Eric Karjaluoto

Is Your Design Business Doomed?

As a result of my writing about design, I receive a fair number of emails and questions. Many are from design studio owners who speak of their disillusionment and struggles. These emails are often similar: these people began with great hopes of doing remarkable work, but are now scrambling to make ends meet. They tend to think there’s some secret everyone else but them is privy to.

These people are getting by, financially, but just barely. They experience up-and-down sales cycles, feel forced to respond to RFPs, and are praying that the next job will come in and keep them afloat. They’re tired, depleted, and some even wish to be put out of their misery. At this point, they’d be happy to work a job, have weekends off, and be rid of all the headaches.

But they lack the decisiveness to kill the business they once loved so much. This leads them to trudge on, and they get crankier with each passing day. They’re pissed about spec work, design contest websites, and how others win gigs by repackaging WordPress themes and pawning this work off as “real design.” More than any other point, they whine about quality, and how no one appreciates it any longer.

Since designers are typically in the business of making others look good, their instinctual (and sometimes only) strategy is to repackage themselves. So, when their situation isn’t as they’d like, they redesign their website, add services to their offering, or, try to reposition their brand. Unfortunately, these exercises are surface-level and fail to produce any significant yield.

The crux of this problem is that most designers don’t “get” simple economics. Specifically, they don’t understand demand. Moreover, they overvalue aesthetics and believe that beauty should prevail—even though they work in a context that is governed by the rules of commerce. Said another way: they see their work as a kind of art form, and don’t understand why marketing people and business owners don’t value the hard work they do.

This weakness is evidenced by how design studios position themselves. In spite of knowing the difference between a brand and an identity, they often can’t differentiate between a tagline and a position. So, even though they can’t describe how they’re different from their competitors, they’ll go bonkers debating a new tagline and contemplating which superlatives to utilize in it.

Let’s talk about the web for a moment, given how many designers now concentrate on this area. If you’re selling standard websites, your business is quite probably fucked. The market is flooded, and most of the ways you define value aren’t substantial enough to give you any advantage. If another provider offers the same (in the eye of the buyer) service as you, at a fraction of the cost, you probably won’t win.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t money to be made in selling websites. If, for example, you have exhaustive knowledge in a certain technology (let’s say complex .net deployments) you’ve thinned the pool of eligible vendors dramatically. Or, if you have deep expertise in a specific sector (like helping government migrate to new web platforms) you’re not going to experience any shortage of work. But, if you’re in the “we make awesome websites” game, you’re in real trouble.

See what I’m harping on here? If your studio is feeling pain, you have to very quickly get very real about offering something others don’t. This can’t be in the form of some nebulous promise; instead, your position needs to be clear, intelligible, and defined. For example, a position might be: “We redesign ecommerce websites to generate higher conversions;” or, “We can help you integrate (difficult) BlackBaud technologies into your website;” or, “We know how to help youth-focused brands better engage teenagers online.” Each of these positions represents a clear response to a need held by a certain number of prospective buyers—thus, giving your business a substantial foothold.

Let’s return to that quality problem for a moment. If you’re talking about quality as a selling point for your services, you’re looking at the dynamic incorrectly. This is because taste is variable, and most just don’t have much. (Sad, but true.) Put another way: those who try to sell aesthetics are forced to both quantify a notion that’s without shape, and then convince the buyer that their particular kind is superior to others’. Although some might be able to succeed at this game, I’d argue those are master-salespeople (a role few designers wish to take on).

Keep in mind that your clients’ perception of quality isn’t limited to aesthetics—even when it comes to design. The way they see the quality of your service has a lot to do with whether you were able to impact the viability of their organization. They’ll see quality in how reliable your studio is, and how rapidly you respond to their requests. They’ll also find quality in the insight and knowledge you provide—more so than in the finished materials you deliver.

Many running design businesses would be better off working for others. If you love aesthetics you’ll find greater pleasure when able to concentrate on making beautiful work, and seeing it brought to life. And there’s nothing wrong with that—we need people who can make appropriate and pleasing visuals. That said, when this desire gets confused with running a viable business, the associated challenges can become overwhelming.

I’m not saying that design doesn’t matter. To the contrary, I’m one of design’s biggest believers. That said, I also know that design is about so much more than aesthetics—it’s about being able to understand the dynamics of a situation and shape them in a better way. And when you understand this too, you’ll able to pull your design studio out of the spiral of pain you’re experiencing.

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