When is the right time to set up a studio?

By Creative Review

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Studio. Ssssstudio. Stew-Dee-Oh. A sibilant piggybacked by a plosive and capped with a surprise. If ever a word has played around my palette too long it’s that one. Why? Because in my art school coterie it was often the culmination of our interminable, late night ruminations on our future: ”Yeah … get down to London … start designing records … set up a studio”, we’d pronounce, with an air of authority we didn’t feel.

Well we managed the first two, but never quite got round to the last one. We took on freelance jobs of course, but despite London of the early 90s being far more affordable than the one I live in now, a lack of both funds and resolve saw us making do with the Mac in the corner of the bedroom, sticky Spray Mount patches all over the carpet.

A lack of both funds and resolve saw us making do with the Mac in the corner of the bedroom, sticky Spray Mount patches all over the carpet

And yet … despite years of temping and freelancing, that dream of starting a studio never left me. Part entry level megalomania, part messianic zeal, the desire to build the Shining City On the Hill was always there, shimmering like some typographic New England.

So strong was this urge to collectivisation that me and my collaborators always styled ourselves as studios, even when we couldn’t muster two bricks to rub together. We ran the full gamut of nomenclature: techno anonymity cum Hippie tribute act (Studio 67), retro futurism (Solid State Studio), even nu-laddish vulgarism (Shit Hot Studio — c’mon, it was the mid 90’s!).

Would I recommend this kind of chimeric practise to designers just starting out? In short, no, I wouldn’t. Over the years I read and heard all sorts of well meant, but ultimately muddle-headed advice concerned with making yourself something that you are not. These tips often soared the dizzy heights of inanity, from hiring the floor of an office block for a day to impress clients, through to the use of remote answering services to imitate receptionists, and even the frankly bizarre corralling of friends to impersonate employees for the duration of that crunch meeting.

All nonsense of course, and predicated on a fundamental mistake – that it’s wise to build a relationship with your client on a foundation of deceit. In truth, most people are not stupid. They appreciate the running of a business with all the expense it entails means studio rates will be more costly than those of freelancers, and they make their own choice. If you try to be something you are not, you must choose whether to undercut real businesses by charging freelance rates, or to bill as if you were a genuine studio. If the former you’re likely to be overwhelmed with work you have no capacity to fulfill, and if the latter you will be expected to offer services, such as courier deliveries and colour proofing that you may struggle to provide. Either way, you lose clients.

Another consideration regarding sham studio naming is that it muddies your communications. I’ve lost count of the number of times I slipped back and forth between the first person and the Royal We when discussing my work, unsure whether I was crediting myself or some imaginary floor of busy elves, assiduously cranking out artwork.

Anyway, names are one thing, but they can’t buy you a studio culture, that prized ambience that, back when I was starting out was forged from Herman Miller shelves of 80’s toys, reclaimed floorboards and stripped brick walls, drenched in a soundtrack of Radio SoulWax. Nor can they buy you those more important constituents of a studio, other people, without whom even the best designer runs the risk of descending into solipsism.

I well remember the first time I worked with a large group of creatives, and shedding my preciousness, actually started looking forward to crits. I began to realise that a great idea is bulletproof, and doesn’t need careful shepherding. If an idea is flawed, there’s still the chance a constructive crit can help remove the dead wood, and if an idea is ill considered, then your fellow designers will be performing a merciful act by lining it up against the wall and duly shooting it.

Despite the nagging awareness that many of my peers were not just talking about it, but actually going ahead and setting up their own studios, I continued to take the path of least resistance for a long time, and freelanced from home. I took to this routine easily, and recommend it if you have the space and the hardware available. It’s a way to gain experience of working with clients with very little financial outlay. I never struggled to maintain discipline, as some do, but if avoiding distractions is one of your problems, I recommend studying the habits of writers, who as a body seem to have given much thought to the problem.

Freelancing was good for me. It offered flexibility, variety and remuneration in spades. Eventually though, I reached a tipping point.

The consensus is repetition and rigour: Haruki Murakami for instance rises at 4am and works for six hours when writing a novel, before running ten kilometres then listening to a little jazz and retiring at 9pm. If that’s too spartan a regime for you, aim for simple changes that will be effective. Treat freelancing as a job: get dressed (you’d be surprised how many loaf around the house in a dressing gown), make sure you’re sat down and ready at the same time each day, and if social media is your weakness, take steps to disable all alerts for the duration of your work session. Repeat this every day until it becomes second nature, and to borrow another writer’s tip, do what Ernest Hemingway did, stop while you’re still full of juice, and know what comes next. That way you’ll find it easy to pick up again at tomorrow’s session.

Freelancing was good for me. It offered flexibility, variety and remuneration in spades. Eventually though, I reached a tipping point. I was beginning to find myself turning down as much work as I was taking on. It was time to make a decision: continue as before, or finally make the long dreamt of transition to studiohood. I knew that if I didn’t do it this time, I never would, so, with fingers crossed and loins girded, I cast the die…

Paul Pensom is Art Director of Creative Review and runs Studio Pensom, a graphic design studio serving the publishing and music industries

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