Lessons learned by narrowing the focus of my firm

Mark Busse – No Comments

The following article was recently published in Design Edge Magazine.

What do you want to be known for? It’s a philosophical question, but also a practical one. It’s certainly one designers need to consider and re-evaluate as their careers progress.

I’ll never forget the night I decided to take control of my business, the kind of work we did, and who we worked for. I was listening to a well-known graphic designer from Chicago giving the crowd the usual portfolio showcase and became agitated by the arrogant way he described his design process. Measured results were not a priority. He seemed almost giddy as he explained how little business acumen he possessed but how dumb clients kept coming.

He admitted the secret was being a full-service, generalist firm. He said he didn’t care if his designs worked but he wanted to create beautiful stuff, so he worked for anyone who threw money at him. I complained to a friend and he replied, “Stop complaining and do something about it.”

Industrial Brand began as a full-service graphic design firm. We created identities, stationery, collateral, advertising and direct mail campaigns, environmental graphics, interfaces and websites for startups, mining companies, restaurants, real estate developers, corporations, multinational brands and retailers. We were design whores, mostly out of necessity, or at least that’s what we thought.

Over time, we gained confidence and knowledge and started to focus on brand strategy, naming, identity design and its role in organizational change. However, as we looked at our own branding, we realized we needed a bolder position. We needed to reduce our competition and open up other markets. So we focused on delivery for the architecture, engineering and construction sectors. Repositioning ourselves as specialists in AEC became a sales advantage.

In order to really focus, we had to say no—which goes against every fiber of my being as a designer, and is hard for a lot people to say. But focusing our practice helped us regain control of our clients, our revenues, our business, our sense of satisfaction and self-worth. Was it easy? Hell no. It has taken years. It was expensive and time consuming. It’s not easy to do as a new designer, or as a designer in the business for years.

However, specializing enabled us to identify real issues and guide clients toward an authentic expression of who they really are. This made our contributions even more valuable. As designers, we all need to offer that added value, thanks to the ongoing commodification of design.

To help us focus, we created a set of criteria by which we could vet opportunities. We call these rules “The Six Ps.” People, purpose, potential, profit, perception and positioning. Consider how these align with what you want to be known for.

This approach can enable you to work with people who respect and trust you, and help you discern if the work you’re doing has lasting value. Use these criteria to see if a new project is suited to your abilities and availability, and if it can be done profitably (profit can defined many ways). The Six Ps help train your gut to notice if a project has the potential to reflect poorly on you, or if the client or project won’t enhance your portfolio or further your expertise.

We still fight the urge to say yes to any work that comes through the door because new work means we can stay busy and cash positive. But the more we’ve specialized, the more the right opportunities have come along.

For us, the benefits of transitioning to a focused practice have been:

  • A streamlined, repeatable process that can be systematized and taught
  • An easier time reaching key audiences and selling our services
  • Higher rates and more emphasis on the design thinking
  • Less competition and broader reach
  • Increased confidence, creativity and innovation
  • Deeper long-term relationships with clients who trust us and refer us
  • Happiness, satisfaction and a stable business

There will always be naysayers who argue against specialization. But the business has changed. Designers who specialize are driven businesspeople that grab hold of their own destiny and refuse to let business happen to them, with clients who understand the value of specialization and are happy to pay for it. These clients will give you the freedom you need to stay engaged and treat you like a creative, skilled partner, not a replaceable vendor. You will be able to effectively de-commoditize your offering. In the future, I believe the most successful firms with the greatest levels of business stability and growth will be the ones unafraid to specialize in a meaningful way.

Remember the famous Chicago designer that made me crazy? Recently Industrial Brand was invited to the California head office of a national architecture firm that needed a rebrand. After a selection process and interviews, it came down to us and one other firm. That other firm was the same Chicago one led by the blowhard big talker. When we asked why the job was awarded to us, our new clients said it was our focused practice and expertise in their sector. We won the work because we were known as specialists.