Starting a design studio is one thing, a story many would like to know, but running it is another whole story in and of itself. In the third episode of Thinking*Zoom Inc., Thinking*Room’s Founder and Design Principal, Eric Widjaja is joined by our very own Business Development Manager, Kevin Jayadi in conversation to go through the pages of what starting and running a design studio is like, taken from the perspective of the two guests.
In brief, Thinking*Room was founded in 2005 shortly after Eric had just flown back to Jakarta around 2003 from his study and early career in San Fransisco, CA. In the 15-year history of Thinking*Room, Kevin expressed his curiosity towards the reasons behind its presence. When Eric had just come back to Jakarta, one of the first things he noticed was the ferocious banners that were put up in the streets. Jokes aside, he was concerned by the very rare existence of the local design heroes at the time. He recalled being able to count it “in one hand,” and in his view, mediocrity could be seen in the work he used to see whilst being marketed at such a high price. This visceral push created the aspiration to prove himself if he could make something better than what he saw then.
From then on, he has noticed the different expectations that every year has in store for him, added with situations and conditions in terms of running the studio. It has become certain for him that several endpoints at any time are inevitable.
When asked about what he has learned from these occurrences for 15 years, Eric accredited process. He believes that through the process, the level of appreciation from clients in the first 5 years was strikingly different than the last 3-4 years. The different expectations mentioned earlier have lead to the attitude of trusting process, as “Nothing is ever instant. You reap what you sow.”
Eric also stressed the importance of networking, with designers and non-designers. He looked back on the time he was working full-time for a food industry company whose colleague he knew from there was his first client in his solo journey as a designer, started from a logo for a restaurant his colleague's network was establishing. The essentiality of a partner in business relies on each person’s needs. When he started, opinions from non-design partners (strategists, in particular) were essential to him. He further added that it was better to have something that wasn’t always related to design as background difference widens the outlook and perspective on things in design and general. With that in mind, Eric could remember his first client came from his acquaintances as he noted that, “you don’t have to declare you’re truly a designer, let your work speak for itself.” The impact of acquaintances to him acts as marketing too, in disguise. When a client’s brief is nailed excellently, the work will speak for the designer as a mouth-to-mouth topic by future clients.
The 3 main principles Eric believes that are deeply ingrained in a good design studio are 1. Career 2. Creative Environment 3. Financial Aspect
When asked about when taking projects onboard is enough, seeing the stress level of the team needs to be the first course of action and concern. Eric suggested that no one can and should be forced to take in as many projects, and the happiness level of the team and himself is one key factor that he needs to constantly consider. It’s essential to level out the balance of the happiness level at the office. He’d estimate around 30 signed projects in one year, 2 projects for each designer at a time. The numbers indicate the cruciality in knowing the financial statements, whether it will cover expenses of the whole team or not, accumulated by a finance manager, whose role will be discussed later on.
The number of players on the team and the number of opportunities shouldn’t be too stark of a difference, but there should be a gap that acts as leeway for that ability to choose clients. Scale-wise, Eric believes in “smaller is better,” as there is no generalized, right size of a team. Adhering to his observation and preference in terms of scale, the bigger the team-of talented designers-is, the more mediocre work it can produce, Eric expressed as having found managing talents, then until now, to not be as easy as it sounds.
On managing talents, chemistry is a crucial part of building a good work environment. Chemistry isn’t something that’s made up. It will get consequently difficult to have people who are not on the same wavelength in one room. The chemistry that’s built from this environment becomes a culture in the office, and this culture that’s built from this chemistry isn’t something tangible.
Kevin has observed a phenomenon of fresh graduates forming a 1-2 persons design studio, of which most have already established what seemingly is an organization before knowing the fundamentals. Eric shared the experience of having seen creatives come up with a company structure and seeing no financial planning. “It’s not wise to create a company structure if you have no clue on how to make an invoice, paying for taxes, establishing a business habit. You can save all the cool stuff for once you’ve done all the fundamentals”. This is where a connection or having a financial manager is important. The knowledge in making a financial statement, preferably from an expert, is always handy in building and running a studio.
Ideally, you're creating work. But realistically, you're trying to cover expenses too.Kevin Jayadi, Thinking*Room
These fundamentals are often found as common mistakes observed of the phenomenon — not knowing how much to value ourselves for. Kevin also added ideally, running a design a studio is that it’s about creating work. But realistically, it’s also about covering the expenses. From that conundrum, it’s easier to track down the expenses first, then that will accumulate our worth. There are so many charging systems that can be applied, one that was questioned is an hourly rate for creative work. Eric expressed that the hourly rate requires a lot of discipline to be able to implement this charging system. He wasn’t convinced if it would ever be possible to align this kind of discipline with the working mentality that Indonesians realistically have, he joked. Project-based income is also not the best among the options, as Kevin pointed out that project-based income can affect chemistry. ”It would only make sense to avoid internal conflict, so everyone is pretty much the same,” he added.
With that being said, starting small would be best. Making an initial financial statement will help clarify the expenses and the gradual growth starts there. “Observe the first 3 years, see for yourself if you’re fitting in the industry okay, and whether you’re surviving and struggling.”
Another common mistake scrutinized from this phenomenon is mediocrity. There might be a rapid increase in the number of new design studios formed today, but when it comes to delivering something new, it seems like there’s no growth in that number. To his assessment, designing can be easy but avoiding mediocrity is hard.
While there are loads of new talents that do drive away from mediocrity, Eric shared how he sees talents. When it comes to designers, looking at their work comes first, and the criteria can be subjective. Style doesn’t define it, and talents whose work has, what’s often assumed, similar style to the work produced at Thinking*Room are not guaranteed to be suitable in the team too. What’s essential, he emphasized, is whether they pay attention to details. Even as simple as the body text on their CV. If it’s visually in harmony on that kind of matter, it shows someone’s awareness of their own design and what design is to them. When it comes to seeing talents that are non-designers, it’s all about gut feeling. Kevin agreed to which he added knowledge in their field and surroundings, as well as updates in the business at the very least.
Regarding graduates, design education has also been a topic that seems to have slithered under the skins of many, which the claims seem to be that the education system hasn’t provided enough for its students. To which Eric responded that the education here is not to blame, and it rather comes down to the students themselves. He has seen no tremendous difference quality-wise whether you’ve graduated from abroad or public and private universities in the country, truly would it only matter by the ability and hunger the students have to create good, distinctive body of work. He recalled the time he found design students that were brilliant back when he was building Thinking*Room. Formal education doesn’t always matter, in his view.
I’m not too bothered about where you graduate from and if you do graduate from a university. It can be seen from the work because we’re visual people. If you keep making work, you also need to be aware of all there is about design. You need to be open about anything there is to know.Eric Widjaja, Thinking*Room
Hence, the dissatisfaction towards the education here that is derived from what’s presumably lacking in what the education provides, these further knowledge can always be made up for by self-directed explorations, especially in the era of digitization.
In correlation to that, the fresh graduate graphic designers pay rate in Indonesia is also quite an issue that’s still relevant today. Eric has yet to find the standard rate for creative workers in the country. However, when it comes to Thinking*Room, he sees it from the eagerness of the graduate if they would constantly learn. A sense of ownership plays an important part if he were to promote a designer, as well as loyalty, personal goals, and target.
These factors are some of the reasons why creating connections to students is an important part of the journey for Eric, whether to understand the system and help around more or purely to come back to his grassroots by giving talks at universities for free.
When asked about his ‘exit plan’, Eric confessed that he’s more of a ‘grow with the flow’ type of person, and has never been a planner. Although, he does wonder oftentimes whether a design studio in the country can thrive without its founder involved in running the company, whether it can still be relevant in 20 years. He has noticed that from existing cases, no design company is sustainable enough for the owner to be behind the screen yet, meanwhile overseas, this occurrence seems to work just fine. With this, a possible question we could ask ourselves after having started and run a studio might steer to whether the spirit of a design studio can be kept without the presence of its founder.
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