Thursday, September 14th, 2006

Yours is bigger

Yours is bigger
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As I can best recall, we started our firm with two key motives: The first was to generate enough revenue to allow ourselves more control over our destinies; the second was to establish a venue within which we could make design that somehow mattered. Be it the difficult financial climate that we began in, or our pragmatic tendencies, we often made choices that gave preference to that of financial stability.

From there to here

In the early years, Eric and I looked upon the work of good designers with awe, and dreamt of a day that would bring regular work with the opportunity to grow our company and build our portfolio. In recent years, we have seen those goals come to fruition in some part. Our studio receives more calls for work than we can take on; additionally, our measure for success – growth – has been met with the addition of staff, and the promise of doing so again in the coming months.

In spite of this, we have found happiness to be somewhat illusive; in fact it has been more so lately than ever before. As a result of our growth, Eric and I spend a large part of our time managing others, building systems, addressing logistical concerns, and rallying between clients and designers. Our days are busy, and we learn much from the challenges we face; however, we often find ourselves fondly looking back at simpler times when it was just the two of us, working out of my old house.

I have never believed in the notion of “burning out”, and have generally felt that the whole idea was a bit of a myth. That said, I tend to believe that I did so this past spring. At the time, we had a number of challenging projects on the go—one of which was complicated by a particularly obtuse and difficult client. Although I’ve faced such situations on many occasions, something seemed to break this time. As such, I found myself feeling nauseous throughout most days, unable to shake a sense of pending doom.

As much as I can appreciate such stresses for air-traffic controllers and paramedics, I hardly think that any designer should have reason to experience such pressure. It was around the end of the aforementioned contract that I came to the understanding that a change simply had to be made.

What is success?

Throughout all of this, I couldn’t help but wonder what all of this dissatisfaction was leading to. I also questioned whether the goals that once seemed so clear had perhaps become less relevant. It would be one thing if our efforts served a greater purpose, but ultimately, little of our current work feels that important. We continued to ask ourselves, “if it all comes down to growing a big, successful firm that helps companies sell more product, is it worth the stress?”

In his book “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success“, Ernie J. Zelinski explores the ideas surrounding success. His book nicely brings forth the idea that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with pursuing this. He does however outline that in doing so, one must take the time to establish how she/he defines that success. Additionally, he points to the idea that, while many of us are chasing status, monetary affluence, or material pleasures, we may be confusing our definition of success with someone else’s.

Remember that test where a guidance counselor asks you what you would do if you had a million dollars? Your answer to this question is supposed to cast light upon your true calling. In Mike Judge’s film “Office Space“, Peter and Lawrence discuss this point. When Peter expresses that given this situation he would choose to do nothing, his friend reminds him that you don’t need a million dollars to do “nothing”. As boorish a reference as this may seem, I feel that it is in fact quite insightful.

In the midst of an endless barrage of messages intending to program our ideas surrounding notions of success and happiness, many of us have lost our way. We’ve become culturally anorexic, binging and purging on unnecessary and elusive constructs surrounding excess, which rarely fulfill their promises. I think it’s fair to say that this affliction extends to all of us—our appetites aren’t our own, and they cloud our ability to find happiness.

A different path

I often think about the “million dollar” scenario noted above. I find it somewhat perverse that I continue to say that if our firm grew enough to yield substantial dividends, I would likely sell my shares, start a firm of one or two people, and focus even more on explorative, concept-driven design. Oddly enough, we are really only a few steps from that right now. As such, it’s puzzling that we continue to court growth, given that our end goal would lead us right back to where we are now.

Over the last year or two, Eric and I have continually toyed with the notion of rethinking our studio’s goals. Some might ask why we would contemplate what might seem like a step backwards; however, we have seriously asked ourselves what the reasons would be for not going back to the way we worked best—using our personal happiness as a measure for this.

Being away from the office for the past two and a half weeks has cemented this notion even further. Having some time to reflect and simply breathe seemed to bring clarity to the situation. We found a great deal of joy in our work before it became so much more structured and bureaucratic. Additionally, as with many of our peers, we could see that we were simply more profitable with fewer bodies in the studio. With that, Eric and I made a conscious decision to change some goals for our company.

With this plan, we envision a smaller shop that affords reasonable dividends, while allowing us to focus on work that is more enjoyable, personally meaningful, and important to our community.

Is small the new big?

Although this direction is not one that most design firms would choose, it is important to acknowledge that by no means is this choice something unique to us. A number of successful firms have made the concerted decision to stay small, or change course in order to reclaim the practice which attracted them to the field in the first place.

Stefan Sagmeister is perhaps the most outspoken believer in keeping his studio small. At just three people, he has followed the advice that Tibor Kalman gave him, to try to find a way to stay small. He often discusses the need to find happiness in one’s work, and seems to hold a true reverence for the practice of design.

Two years ago I was at a GDC presentation, featuring Casey Hrynkow of Herrainco Skipp Herrainco. She explained to the audience that after their firm grew, the partners all felt as though something was missing. They were managing many, but felt too far removed from the work which they had loved. As a result, they paired down their operation to the core parties in the firm and a couple of interns, and have been much happier since.

Marian Bantjes sold her interest in the firm Digitopolis a few years ago, and moved to Bowen Island, where she has been working as a one-person shop. Although she cites reasons other than escaping bureaucracy for her decision, in a recent email she noted that it turned out that way nevertheless. She also notes that she was exhausted with the industry, but that was put to rest by moving away from strategic design and – at least in my mind – to something far more personal. She notes that she is “much, much happier” as a result of the change.

Personal benefits and limitations

I sometimes think that the owner of a firm can be the worst-suited to manage it. We can become too fixated upon how hard we worked to get to where we are, and as such find it hard to accept anything other than complete dedication from our staff. This has made me a difficult manager to work with, and I often lament this position.

To me, the greatest advantage of becoming smaller is to limit the amount of time that I spend managing people, and focus more on doing the work. Although the title of Art Director may be alluring to young designers, it seems to me that the dream of being one fades upon entering the role. Many of the Art Directors I know would like to just design again.

As a result of this change, some other things may be relaxed as well. By reducing overhead, I believe that we will be able to choose projects more discriminately, worry less about the risk of not taking on certain projects, self-finance more internal efforts, and have more time to reflect upon the work we do. I also believe that we will gain some personal flexibility. I believe that it’s equally exciting to consider what there will be “less” of: systems planning, hiring, employee reviews, sales efforts, purchasing of equipment, IT support, correspondence, and quite possibly even meetings.

There are of course limitations that will come from this decision. This change will reduce the number of projects that we can take on at a given time, and we may limit our eligibility on some contracts requiring larger creative teams.

How we will do it

For most of the people who know us, little will appear to change in the operation of smashLAB. This is a transition that will occur on the inside, and seep out slowly. Our materials will look the same, we will remain in the office we are in, and we will still bathe with the same frequency that most have come to appreciate. That said however, there will be a sea change underway.

First of all, I think that we will be much more selective in whom we work with. We will spend more time choosing clients who are eager to embrace explorative processes. I also believe that we will give greater preference to clients who are thoughtful and appreciate the necessity of design.

I personally would like to seek out groups who work to impact positive social change. It would be nice to make our knowledge and services available to them. I see these as long-standing relationships that may allow us to intimately understand and impact a group’s direction over a number of years. We also intend to sever ties with a small number of the clients whose presence has caused undue anxiety and stress.

Additionally, our self directed efforts will gain greater prominence in our daily efforts. For the past two months, we have been placing much emphasis on an environmental effort, which we believe holds great promise. We also have been exploring writing and developing a couple of design publications. ideasonideas has been enjoyable, and we’d like to see how we could work in a longer-format medium. These projects get us excited, and we believe they will afford a great venue for learning and growth.

As for staff, we will suspend the hiring of new members, other than a person to take on some administrative and clerical tasks. Our hope is that this will redirect some of the duties that have distracted us from our core competencies.

I suppose that if I boil all of this down to a single point, it’s that we are trying to see things from a perspective of “better” instead of “more”.


When you first considered a creative career, some likely expressed their belief that you were foolhardy. When I chose to go to art school in the early nineties, people commonly asked what I intended to eat after completing my schooling. Similarly, when one openly states that their company is more interested in happiness than the creation of wealth, onlookers are equally prone to believe you to have some kind of a screw loose.

I have never minded listening to others air their problems; however, I am critical of those who complain without a willingness to change their situation. The move to shrink our firm is one which may test my resolution. As easy and natural as this choice seems at this moment, defying common conceptions – such as success – will likely be more difficult than it initially seems. Navigating a less-traveled path is rarely without its hardships.

So, things will change a little at smashLAB in the following weeks. Some of our efforts will be redirected, and a few things we’re doing may be round-filed. We will have some conversations with our staff, and see if they are on board with the new direction, and we’ll likely help a couple of our clients find other designers to work with. It’s strange to move in this direction; meanwhile, it is quite liberating.

For many, success and status will loom heavily in their careers, and I can appreciate that. I imagine that it will work very well for many of them. That being said, I just want to be a designer more of the time. It makes me happy to think that this decision may help us to build better work.

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