Extracts from a LinkedIn Discussion posted in the ‘Design Council’ Group | April 2012

Owners of small design firms – to what extent are you working IN and/or ON the business?


Hi Simon, this varies for me throughout the year and in all honesty I have probably been working too much in the business rather than on it recently…today I am probably working 70% on developing the business and 30% on actual project work!


Too much working IN the business is why the majority of my design clients work with me. However structure and discipline is a dual-edged sword as many creative thinkers run screaming from the very idea.

Finding a harmony between the detail in each job and the blue sky above is a very important task to tackle for many creative businesses.


Hi, four years ago I was working in the business and we made a loss of £65k at Exesios. Since then I now stand back and ‘work on’ the business and we have now been back in profit for the past two years. My main point of contact has been our accountants?? They have instilled a sense of financial discipline and forward planning that we never had when things were going well before the ‘crash’. I am now the “managing” director as opposed to a “design” director. We now plan and make our luck as opposed to ‘see’ what comes through the door. it has been a very tough lesson but a valuable one. At some point in a business designers either have to stand back and start planning or employ an experienced planner to work alongside.


I am in the process of setting up my planning & design consultancy. I need to network people to find out what they are up to, get lessons from their experience, share experience, etc. I think IN is very important people like me entering new into business.


Paul Vincent’s response is an excellent, concise rationale as to how we should all be running our businesses. Our business has been a chronic example of “firefighting” our way through the workload and assuming someone else will always come knocking to keep us in jobs. The work that comes in has not always been of the kind we’d like though, and for the last 8 months we’ve been redeveloping our consultancy with great advice from a mentor.

We’d long searched for an appropriate mentor with the right balance of business and design skills. As designers, our sole concern is not with “the bottom line” and at this point in our working lives we wish also to improve the creative potential of our work alongside functional product design and development. Our mentor has been – and continues to be – worth her weight in gold! She has the vision and enough emotional distance from the business to recognise what we should be doing and how we should be doing it, as well as extracting from us what we’d most like to be doing and helping us to construct processes to get to this point.

Since using her skills and vision, the work we’re starting to take on is already more interesting and a valuable use of our skills and experience, which in turn improves both income and “creative wellbeing”.

So, the short answer is that a mentor can be as useful as good accountants (we have those thankfully) and assuming you can find the right one for you, possibly even better!


I’m pulling myself out of working ‘in’ so I can focus on working ‘on’ the business. It’s less fun, and less satisfying, but a lot more responsible!


I’m lucky as I share control of my business with my business partner, he works 100% IN the business (he is ultimately responsible for the making of our models, prototypes and components), whereas I work 70% on developing the business and 30% working IN the business, but my involvement working IN is limited to taking care of the general management of the company (inc working with suppliers and taking care of the finances) so that my business partner is shielded from this distraction and can focus solely of what goes out of the door.


Hi Simon, I totally agree that working ON the business is vital – especially for small companies, such as ours; where ‘feast and famine’ keep a strong hand on the business activity.
After reading a lot of the other threads on this group I feel we all have a HUGE job to do – not only in helping our own businesses, but in promoting the further understanding of what design can offer to business in general.
There is a lot of discussion about the ‘value’ of design and the fact that designers feel they are not understood by clients, manufacturers and the public in general, leading to a ‘degrading’ of the profession.
My feeling is that we are all responsible for this misconception and misunderstanding of design in general and that we should all be working on this! –
One of the places that we could start is by explaining to the ‘outside world’ what it is we do, how fundamentally it can impact on all aspects of business and then get to grips with why ‘everyone thinks they are a designer’!
We need to start to explain our profession in simple terms (design our approach) rather than using the complex jargon terms and ‘mystical psycho-babble terms’ that designers are so fond of (or too lazy to try to communicate without trying to look clever?) so that the world at large will begin to see the real value of the profession.
I like the terms you’ve used – as for once I can understand what is being proposed.
So what I’m saying is we all need to get working “ON” even a little bit more generally, as this is going to help all of us in the long term.
Sorry to babble on – But thank you Simon, this has made me think a lot about how we present ourselves!


What an interesting dialogue your question has started Simon. It is one that has been rolling around in my consciousness for the long,long time that I’ve been a designer. I have run successful design businesses and been a Partner in one famous one and Consultant to another and the ‘ON’ and ‘IN’ position has often been a question to ask of all of them.
I should have come to a conclusion but I am ‘creative’ at heart which brackets me not as a responsible adult director but a (nearly) long haired hippy determined to bring creativity to my most unreceptive client! A perception only far from the truth on some days.
I firmly believe in working ON the business and sure, it’s difficult not to work IN, especially as my own business is now smaller and busy with detail decisions for our projects. It seems to me that balance is what is required.
My input here in my studio is about creative leadership followed by good client relationship and with an eye to business structure,change and flux in the market and the financial future of this consultancy. I think that has been the situation in all of the organisations I have worked with and includes many of the client bodies too!
As for expanding a message to help our clients understand I’m very surprised that the design bodies operate without much direction on that front and have singularly failed to develop a simple guide to design and designers for industry and the general public. The degree to which people are mis-informed can be seen by the number of young people lining up to get into Design Groups for work experience – they just don’t know what we do.
So work ON the business, don’t give up working IN the business and have a mentor. The more the merrier and the easier to understand. Its not easy this multi-tasking but it makes sense.


Glad if this discussion thread has got you thinking about the whole ‘value of design’ conundrum/debate Roger which is undoubtedly a long and well trodden road.

I agree with your views and would add that the more agencies put themselves in the client’s shoes and ‘challenge’ their own offer and behaviours the more they are likely to connect with clients and find the common ground. I have some useful material on my blog which may help here.

Getting back onto the question of ‘to what extent designers are working IN / ON the business’, you’re right David that finding the right balance for your own situation and people arrangements is key. It is also about having a framework or structure to your working week that you (do your level best) to remain disciplined around.

Also, the more accountable/experienced your staff, the more owners should be able to delegate responsibilities confidently, which in turn should help to create the space required to be able to spend more time working ON the business. Designers are prone to employing the younger ‘more affordable’ staff that can be ‘shaped’ which can be appropriate for some but prove to be a false economy for others.

I’m interested in hearing some percentages. As a guide, it is my view that owners should generally be in (or manufacture) a position to be able to spend 50% or more of their time working ON the business, however that is achieved through each working week.

What would you say your % is?


Hi Simon – I’ve worked in-house at several ‘big’ agencies and their rule of thumb is that senior management should spend about 60-65% of their time ‘on’ the business. But as they’re big agencies they have the staff to do the ‘in’. I would say that your 50% rate is probably about right for smaller agencies.

Like you, I’m a now a consultant, and what I’ve found with smaller agencies is that the biggest challenges are around softer things. Agency owners know that they need to focus on the ‘on’, but often it’s extremely difficult from a psychological perspective for them to ‘let go’ and not be in control of everything.


Hi Simon – I agree with Stef, many agency owners feel an obligation to roll their sleeves up and exercise a degree of ‘doing’. Some of the agencies I’ve worked with over the last two years actually seem to benefit from a hands-on approach by the leaders. Conversely the work I do with agencies reaps dividends when it’s implemented or championed by someone who’s not too involved in the nitty-gritty. It’s a challenge for agency owners and always will be.


Good discussion stream, Simon, and one that’s very much needed in our sector.

It’s about balance isn’t it? And it’s something, as we all know, that can be hard to achieve. Making time for the ON is tough when we’re busy. I’m a great believer in a good, old-fashioned, expertly facilitated away-day every so often. Assessing the current picture; identifying and facing future challenges and making plans to deal with them; learning from failures; celebrating achievements. All equally important.

I would just add that the most successful design firms worldwide seem to be those run by designers who not only have the vision, the skills and the passion, but who have also invested in the necessary time and trouble to train properly in business skills (which are nowhere near as difficult as design skills, by the way). Or those which have in place a closely-bonded director/management team with differently-skilled people – whether in-company in larger firms or external in the smaller ones – who between them can take care of all of the operations in the firm.

What doesn’t seem to work long-term is when a businessperson is solely in charge. The firm’s ‘product’ – design – inevitably suffers, and the firm’s reputation rapidly declines. And although we constantly hear that a firm’s greatest asset is its people, I think it’s a myth. In my view, a design firm’s greatest asset is its good reputation, which is based on a great product delivery. Without that, it’s nothing.

ps Even some of us ‘consultants to the consultants’ can find it challenging when we’re busy to make the time to do the ON as well as the IN (well, maybe not you of course, Simon). Now then, back to that forward business plan…!


Thanks to those who contributed.


Lead generation services must not exclude freelancers

Design Week | Opinion | 18 May 2006

As a business development consultant working with small- and medium-sized design groups, I use lead generation services to help me identify opportunities for my clients. 

Recently, I tried to subscribe to a well-respected service on behalf of a new client, but was turned away on the basis that I work with more than one consultancy and could potentially ‘share’ information with my other clients.

This ‘subscription sharing’ forced the service to protect itself by preventing freelance new business people from subscribing.

I’ve since learnt that other lead generation-based services targeting the design industry also experience malpractice by some users of their service.

Action has to be taken to safeguard the interests of these services. However, it seems to me that they also need to introduce more intelligent measures to address the problem – as opposed to operating a blanket policy that closes the door on those who don’t abuse their services.