Starting a design business doesn't have to be a leap in the dark. Many have done it before you and can offer advice to light the way.
Chances are you've thought about setting up your own studio. From a corner of a bedsit to a sleek shared designer pad in trendy Hoxton, it's a dream many share. Now, for more and more creatives that dream is becoming a reality, as technology breaks down the distinction between the corporate big boys and those working from a more modest studio. As graphic designer and recent winner of the prestigious 'Creative Future Award' Zak Kyes says: "Now that everybody has a laptop it's possible to never leave your studio, or to always bring it with you. And email makes your location irrelevant, so everything is possible." With just a bit of hard work, good research and the basic tools of the trade, you could be joining thousands already working successfully from their own studio spaces.
Before deciding on a suitable location, consider the basics: what you need to get your studio up and running. Think seriously about whether you want a PC or a Mac before parting with money for what is possibly your single biggest investment. PCs can be cheaper to buy, easier to build and repair, and you'll find thousands of deals on the high street and online. However, precious work time can be eaten up by combating computer viruses, spyware, adware and avoiding identity theft.
Apple Macs are prevalent in the creative community - they look great and their intuitive and stable operating system means that they're good performers. On the downside, they can be expensive, and when good Macs go bad they can be costly to get fixed. As for software, consider what you actually need, not what would be ideal. Older versions of popular applications can be found cheaper and can be an effective way of getting discounted upgrades at a later date. Most manufacturers offer 30- day-trial software, which is a great way to seek out possible cheaper alternatives.
Getting an internet connection and maintaining an online portfolio are vital if you want your business to prosper. Net4now is an excellent source of user feedback when deciding on an ISP and website host. The days of dial-up are over, so look for a broadband deal that reflects your likely usage. Buying a domain name and web space can be daunting, and personal recommendations are a good place to start. Check the small print before signing up to a deal, because annoying banner or pop-up ads and bandwidth limitations aren't ideal if you're trying to look professional.
Building your own website is easier than ever and the chances are you already know somebody who's done just that. Ask around - some might be willing to help for a small fee. A good free invisible web counter, such as www.statcounter.com, will give you valuable information about visitors to your site and the effectiveness of any client mail-outs you might manage to send out.
A golden rule is to always back up your important files, artwork, accounts, and contacts, ideally on to an external hard drive, or burn them to CD or DVD. Get into the habit of doing this regularly. A laptop will give you portability but is more costly and has limited upgradeability. Consider a USB memory stick or MP3 player you can pop in your pocket to transfer and store work in progress. Digital cameras continue to fall in price as megapixels rise; get one, because they're a great way of sourcing images without having to rely on Google or costly photo libraries. Also get a Wacom tablet if you're serious about starting your studio: the Graphire4 range has a budget price but performs perfectly well, while the Intuos3 range adds pro features and shortcuts that will enhance your workflow significantly.
Business Link is a vital one-stop shop for small business information managed by the DTI. You'll find practical advice on everything from book-keeping basics to those often-complex health and safety issues. Chris Revell of Business Link says: "All of the information you see can be useful to a creative studio because it's generic information applicable to all types of small business. It's the first place to go to find out what you need to know or do, how to get it done and who can help you start up, grow and manage your business." It also has a section devoted to 'creative services and media' with links to artists, illustrators and graphic designers' organisations.
If you've been out of work for some time, consider InBiz, a Government-backed initiative that helps you put your ideas into action, allowing you to run your studio while still claiming benefits. InBiz works with Jobcentre Plus across the UK and will mentor you for six months during the crucial start-up period. The Prince's Trust offers help and funding for 18-30 year olds including a useful free Legal Helpline.
Your next consideration is where to base your studio. Home is the obvious option, with relatively low running costs and no rush hour unless there's a queue for the bathroom. Jonathan Hitchen, Head of Department at Liverpool School of Art & Design, has already seen a trend among his students for working from home: "We have already noted the increasing trend for students to create work at home using their own equipment. Laptops and memory sticks make it very easy for students to bring work from their home studio into college for better quality output and critique."
While working from home may seem a cost effective way of running a studio, it's vital to make a clear distinction between home and work - avoiding all those daily distractions is a must. Illustrator Lorna Brown works out of the North London home she shares with her professional photographer husband. Lorna produces delicate, detailed watercolour illustrations drawn from life and inspired by nature. "Working from home, I have to be pretty strict with myself and keep to my routine: up at 7am, work by 9am. Without these times to give my day structure I'd be too easily distracted by all things domestic. I made a conscious decision not to have a TV in my workspace at all because I found that my productivity was halved when there was one there to tempt me away from tackling a tough bit of a job. I have a copy of my routine pinned next to my desk to keep me in check."
Health and safety issues are paramount, even if you are your studio's only employee. Award-winning illustrator Nishant Choksi offers some practical advice: "It's important to designate a permanent, separate and comfortable workspace, not, for example, your kitchen table! You can then surround yourself with things that you find inspiring as well as the practical things such as bookshelves for reference materials."
Nishant continues: "Illustrators tend to spend a long time sitting and so it's important to get a good chair that supports the back - it's well worth the investment. In my first year, I was working from an old dining table chair and developed a bad back and repetitive strain injury in my hand. I also invested in a matching ergonomic desk and sought advice on the correct sitting information from a local doctor."
An organised workspace is key to working efficiently, especially from home. If everything takes minutes rather than seconds to find then you're wasting valuable creative time. Sarah Howell, another successful illustrator, agrees. "I work from a home studio, which is so great - the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. It's quite small, though, and as I not only use a computer but paint and draw, it can get desperately shambolic if I'm not careful. At the end of each day I try to sort everything out, put away all my collage and bits and bobs otherwise I become disorganised and frustrated," says Sarah. "I'm surrounded by pictures and images of things I find influential: album covers, paintings by other artists, clippings from magazines, everything that I can draw inspiration from. I think it really helps when you are blank, and you can see how other people have handled their own work. A screensaver change can be as good as a holiday!"
Studio success stories
If setting up your studio at home is not a viable option, consider looking for a suitable studio space. Finding a good one that's neither costly nor a time-consuming trek away each day is imperative. Jason Stavrou, an in-demand illustrator, bemoans the decline in cheap rental space. "Finding a cheap damp-free studio with heating is hard to come by these days as a lot of old studio warehouses are now being bought up by big property development tycoons and converted into so-called designer studios so they can triple the rents," sighs Jason. "Once you find a studio, get an understanding of how things work in the building. For example, fire regulations, where the fuse box is, when the bills need to be paid. A good part of your time is spent in the studio, so treat it like a working canvas by changing things around you: putting up new images of inspiration and personal value, washing your tea towels, moving your furniture around and generally having a good old clean up. It's good therapy after the completion of a commission."
Sophie Toulouse is fortunate enough to have found the perfect Paris studio, recently featured in the French Glamour magazine. "I'm lucky to be actually working in a big and beautiful studio with a few graphic designers and artists, so we share it all: cost, energy, food, drinks, etc.," says Sophie, who produces stunning large-format illustrations. "It's not fun to work alone, and with the internet, you can work any time and send work anywhere in the world."
Trina Dalziel maintains that she achieves the best of both worlds, producing beautiful illustrations from both home and studio space in the heart of urban cool Clerkenwell. The routine of 'going to work' appeals to Trina, not least the daily interaction with others, sometimes sadly lacking from the life of a freelancer based at home. "The positives of working outside the home are emotional not tangible, yet influence directly how productive I am; how motivated and confident I am in my work and professional practice," says Trina. "I deliberately have no scanner or printer at home so I have a practical reason for going into work, but it also means I don't rush into the artwork stage for a client before developing an idea." Trina uses a small USB Flash Memory device to carry work from home to studio, where she can get vital feedback and advice from her colleagues. "It's great to run ideas by others, especially when working on a quick commission and you've little time to take a step back and reflect on what you've just produced."
Ben O'Brien is another who sees the benefits of working from a studio: "I work in a shared studio: 20 people, 14 different companies, one big L-shaped room. The other residents in the studio include graphic designers, product designers, photographers and architects, which all-in-all makes for an enjoyable, varied and creative bunch of people. We have a separate conference room with a big open table, which is great, because it allows us to have a place to bring clients and talk properly and professionally. We also have a small kitchen area: sink, fridge, microwave, kettle and toaster and a couple of comfortable sofas if you need a break from your desk." Fellow illustrator Matt Lee also benefits from working among other creative folk. "People here are respectful if you're really busy, and also willing to help if you need it. My work has progressed much more proficiently since moving into the studio. The input from other illustrators has been great. If something is not very good, my studio mates will tell me. It raises your level," says Matt. "The simple fact is, the studio environment has helped me to be more disciplined. I am so much more focused."
The next step on from working in a shared studio is to consider forming a collective. Black Convoy, Peepshow and BWB have all enjoyed success working as teams. BWB's Rob Hare sees the benefits of forming a collective; "Primarily, collectives are such a good idea because they bring a group of creative ideas to one canvas. We are all more than adequate with design solutions individually, but collectively we like to think of ourselves as a stronger unit." His colleague Kev Speck agrees: "It can be a lonely experience freelancing on your own, so meeting up and working with like-minded people once or twice a week is a great way to stay sharp." BWB's Matt Campbell adds: "I feel just having people around you who you know and work well with is a bonus. There have been a lot of times where one of us was lacking maybe a little inspiration and needed input from someone else - that's not really something you can do on your own!"
Liverpool-based design team Black and Ginger eventually set up a dedicated studio of its own, as Matt Wardle explains: "We started off under the stairs, quite literally a broom cupboard, but bigger clients meant better presentation. We couldn't bring a client back to the flat we were sharing to discuss their latest ad campaign or website, so we took the plunge and rented a studio in Liverpool city centre. We've since moved to a new studio to accommodate the growth of the business in people and hardware."
Whether at home or sharing a space, starting a studio will still require commitment and stamina to succeed. Remember first and foremost that you're running a business, so don't undersell yourself simply because of your modest surroundings. Your clients don't need to know where you work from - they just need to see results. As Zak Kyes concludes, "Starting a studio requires energy, patience, curiosity, coffee, some confidence, a little money and a net connection. And faith in its future."