We moved into a new studio.
The last time I had a proper studio was back in the year 2000. I left the studio when I felt I had accomplished what I had set out to do. It started with 3 people, 4 desks under a shared-office arrangement and 0 clients. Over the span of 5 years, it was a 15-people company, running healthy and busy, with a list of blue-chip clients – a list which many would love to have as clients.
The beginning was tough. From a nicely paid salary at an ad agency, I took a drastic pay cut to venture into this new design business. Every day we were involved in free pitches just to solicit for jobs. As a young designer, it felt good to win against the better established, it felt lousy to lose – and that pushes me to work even harder.
The jobs came. I remembered reinstalling the studio’s partition twice to cater for growth until we could no longer cope and ended up moving. It was a fantastic experience that still amazes me. I was a designer who had no experience in managing a studio or clients, while my ex-partners (an engineer and an accountant) had no experience running a design business. But we pulled through trials and errors, fumbling on mistakes and improvising along the way. We sweat, we toiled. We camped many overnights. When the rewards started coming, it felt good. In reflective moments, I am still proud of how things worked out.
Although the ending was not memorable.
In the madness of building a business, I lost the enthusiasm for doing things that I enjoyed – to be creative. Maybe it was a burnt-out syndrome that plagued me. I went through every day without using my brain. My daily routine kicks off with checking what seven designers have done before the drafts/proofs/mock-ups reach the clients’ hands. Sandwiched in between would be discussions and arguments with the client-servicing people and suppliers (and the bookseller who kept on bringing me Photoshop books when I ordered Why Not Associates and End of Print). By the time I get down to the creative side of things, it would be 6 pm. I would have been mentally exhausted to do anything “good”.
It became a period of churning out soulless, formulaic and predictable jobs. It is frightening to note that despite all the bad works, the business did not decline. Maybe clients are more concerned about timely delivery, pricing and reliability. Maybe clients are not that discerning when it comes to design. But it matters a whole lot to me. I have become one of those designers living day-to-day, churning out things for the sake of it. I repeated my grids, recycled my colour palettes, reused rejected ideas, repackaged completed works and committed the worst sins of plagiarising designs from design annuals. I have become THE designer whom I rejected when I was high on idealism.
I had to take a leave from all this and that led to how&why.
7 years later, I am restarting a design studio.
This time around, I don’t have a business target. As long as commercial bread-and-butter stuff are nicely balanced with creatively driven jobs.
What matters most is that everyone gets to be creative in a place where ideas could flow freely and where collaborations could take place. The studio runs like a small team that works on projects in which student interns could be given opportunities to be part of the process. With how&why as a retail front, we could continue to initiate projects where end results could be marketed to the mass public.
Most importantly, everyone should go home by 7 pm and have a life.
For I believe one can never be a good designer without drawing inspiration from life.
Tibor Kalman once dished this advice to Stefan Sagmeister. “The toughest thing when running a design studio is not to grow.”
I shall listen to that too.