Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

You are working hard and are dedicated to running a good studio but it never seems to be enough. You’re not getting the contracts you want, staff are burning out and it feels like you are falling behind. Your studio isn’t as fun as it once was and you’re wondering if you should quit and just get a job at a high-paying ad agency instead. Before you do, I’d like to share some thoughts on focus.

We aren’t big enough

There are many small design firms out there that use a phrase like this in their marketing: “We are focused on branding, print design, advertising, publicity, and interaction design.” I, too, have fallen into this trap, but I have to stress that a list does not constitute focus. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being an interdisciplinary studio – they have advantages – but if you’re unhappy with how things are going it may be time to examine how focused your firm actually is.

Generalizing makes it hard to run a company and these challenges are compounded for small firms, due to a lack of people-power. In taking on so many unique disciplines, principals and their staff are left with too many things to learn, manage and do. This can lead to frustration and fatigue.

It’s true that large agencies can successfully offer a wide range of services, but they are very different than small design studios. The rules that apply for them don’t apply for us. Additionally, have you noticed that major agencies often develop their own sub-brands just to create the perception of focus?

Our own worst enemy

Why do designers sometimes take on more than they should? The answers to this may be out of my reach, but I’d like to present a couple of possibilities. First, we enjoy what we do, so it’s easy to fall in love with the idea of crafting every aspect of a campaign. Be it passion or the tendency to obsess over the details, our desire to touch everything can get in the way of efficient business.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I lose sight of our studio’s goals when we are working with a client. I get excited about their business and start to get involved in aspects of the project that are out of scope. Maybe this is a good thing: to be so engaged with those you work with. However, if you are neglecting your own firm’s health, you won’t be of much use to your clients. I have to ask if our desire to “help” clients makes us worse at what we do. Maybe we should concentrate on delivering one thing really well, instead of trying to service every conceivable communication need.

One (perhaps) pivotal insight

If you were an athlete who trained in five Olympic sports, could you be the best at all of them? Maybe, but I doubt it. I hold the opinion that you are better off to choose what you are strongest at and dedicate as much as you can to mastering that discipline.

The above observation is one that has resonated in my head for years now, and we finally started to act upon it this year. Let’s talk about why you might like to consider doing the same with your firm.

When you only sell one thing, it’s much easier to sell it. For example “communication design strategies and problem solving” may sound good to you, but it means little to the general public. I can’t tell you how nice it is to respond to questions about what we do with the answer: “websites.”

Additionally, when you choose to focus on one area, you allow yourself to compete in a smaller fragment of the marketplace. There are a lot of great designers out there; are you really good enough to go head to head with them in every discipline? Adding focus allows you to position yourself better, clarify your value-proposition and gain advantage in the marketplace.

The big thing in my mind is that by focusing, there is less to do: fewer RFPs to review, less complex internal processes, not as many awards to apply for, and the list goes on. Focusing in one area also allows you to partner with others who are equally focused in their respective discipline. (That means better work for your clients.)

The difference between good and exemplary is granular. Focusing on the details enables us to make these small but critical gains. As golfers like to say, “Drive for show, putt for dough.”


I find work incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. Through it I meet people, share ideas and continually learn. I awake at 4:50am so that I can dash to the studio and “get to it”. You may feel this is out of balance, but I’d argue that it’s just fun. That being said, I also want a holiday.

My eight month old son is doing something new every day. Lately he has been pulling himself up in his crib, and is very excited to be doing so. I love being a part of that. Although I’ll always work hard, it sure is nice to have time to see him. By adding focus to our company, I gain freedom in my personal life.

How to get narrow

There are a number of ways to narrow your firm’s focus. The first step is to consider what you are best at, enjoy most, or see the greatest opportunity in. This will help uncover patterns that lead to insight.

Alternatively, you can use the model that Jim Collins talks about in his book Good to Great by asking: What you are deeply passionate about? What can you be the best in the world at? What drives your economic engine?

We chose to narrow our firm’s offering, but even firms that decide otherwise would benefit by working within a particular sector or regional marketplace. Sometimes this kind of focus can provide strong competitive advantage.

Wag the dog

I’m horrible at maintaining focus. So please don’t take this article as rigid dogma. It’s just an effort to share ideas that we’ve mulled over as of late. We’re not great business people, but we’re learning and I must say that in the past months, things have become a lot smoother and deliberate here at smashLAB. Clarity feels really good.

The simplest things are often the hardest to really learn; perhaps this post will save you a couple of steps. As designers we need to run our businesses, and not the other way around.

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Jason B. says:

    What a coincidence, lately I've been reading some of the "Win without Pitching" material from Blair Enns (www.winwithoutpitching.com). Among other things he espouses finding a focus (whether it be a discipline or category or whatever). This is one of those times when you read something and think, "Of course! That makes so much sense, why didn't I think of that?" Good for you.

    And I really like the new site, both tone and design.

  2. john says:

    i constantly have this arguement with a mate and do agree to the volume of water
    it holds in terms of business, however i also still believe in 'graphic design' as a
    'discipline'.. I find graphic designers much more interesting than their specialist copadriates, i suppose it's all about what you expect or want from a career...

  3. shawnpetriw says:

    You could do the same thing with your client list. Stay diverse in your offering, but offer it to fewer and better clients. And just say "no" to a lot of stuff.

  4. Thanks for the links Jason--I'll take a closer look over those. I'm also happy to hear that you like the new site. We always have a tougher time with our own. It's nice to learn that it's resonating well.

    I agree with you John, being a graphic designer is certainly a clear discipline. That said, I suppose what I'm a little perplexed by is the tendency for "creep". We've helped with anything from naming projects, to Word templates for identities, wayfinding signage, and the list goes on. Although many of us are capable of doing these things, where do we draw the line? Do we take photos, write press releases, produce videos, and write radio copy too? Our roles as graphic designers seem to become more nebulous daily. As such, some focus can certainly help make things manageable.

    Shawn, your observation is a strong one as well. By "choosing" which clients a firm works best with, both the firm and the client typically have a better experience. That being said, saying "no" isn't always the most enjoyable thing. Why waste the time of ourselves and others? Wouldn't it be better to position well and have clients clearly understand our offering? I suppose this is really a brand issue. We often ask our clients to consider what they are best at and focus on it. Maybe it's time for a taste of our own medicine. ;-)

  5. Richard says:

    Funnily enough I've just finished this book:


    A potentially unappealling book to many designers (it's ugly and aimed at marketeers) but it's about exactly this: focus.

    Really, it's a branding issue. And like all good brands, the design firms that stand out are the ones that present a clear idea in the minds of their clients/customers.

  6. Nice article here, and good to read into your personal life a little. I think that always helps.

    Shawn makes a good point about focusing on a narrower client base rather than curbing some skills.

    I agree with you that it's better to focus on a few things rather than be mediocre at everything. That's where outsourcing comes in handy for me.

    I'm a graphic designer, focusing on print and static web design. I'm not equipped for flash or in-depth coding. It's not what I'm trained in. I could train in this, but that would mean putting my graphic design learnings on the back-burner, and I'll never know everything there is to graphic design (for print mainly).

    Back to Shawn's point. This is where creating a niche will work for the jack-of-all-trades. For example, if you have a few clients who are church groups, why not create case studies from their projects and pitch to more and more church groups. The same could be said for any profession.

    My two cents for what they're worth.

  7. Denis says:

    I started as an interior designer in Italy with experience on site as well as at a drawing table, but after I moved to the UK, the circumstances were different and I started doing more web and identity design work which now makes 90% of my portfolio.

    I still don't feel like giving up on interiors and pretty soon I will have the facilities for it, but one of the things is that I could come across as "Jack of all trades". I guess one of the ways to avoid that would be to show samples of work from each discipline which can speak for it self.

  8. shawnpetriw says:

    Those who are "graphic designers" and are experiencing creep beyond graphic design may solve thier branding issue (without reducing their offering) with a new title: Communication Design(er).

    Where do you draw the line? You don't for great clients that are willing to (and do) pay.

  9. Eric Heiman says:

    This reminds me of a talk Marty Neumeier of Neutron and "The Brand Gap" fame used to give a lot about how it was vital to specialize, which may be true if your goal is to run a seamless, well-oiled business machine. I was fresh out of school and unbelievably idealistic then so Marty's talk made me so antagonistic that subliminally I think I have been trying to prove him wrong ever since, and to more success than even I thought.

    The specialization thing is a great model and to each their own. I'm sure if my partner and I decided just to do websites or identity or publishing, we might be more successful financially. But I think the reason we don't is we rue the possible personal costs. Our more generalist approach has afforded us more memorable experiences, interesting jobs, and work with wonderful yet disparate collaborators and clients. This is priceless and worth more than any bigger net profit line in our Quickbooks balance sheets. If there is any specialist part of our practice it's who we are (smart, engaged and fun people) and the holistic approach to every job we do. We get to learn new processes and make huge mistakes, but that's what makes life fun. We specialize in trying to do work that is important to us—damn the format. I suppose that one could argue work isn't the place to try this, even if you love what you do, but I spend too much time here at my desk to make it not count.

    I'm also reminded of a quote I read in Ronald Wright's "A Short History of Progress": "Someone once defined specialists as 'people who no more and more about less and less, until they know all about nothing.'"

  10. Eric Heiman says:

    It's actually "People who KNOW more and more about less and less until they know all bout nothing." Looks like this generalization thing is making me a bad proofreader.

  11. I believe the "Beyond Graphic" effort is a sound one; nevertheless, it's centered on updating the nomenclature of the profession in order to reflect our area of practice more accurately. I don't believe it's intended as a way to extend our brand or offer work beyond our strengths.

    With regard to your second point Shawn, I'm rather torn. My first response is that it's a great way to tangibly illustrate one's dedication to a client. It's the kind of attitude that most clients would appreciate. My worry with it, however, is in how irresponsible this stance is.

    It's a professional's responsibility to remain honest with clients about what they can deliver well and which tasks are outside of their core competencies. A GP doesn't "tinker around" with cardiology because the client pays well; they know that their duty is to refer issues outside of their realm of expertise.

    Not "drawing the line", although perhaps intended as a kind gesture, is not in the client's best interest. Our vocation isn't about collecting a list of everything we could possibly do. It's about servicing our customers to the best of our ability.

  12. Eric Heiman says:

    Geez. I'm my own argument underminer. For the last time:

    “Someone once defined specialists as ‘people who know more and more about less and less until they know all about nothing.'”

    My apologies for the unnecessary space and time.

  13. shawnpetriw says:


    "It’s a professional’s responsibility to remain honest with clients about what they can deliver well and which tasks are outside of their core competencies."

    Sorry - to clarify - I meant stay within what you're good at (or grow to be good at it), not be dishonest, but don't necessarily cut off what you CAN do in order to specialize.

    Your GP example - sure they're not a cariologists, but they don't specialize in diagnosing only one ailment. "We'll, it's not herpes, and I only specialize in herpes, so you'll have to go to another doctor to find out why you've got pain down there."

    If you can deliver better today than you could yesterday because you learned something or developed more skill as you went along, were you dishonest about your abilities with your clients yesterday?

    If so, I've been dishonest with everyone my entire life, and plan to continue doing so.

  14. shawnpetriw says:

    I'm a big fan of the Creative Generalist; the idea, the blog and the manifesto.

  15. Richard says:

    In that book I mentioned before, the author suggests that while it's important to appear focused and clear about what you're about, once you've got your customer "in the door" you can sell them whatever you like (I've put that very crudely). I've seen this work: I used to work for a company that was well known for event production, we did great events for our clients but it wasn't long before we were doing great marketing and collateral for the same clients. I now work for a branding specialist, but we do all soughts of things for the clients we've developed brands for.

    So you can be a covert generalist masquerading as a specialist.

    Lately, I've been thinking about something similar to what Shawn touches on in that regardless of what "channel" we're employing, at the end of the day, it's all about communicating or promoting or provoking or something. So why not just re-brand your profession. Problem is, the people that commission us have an understanding of what graphic design is and you may have to work very hard to get them to understand what, say, a Communication Designer does; we used to call ourselves a communications company and lost count of how many people asked us if we did phones(?!!?).

    Personally, I think it could be done, it would just require some clever communication work. I like the idea of being a Creative Generalist too; that you could be an expert in generalism.

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  18. arjan says:

    Nice to see that you picked up on my comment of last november. Focus is key. Success is no coincidence. It happens to people that 'begin with the end in mind'. If you know what you want to achieve, chances are you'll most probably achieve it.
    As a designer I think you should be focused when it comes to your output, but be as broad and openminded when it comes to input.

  19. Drew Neisser says:

    Focus is essential to the long-term success of just about every services practice. Think of it this way--who would you rather have as a surgeon--the specialist or the generalist? It's not even a debate, right? This focus has certainly helped me keep MarketingforGood.net on track. All that said, the reality is many of us in the communications world suffer from A.D.D. inspiring us to dart from discipline to discipline without hesitation. Throw in a pervasive sense of optimism that says "sure, we can do that" in response to a client's desire for one-stop shopping AND you have the perfect recipe for a full-service (jack of all trades) agency. At Renegade, we have tried to focus the conversation on IDEAS rather than specific disciplines and this seems to be working with some clients particularly those with smaller budgets and a desire for truly integrated programs. Larger clients prefer us to focus on particular disciplines that they consider our core competencies. Bottom line--in an imperfect world a little flexibility goes a long way.

  20. Late to the party.

    I think the Jack-of-all-trades mentality can be applied to both individual and the studio.

    First, as an individual, (freelancer specifically), the positive:
    Being able to offer multiple skills has kept me from losing work. Brainstorm session. Event promotion. Packaging. Brand identity. Whatever. The assignment may not have been as top level as I would like, but I still put in 110%. Regardless, you sometimes have to grab work where you can, pride be damned. But why miss out when you have experience to draw on that you can offer them, you know?

    The negative for the individual:
    Too much of that pigeonholes you bigtime in some places. Being all things to all people, well, just what is it you do? Concept person here? AD there? Designer in this place? (It's then you have to refuse certain types of work lest you be known as "the so-and-so person" who we call on just for... the same old thing. For young creatives, I’m not saying adopt a prima donna attitude either and refuse work, just be more selective.)

    As for studios being focused, I agree they should be. But, if they have the skillset to go after other kinds of work, why not? (Ok, if your firm has never done a branding campign and only knows back-end production on websites, you may be stretching too far beyond your limits.)

    The idea is still what's important though, not the media it runs in. (Almost adopting a media agnostic approach, because with so many options available, a consumer first experiences a brand in almost any area: web, movie trailer, viral, etc.) Why can’t a branding firm go beyond creating a color scheme and identity system and look at ALL the areas a client puts its message out? If an idea transcends any single type of media, the agency should go for it and pitch it.

    (I'm thinking of the newer breed of a place like a 72andsunny in LA. They do web. They do viral. They do TV. Funky stuff. They seem to do a lot of it well regardless of the media too. And there's a lot of small agencies out there trying to do that too. The traditional offline giants like JWT and others are coming around, but even then, they still have to farm out their ideas to small interactive shops to make them work.

    And, more than a few of those giants are scooping up smaller shops to service existing clients, especially in the areas of SEO/SEM. (I think though, that's where the newer breed of agency needs to focus: do we hook up with a monster agency because we'll get a piece of Proctor and Gamble? Or do we stay small on our own and pitch MTV directly? (Creatively, well, I’m avoiding P&G.)

    This also changes the equation for brands by running with an idea from a smaller shop for the entire brand. They’re used to the traditional shops. As an up and coming agency though, what do you do, say, "Uh, no thanks, we're flattered you liked our website design, but we don't do TV?" In this case, you’re faced with the jack-of-all-trades label. Either that, or stay true to the singular "we only do websites" vision. (Me, I'd say find someone quick who does TV and bring them in, lol.)

    End of ramble.

  21. Great article. In starting my own firm shortly, I had to go through the same realization.

    I came to the following:
    Under promise and over deliver.

  22. James says:

    Nice article. 'Hindsight is always twenty twenty'. Reminds me of this http://www.keep-calm.com/products/chart-hindsight/

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  25. Angela says:

    I agree with many of the points that you made about business and taking on one project at a time, and actually doing quality work. I love how you relate sports and use it as an analogy, it really hits home to me and I assume to a lot of other people they can also relate. I feel that's what a graphic designer is all about relating to their audience, no matter who they are. The jobs in my hometown put similar descriptions in their ads saying graphic designer needed, when in all actuality I don't think they really even know what one does and what their job description is. It's nice to know that people have similar problems they run into.

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