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.

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