Croft Lodge Studio by Kate Darby and David Connor has been announced as the winner of AJ Small Projects 2017


Loving this award-winning preservation and conversion of a listed 300-year-old ruined cottage in Leominster, Herefordshire – complete with dead ivy and old birds’ nests!

The jury described the 115m² scheme as ‘beautifully executed’, ‘unpretentious’, and praised the design for not ‘romanticising the ruin’.

Kate Darby, founder of Kate Darby Architects said: ‘What is special about the project is the extreme length we went to preserve everything. Initially there was the prejudice to clear it up, but we realised the value of the project was in that extreme approach.’ More


Designers: are you Working Proactively?

For years, the typical mindset and prevalent behavioural characteristic of many designers towards agency-client relationships has been ‘reactive’ and not ‘proactive’. Why, and to what extent has this changed? With the right guidance, working proactively can transform work-life experiences for the better, and put designers more in the driving seat.

The trouble with conventional new business exploration

New research published by Design Week (20 March 2017) reveals that 70% of clients still expect designers to free pitch.

The What Clients Think 2017 report, which is based on interviews with 455 clients of design consultancies, shows that while nearly 90% of clients surveyed value design as important to a brand’s success and see the standard of UK design consultancies as “very high”, almost 70% of clients say they would not expect to pay for a creative pitch.

If you’re a designer, you’ll know that agencies have, for years, invested significant business development time and resources in the tendering process and pitching for new business, whether paid, free or otherwise. There are obvious benefits here: primarily, the agency knows there is a real opportunity of winning a fee-based project and the potential of a new ongoing client relationship. But there are obvious downsides too.

The tendering process is time-consuming, and pitching usually involves three to six agencies, often including the incumbent who can be better informed and often hard to dislodge. Based on agency research I commissioned in 2007, the average win rate was one in five – I doubt this rate will have changed a great deal. That’s a lot of work for often modest returns, so is there another, better, less conventional way of exploring new opportunities?

Well there is, but how naturally it fits with the typical mindset and behavioural characteristics of many designers I’m not sure. Allow me to explain.

The trouble with being reactive

I’ve worked with designers in different ways for over 30 years – as a client, in agencies and as a design agency owner. As a consultant, mentor and coach to designers since 2002, it soon became clear that designers were quite often found somewhat stuck in conventional and quite ‘transactional’ client/agency relationships – invariably sitting back waiting for client-initiated projects to be handed out or tender invitations to land and react to.

This reactive behavior would often lead to unsatisfactory project experiences for designers with clients (and vice-versa) and general discontent: ill-fitting client relationships, unrealistic project budgets and/or timescales, clients lacking ‘ambition’ in projects, differing strategic or creative ideas and opinions, and more. Things needed to change.

The opportunity with being proactive

My thoughts around this time seemed logical – that if designers had more clarity about themselves and their purpose, and they worked more proactively, they could elevate their standing in the relationship and, in doing so, potentially enhance their work-lives.

Designers are naturally creative and curious – their skillset is perfectly suited to working proactively. For me, it made sense that designers invest more time to applying their natural skills to self-initiate research and idea development. So, from around 2005 I set about encouraging design firms to embrace and integrate a more proactive way of working into their behaviours and activities.

What is Proactive Working?

Proactive Working is designers taking more control over their destiny and making things happen more on their terms.

It’s self-initiating research to inform, shape and own ideas and intellectual property. It’s proactively reaching out to and instigating conversations with selected clients (existing and new) that designers are potentially well suited to working with. It’s ‘partnering’ in the true sense of the word – in a co-venturing commercial context. It’s putting the designer more in the driving seat. It’s being less client-led. It’s leading and hunting, and not just being conveniently fed. It’s elevating the designer in the agency-client relationship by building perceived value through your actions.

Proactive Working is shaping your future, not allowing others to shape it for you.

Working proactively is a mindset and a behaviour that can be effective and rewarding, but it takes courage, and won’t be for everyone. The challenge for designers with establishing and running a programme that explores the potential of Proactive Working is largely the commitment to and recognising the need for; discipline, open-mindedness, perseverance, determination and not making premature judgements about whether it works or not.

As for the rewards, well, they can be transformational.

The benefits

By working more proactively, designers can enhance their work-lives in many ways. It’s an uplifting and dynamic experience to be the driver of a new initiative. The new skills, knowledge, confidence that can be acquired. The clarity of purpose, sense of freedom and controlling your own destiny is exciting.

Proactive working done well can be a powerful and purposeful new business driver. A great idea can propel a design business past the gatekeepers and typical barriers. The tables can be dramatically turned. Suddenly, the designer can hold the purse strings and choose which client they want to do business with, not the other way around. The potential rewards that can be derived from embedding this way of working – either in part alongside your more conventional business development activities, or as the standalone activity – are plain to see.

The example

In 2010, I found myself working with a small design firm to help them explore how they might develop their business and new opportunities. As part of this, and we took ourselves on a ‘journey of proactivity’. The results were fascinating. A big idea took shape and within just a few months we had secured the interest of a significant new client in a co-venture proposal, and my client had secured its place on their agency roster. The journey, experience and insights we gained are captured in this blog post.

How the land lies today

Armed with this uplifting example of how effective proactive working can be, the endeavor to encourage more design firms to embrace and integrate a more proactive way of working into their behaviours and activities would seem worthwhile and likely to click.

What I experienced, for the most part, was a reluctance to trial this approach, and so its potential was rarely tapped and explored. Six years on from this experience, ways of working may have changed and design firms I have worked with recently have been distinctly proactive by nature, but I ask these questions to hopefully shed more light on how the land lies today:

  • To what extent has the typical mindset and behavioural characteristics of many designers changed? Outside of fee-paying day-to-day client projects, are many design firms still working reactively?
  • How much time, effort and money does working conventionally – in the pursuit of new business tenders, pitches and growth – cost agencies today? What is the typical conversion rate and return?
  • Are alternative ways of working given the time and money they need to succeed?

Getting proactive

At this point, I recall the inspirational words of Seth Godin who says, firms need to avoid playing it ‘safe’, think differently and be less risk-averse. These are qualities that drive Proactive Working to transform work-life experiences.

Clearly this is challenging for even the bravest among us. Intrinsically linked to the act of ‘proactive exploration’ can, for some, be a significant change of mindset and behaviour. Embracing a complete change or shift in how you try to win new business can be uncomfortable, unsettling, even scary.

So how can designers set about embracing change? A starting point might be to ask yourself;

  • how accepting and comfortable do you feel with the familiar and typical client/agency dynamic of ‘client holding the purse strings’?
  • And is the uncertainty in the conventional tender/pitch process – not knowing whether your firm will be ‘the chosen one’ – really the best way to explore new opportunities going forward?

Objectively reviewing your current business development activities, outputs and behaviours is a logical next step. Who this applies to includes those that may be enjoying a margin of success with their outbound activities – be warned, complacency is the silent killer!

Are you Working Proactively?

Designers that strive to be more proactive, and less reliant on ‘client-led’ initiatives and project commissions, can open doors to more opportunities for leadership in their market sectors. And pave the way for building reputation!

After all, the client-agency relationship benefits when both sides put into it. Clients look to designers for inspiration, in fact they expect them (at times) to take the lead with fresh ideas for discussion and fuel the relationship more. But how often is this happening today?

In this dynamic, exciting, uplifting way of exploring new opportunities, imagine how clients could (in time) find themselves making more of the running to ensure they are on your shortlist to see and hear your reflections, ideas and visions and to be your preferred partner.

I’m not saying you can win all your new business by working in this way, but if designers mix up their approach, think differently and take the initiative more they’re likely to see big results. Working proactively can transform day-to-day work-life experiences, raise external perceptions and profile, and it can elevate designers in agency-client relationships.

For more information, check out my seven Tips for Proactive Working at the end of this article. 

Defining roles

Based on the nature of my work since 2002, I define myself today as being three things to design firms – a consultant, a mentor and a coach. In doing so, design firms (and brands) sometimes ask me to clarify the differences in these roles, so here’s a simple description for each which may well be obvious to most but useful to some.

Consulting – a consultant is someone accomplished and experienced in their field, offering a great deal of knowledge or skill in a particular area, that is called upon for professional, specialist or technical advice and/or opinions. Essentially, they are relied on to understand the problem and present solutions. Consulting is unlike coaching because with pure coaching, the answers come from the client.

Mentoring – a mentor is an experienced and trusted guide/advisor. Mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person (the mentor) helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person (the mentee). The mentor may be older or younger than the person being mentored, but she/he must have a certain area of expertise. The focus of mentoring is to develop the whole person and so the techniques are broad and require wisdom in order to be used appropriately. 

Coaching – coaching can be defined as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.” The coach is the subject matter expert at coaching, not necessarily the subject matter expert of the client’s coaching topic.

The challenge with each individual client engagement can be determining (in the contracting and scoping phase) which of these three hats needs to be worn, and knowing how and when to ‘switch’ and strike the right balance between these roles to best serve a client or situation. On reflection, most client engagements require all three hats to be worn, just at different times, during the course of working with them.

The common thread that runs through these roles in working with design firms and brands (based on experience and client feedback), seems to be the tangible value design firms say they derive from; 

  • the ‘design sector specialism’ of teer,
  • the ‘ideas and initiatives’ that are brought to the table,
  • the ‘understanding of business function’ and ‘services offered’ to clients, and
  • the ‘external perspective’ of working with designers since the mid 80s that have focused in; graphics, products, furniture, interiors, experiential and events, wayfinding and environmental graphics. 

There is an additional role worth mentioning – that my experience lends itself to and which borders on the hats I wear – that can ‘blur the lines’ somewhat further….the Non-Executive Director.

Non-Executive Director – often abbreviated to non-exec, NED or NXD, the NED is a member of the board of directors, but is not part of the executive management. NEDs typically stand back from the operational running of the business and act in advisory capacity only. NEDs have the same legal duties, responsibilities and potential liabilities as their executive director counterparts, but they do not have to be shareholders in the business. NEDs attend board meetings to offer the benefit of their advice, and they are usually paid a fee for their services but are not regarded as employees.


Repositioning wood burning stove maker Future Fires as ‘beautifully contemporary’

Proud to share fruits of my labour since Sep 2016…

Special thanks to; Simon Pengelly for the referral, to Darrell at Future Fires for asking me to review their needs and lead a repositioning project and to the super-talented team I put together – Lewie, Barnaby, Simon, Lorri and Paul – who deserve so much credit for making the project come to life!

A thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience for me to get back to running a project like this for a client brand.

Who’s next…?

Positioning oneself as an Expert

It’s a bold, confident word ‘expert’.

As for its literal definition, an ‘expert’ is someone or a firm with a high level of skill or knowledge in a particular field. For me this raises some questions…

– Is the very definition of the term ‘expert’ somewhat vague and open to interpretation? What actually constitutes having a ‘high level of skill or knowledge in a particular field’?

– Is being an ‘expert’ something that one can authentically declare of oneself?

– And is being an ‘expert’ something that is more appropriately bestowed upon you by others, like an award or privilege granted as a special honour or as an acknowledgement of merit?

So, for example, a client company that discovers whether or not they experience and regard a design firm to be ‘expert’ in their particular field and, if so, maybe referring to them as ‘expert’ in a testimonial? Or maybe it’s the preserve of industry awards or other independent bodies that are better placed to make impartial judgements and hand out such acknowledgements? After all, there are no real set criteria in the vast majority of fields as to what makes an ‘expert’.

Thinking about this in terms of people we would unquestionably regard as ‘expert’ in their field…

The obvious example would be German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, and there’s broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough who has served an industry all his life, has won awards and received a knighthood in 1985 in recognition of his services to television. And then there’s Stephen Hawking who knows a thing or two about science and the universe.

These people have undoubtedly earned their stripes, however, the point I wish to make here is that I doubt they would ever have referred to themselves as ‘experts’ in say a biography or in any promotional capacity. Equally, we don’t see long-established highly experienced firms that we could easily regard as ‘expert’ in their field – for example Apple, Microsoft, EY, Goldman Sachs, etc – describing themselves as such.

Interestingly I recall, when I joined the DBA Experts Register a few years ago, feeling the term ‘experts’ was not the best way for the DBA to be positioning the register. That’s just my opinion about the name, and I hasten to add it’s not a reflection of how I view the people on the register!

Maybe I need to get out more, but this is everyday reflection on the power of words, and the nuances and idiosyncrasies that figure in my work. Part of what I do involves helping companies to position themselves authentically. Blindingly obvious maybe, but the words we choose to describe ourselves speak for us, and must be chosen with due care and understanding of their true meaning and what they actually say about us.

Thinking objectively and contemplating those I see from time to time positioning themselves as ‘experts’, I wonder how this may be perceived by their existing and prospective clients, by stakeholders, staff, associates, etc.

Of course this is a personal thing, and some of you may not agree or particularly care about this either way. However, there are certain do’s and don’ts around positioning, and from experience my instincts prompt me to advise any client of mine against defining themselves as an ‘expert’. Why?

Because generally, those that are truly at the top of their game have a solid reputation and following anyway, and they don’t need to ‘shout’. Others experience their aptitude and speak for them. Qualities such as humility, calm, transparency and restraint combined with evidence of success make for a compelling, trustworthy and believable brand proposition.

You may see this differently, so please share your thoughts and ponder the following questions:

– Is it appropriate to self-proclaim and position oneself as an ‘expert’?
– Is it the role of others to decide or propose whether someone is an ‘expert’ or not in their field?
– How do design firms feel about the idea of engaging the services of an ‘expert’?

Role Model #3 – Finding our authentic selves, with 12 Miles North

authentic grunge retro blue isolated ribbon stamp

You may have noticed the extent to which organisations and brands have taken to this word ‘authentic’. I chose the word myself over the word ‘traditional’ in the positioning of my furniture venture Teer & Co 

Authentic, is a word that resonates when I browse the website of a design business I know not well called 12 Miles North. Established by two experienced people that know their way around the business of design, this is a young company that I have found myself pointing my clients towards as a great example of how to tell your story and communicate your proposition in a calm, confident and compelling way. Their purpose is clear – they talk of taking brands further and helping them find their authentic selves.

So why do we resonate with ‘authenticity’, and gravitate towards things with provenance and soul?

In its literal definition, ‘authenticity’ concerns the truthfulness of origins, attributes, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions. It’s something that has depth and speaks of being trustworthy, genuine, honest and believable. It feels wholesome and exudes a certain quality. Perhaps it resonates because it’s quite an aspirational thing.

One could say that being authentic makes allowances for any imperfections, and keeps things real. Perhaps ‘authentic’ matters because in the human context it can ‘set the tone’, helping us make real connections with people.

And what can ‘authenticity’ give us?

Well getting back to 12 Miles North, which came into the world in January 2015 as a boutique consultancy run by Creative Director Nick Birch and Brand Strategist Karen Woodhead, I would say their storytelling and tone of voice gives out an impression about them that’s reassuring, that draws you in, that you’re in safe hands. What you read can make you feel you’ve found an agency that offers the potential to take your business ‘somewhere’. Somewhere exciting perhaps, somewhere significant, somewhere that should help you resonate with your audiences.

When you visit their website you could be forgiven for interpreting them as copywriters. The founders Nick and Karen declare themselves to be ‘fanatical wordsmiths’ – it shows.

12 Miles North won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. For me though, they become a Role Model design business for the way their website communicates their story in a pared down, considered, authentic way. You know they are experienced from the outset – from their tone of voice and elegant use of words that set them apart from other design agency websites. They articulate ‘why’ they exist, you get a sense of their values, what inspires them and what type of client they are most suited to working with. Their writing style helps Nick and Karen achieve a level of differentiation in a crowded market.

At times we all need to stretch ourselves and go twelve miles further. In doing so, we may just find that authentic thing in the way that 12 Miles North has and so eloquently communicates its authentic self.

Retaining and developing clients – the designer’s Achilles heel?

Interesting to read and reflect on the findings of Up to the Light’s latest and very informative report What Clients Think 2016 published in March 2016 in association with the DBA.

For anyone unfamiliar with this report it presents the findings of 435 interviews, conducted with clients of design agencies during 2015, to monitor the health of client/agency relationships.

As I read through the section ‘Keeping Clients’ which covers client service and client development issues, I found myself recalling and comparing this to the key findings of a client survey I conducted back in 2001 at a time when I was running a design practice I set up in 1999. Our ‘Signpost Survey’ posed the question…Are you being served?…and explored marketers’ attitudes towards and their experiences of working with designers. Design Week published extracts from the findings in a piece they summarised as Poor show from consultancies which identified weaknesses in the way design firms engaged with and serviced clients at this time.

15 years on and I see the common ground between both surveys. One can draw conclusions around the apparent lack of progress being made by many design firms in their responsibilities to service and develop healthy client relationships. This is a service industry, and yet client service clearly seems to be an ongoing challenge for many design firms.

So what does teer bring to the client service and development challenge?

Occupying the space I have between agencies and clients since the mid-80s, you get 30+ years’ sector experience applied to methodologies and growth-oriented activities that are implemented efficiently, have a generally positive impact and are well received by clients.

1980s – Client-side product developer commissioning design services on behalf of toy and games manufacturers

1990s – Agency-side in Account Direction roles working for various creative agencies including Holmes & Marchant Group

1999 to 2003 – Design business owner serving mostly large multinational UK-based clients

2003 to present – Strategic growth consultancy trading as teer providing mentoring and coaching services to design business owners / leaders

We all have our experiences and hopefully learn from the often fickle nature of client relationships. Personally, I’ve developed and apply practical methodologies that help design firms adopt a more client-focused mindset and proactive behaviour that can shape or improve how they retain and develop healthy client relationships.

If you’re curious or suspect there is scope for improving your client servicing then a conversation could be your next step. On the other hand, if you’re sceptical or confident you have the client service thing all buttoned down, you might just want to check by asking yourself some questions, like:

  • Do we monitor and know how clients experience working with us?
  • How well do we engage with and manage the interactions we have with clients on projects?
  • How do clients feel we compare with their past or incumbent agencies they might work with?
  • Outside of fee-based projects, is our behaviour within client relationships mostly reactive or proactive regarding their challenges, needs and future plans?