Staying Small (for now)

We were saddened to hear last week that Swardlick Marketing Group, a respected giant of the Portland design industry, closed its doors after 30 years in business. The economic climate was a major factor, according to the official statement, and that's unfortunately unsurprising these days. 

Arielle and I were just out of school and entering the workforce when the events of September 11, 2001 shook the world. That, on top of the dot-com bubble bursting and overall financial downturn, led most design agencies into periods of cautious hiring and limited spending. I for one can attest to the hard times looking for work in a field of companies wary of overstaffing. It made me truly appreciate the small firms that I did work for and the opportunities that I was given to grow within each one. 

None of us were working in the fabled 90s boom of big offices, big bonuses, and lavish expenses. A decade later, we each weathered the more recent economic downturn as freelancers, seeing once seemingly endless work slow down—sometimes to a trickle. That we approached the idea of incorporating carefully and with great consideration of sustainability should be no surprise. 

When we officially opened our doors last year we passed around a copy of 37signals' book ReWork. Many of the ideas inside rang true with how we imagined running a successful startup, but one in particular made sense and reflected the way that we thought about a streamlined design firm: "Hire when it hurts." Do the work yourself and don't bring another employee into the fold until you really can't successfully complete the work that you need to stay afloat. 

In the past months, as we've reached more people and broadened our networks, we've been approached by numerous designers and other potential employees that want to join the team. Hiring has been on our mind, but we're approaching it with the same informed, well-researched methods that we approach everything. In my research I've found some great examples of design legends who make it work. 

Stefan Sagmeister, arguably one of the most influential and visible designers of the past 15 years, is in the enviable position of having people come to him to do the work that is so characteristically Sagmeister. Everything that leaves his office is true to his vision and that vision is what the client wants. He's able to stay nimble and responsive by keeping his firm small—only himself, another designer, and an intern (a lesson he learned from another hero of mine, Tibor Kalman of M&Co). His firm's size is no accident. 

"When I opened in 1993, there was a boom economy. We had ten times the number of jobs we could take on. Then I got to know a lot of really good designers who wanted to work here. I could have easily enlarged," said Sagmeister. But then he would have become a manager with no time to actually design. "If I wanted to become a manager, I would have gone to business school, which would have been much easier than getting into art school in Austria."

Sagmeister knows the perils of a huge firm having run the Leo Burnett Design Group in Hong Kong. He was frustrated there by the bureaucracies of a large office and has said that he had to arrive at 6AM just to get one hour of design done every day.

Even Pentagram—a large organization with five offices across the world—has 17 leading partners but no account executives or new business people. Just the designer partners at each office and their teams. It's not lost on their clients—and they've worked with some of the best—that, even at one of the most respected and revered design firms in the world, the designers and partners themselves are executing the work, meeting directly with the client, and pursuing new business. This closeness to the work also gives the partners the freedom to do more interesting projects, confidently bring each project to it's highest potential, and run the office less like a used car lot and more like a company built on creativity.

We don't want to take on boring work just to pay the bills. We don't want to end up taking projects just to feed the machine. We certainly don't want to just be managers who never get to design anymore. We will be hiring soon, that's for sure, but our growth will be organic and we'll be counting on lessons from the past. We want to be around for a long time and we hope to be the respected firm that someone else is looking up to for doing it intelligently.