to promote open, stimulating dialogue between students, young designers and established professionals. The panel for February consisted of Nancy Bugeja (Housemouse), Jenny McLaren (Aer Design) and Kat Macleod & Simone Elder (Ortolan). Below are a few highlights.
‘Partnerships’ – how do you find that as a concept as opposed to being in control yourself. Some of you have three partners – how do the dynamics work?
KM & SE: Our third business partner is not a designer, she’s involved in the accounts side of the business; she is a creative having studied interior design which gives her a great background. She doesn’t design but works on copywriting and strategy. We all have very different strengths and weaknesses and somehow they all complement each other – we also met through work, which helps that we were all already friends. We really like having partners as we share responsibility and the decision-making process.
Nancy Bugeja: In my experience Miguel (Valuenzuela) and I grew very organically into our roles, I became a manager and he became the creative director and knowing that boundary of what your roles are is very important, especially considering we’re married. Keeping things professional is very important.
Jenny McLaren: A lot of business people will say, “don’t get into business with friends.” We used to be three directors and now we are two. It’s been testing at times. My business partner has a strategy business brain, and if you’re on the same page it works well. Getting into the nitty gritty of it, if you go into business with someone you’re not sure of, it can go wrong. There may only be four or five of you but it also affects the culture of the workplace.
What are some of the pros and cons of starting your own studio as opposed to working for someone else?
KM & SE: There’s so much more to be aware of if you start your own studio. You have to run a whole business rather than showing up to work and leaving at 5pm with money falling into your account every two weeks. Starting your own studio you have to think about the entire ‘running of the house’, from projects to amenities, wages, and the studio itself. We spend a lot of time on that, and as we get bigger and bigger we tend to work less on creative. It depends on what you’re after.
JM: If you’ve had no contact with clients, I wouldn’t do it. Personally I did a ‘The Works’ Degree in my bachelors at RMIT which was like having a studio on campus, which was really good. When you come out of uni and start your own thing there’s a fearlessness in you. As you grow and you get more people in, they’re bringing that knowledge and your experience.
NB: The ‘pro’ of owning your own business is the opportunity to create opportunities for others. The ability to grow a sustainable business for me has been very rewarding, though the ‘pro’ of working for someone else is they create the opportunity for you.
Starting out as a studio and doing the whole thing yourself, to growing and spending more time on management, is design something that you miss?
NB: I don’t design any more and I don’t miss it at all. I’m a trained designer and whilst I try to do everything and think creatively I care more about the initial briefings and brainstorming sessions, something I’ve learnt to do is to trust my competent team to take care of it.
JM: At the moment I’m personally trying to find that balance as I’m still very hands on in the creative process. I do less on the tools at the moment, and I do focus more on the business, but I have other creative outlets. If I didn’t do anything, then I would definitely miss it.
KM & SE: We both still do quite a lot of design in the studio, but mostly it’s about overseeing staff.
In terms of what type of clients you get, has it happened organically or have you been more strategic?
KM & SE: One job has led to another, though a couple of times we were worried about the amount of incoming work and did some cold calling and sending of folios, which is in fact how we did two campaigns for Seafolly.
JM: Pretty much the same, but we have a very diverse client range and word spreads, people leave roles and when in new companies contact you for work.
NB: We started working for government, but it was through those people that were leaving their work to start their own companies that would contact us, it was all very organic.
In terms of domestic market, do you find most of your clients are located in Victoria, and if they’re not are they located interstae or internationally? And if so, how do you manage the long-distance working relationships?
NB: Skype is amazing. generally most of our clients are in Victoria, some in Sydney and we tend to Skype conference a lot. We still like to fly around and catch up face-to-face, not necessarily to discuss projects, rather to keep the relationship going. I don’t think a relationship can work if the client doesn’t accept that you’re in a different state. Once you do, you cope.
KM & SE: We’ve had a few international jobs, but they’ve been one-offs. Generally it was all on the phoning / conferencing, emailing, lots of sending through packages. At times it’s been quite seamless but some clients are very hands-on and literally want to come in and sit at your desk and discuss the work in person.
JM: We’ve got a client in Sydney and another overseas. We go up to Sydney a lot, email is good, though sometimes I think it’d be good if they just picked up the phone.
What are your views on self-generated work such as studio projects or Housemouse’s Fluro magazine, do they lead to more work?
NB: We didn’t have that much work on at the time and this was a really great project that instilled confidence back into the team which we put a lot of energy in. Fluro has become a marketing tool for us in which we can demonstrate our skills as product developers and publishers, not just design. We created and developed the content, we put experts together and we conducted photoshoots which showcased our abilities. We’re proactively trying to keep the design team thinking about projects, keeps us engaged and current. We treat each of our self-initiated projects as client projects in the WIP so we make good progress, and some of them turn into products we can market. Generating new business is key.
What mistakes have you made and what have you learnt from them?
NB: For me it’s been keeping on a specific employee that wasn’t right for the business for a few years. Since then I’ve always gone with my gut feeling and it’s worked.
KM & SE: We lost a lot of money once, it was a decent sized job, the client disappeared, never paid us, and at the same time another client went under, owing us about $15k (and we had no money at the time). This gave us the push we needed to demand 50% upfront before beginning work. We also found every time we were being negotiated down for a job and agreeing to it, it never benefited the relationship. Now when we insist on a fair price it sets a better tone for the working relationship. Clients don’t value work that’s cheap.
JM: That’s definitely one of our biggest mistakes – in the early days not charging enough and falling into that trap of charging less because you really want that job. However if a client doesn’t have the budget it’s not the end of it. We often work for non-for-profits who lack budgets but through working with them we get exposure.
Do you have any interesting stories behind the names of your studios?
KM & SE: We really struggled with a name, we wanted something that was small and wasn’t taken, we had to hand in a legal document in which we needed a registered name and our other partner Chloe said “What about Ortolan, the smallest songbird in the world?”, which we all decided “That’ll do”. No one could say it, they kept saying “Autobahn.” Though, we did find out through Google, there’s a hideously cruel way in which people eat Ortolans. We definitely didn’t want it to be someone’s name, as when clients phone, they want to speak to that person who’s name is on the door.
NB: My story is kind of gross, there was a house mouse in our house, and that was it, we named it after the mouse, who probably was killed that night..
*The answers above are not verbatim and have been edited to comply with space restrictions.
AGDA would like to thank Nancy, Jenny, Simone and Kat for being part of the panel. Do you have your own questions to ask? Question Time runs every second month.