So you want to start your own design firm?

CONGRATULATIONS This is the most exciting time in your design career. For one or more reasons,you know (or think you know) that you want to have your own design firm,with your name on the door—a place where you control the design decisions, where you work with the clients, and where you get the credit, reward, and satisfaction of making it on your own. As designers,we have all invested many years in our education and in our internship, training to become licensed certified practitioners. Many of us have spent ten, fifteen, maybe twenty to twenty-five years working in a firm or numerous design firms.We know how to design, we have the knowledge of the building codes, we know how to put a project together.We love our work.

The bottom line questions to be asked, though, are,“Can I be a businessperson?” “Am I entrepreneurial?” “I am passionate about my design capabilities, but can I be passionate about running a business?” Sadly, most designers are not trained for business. Most college curriculums are silent on the topic, except for maybe one course on “Professional Practice.”The common thought in the profession is that we are trained how to think and use our imaginations in college, but we are to learn from others after the academic experience about the reality of design and maybe, just maybe, some business skills.

For most of us, after graduation and experiencing our internships, the business side of the design practice is shielded from our view by the leadership of the firm. It is a mystery. If we progress, and portray the proper organizational qualities expected by the firm, we are promoted to project management and, maybe for the first time, exposed to time management expectations to generate a profit for the firm. Profit—what is that? There is usually a requirement to fill out time sheets to track our efforts on the various projects that we will work on. There is a person in the accounting business office of the firm who is responsible for collecting, maintaining, and reporting on the status of efforts on a project.  

Why do they do that?
One of the most difficult transitions for any designer to understand, accept, and practice is the translation of design efforts into a business language that is measurable and meaningful. As designers, what is our value system? Is it great design? Is it being successful in business?

 In my mind, successful designers must create and maintain a “balance” in their professional efforts at their design firm.We all know that we can create great design. But can we all be great at business? Understanding that we need to balance our design ego with a time schedule to produce a product in a measurable time frame is the ultimate challenge in creating a successful, profitable design practice.