In 2014, together with Kevin Beck, I established Multiple States, a digital design studio, specialising in beautiful, clean and functional websites with powerful content. Our work was underpinned by a philosophy of long-term collaboration with our clients. Based in Brighton, UK, we worked with companies across the UK, Australia and internationally. My wife Flora asked me a few questions about the experience.
Why did you set a design philosophy?
Our design philosophy had two guiding rules. Content leads design was the first. Our design is not what makes a website successful – it is ultimately the content. Our design challenge is to make that content understandable, easy to find and pleasurable to digest. The best way for this to happen is for our design to go unnoticed.
The second was less is more. Taking things away is always the most useful skill a designer has. Stripping back a design to its most vital elements allows users to clearly understand the content and its purpose.
We set the philosophy in stone as a yardstick for ourselves, our collaborators and our clients. Without something like this defined, there are too many right answers. I had worked at places where this sort of thing was either undefined or woolly at best. As an employee, it was unclear as to what was expected of me. This meant I just kept trying to push my own design ethos onto the work and was confused and dissatisfied when it was rejected. The work at these studios was wishy-washy as all employees were doing this. There was no guiding star for the designers except the whim of the client and the directors. It was irritating. So when we started Multiple States we clearly defined what would guide our design. It meant less emotional discussions mid-project and a much clearer objective for the studio overall.
Why did you leave?
I needed more money for the same amount of hours that I was putting in currently and with less risk than I felt was possible running the studio.
Primarily it was due to a number of things in my personal life all occurring at the same time. My wife, daughter and I all moved from the UK to Australia. Then quite quickly after arriving we became pregnant with our second child. Nothing like a second child to make you sharply analyze your work and finances.
We had a plan in place for expansion and a sharp wage increase over the first year of being in Sydney. It involved very focused targeting of certain new business that could potentially mirror the regular arrangement with our two biggest clients, Waverley College and Photoworks, an increase in the ratio of billable hours to non-billable, a switch in billing to fixed rates for some things we had highlighted as being targets for automation and a rate rise.
To embark on this plan was going to take a renewed focus. The studio had been going for about three years. The first two and a half years had involved a great deal of energy and obsession on both mine and Kevin’s part. The last half year had been a bit easier. We had got the hang of it. The development of our process had plateaued. I was enjoying that break in concentration. I wondered if I had the energy to embark on this push along with raising two small children, being in a new country, without the support of the other director in the same room or timezone and with the complication of currency transfers and two sets of tax requirements. Ultimately I decided I didn’t. I don’t know if it was the right decision. Time will tell.
Why did you create a studio ethos?
I had come out of some studios that didn’t have an ethos aside from do the fucking work or you’re fired and you’re lucky to be here so don’t whine or you’re fired and when the director is happy (which is never) then you had better be fucking happy… or you’re fired. It really affected the morale of everyone working there. Design studios can quickly become the most depressing workplaces in town when people forget the things that made them start a company. We didn’t want to EVER forget that. So we wrote it down in stone… digitally. There were a few things we really thought led to better work as well, so they went in too.
- Be happy
- Be calm
- Embrace change
- Respect everyone
- Learn, learn, learn
- Share your knowledge
- Make mistakes
- Get away from the screen
- Take your time
What were your friday images?
Every Friday everyone in the studio (Kevin and I usually, but occasionally some of the guys who did days with us) had to produce an image. These images had no restrictions. It was a piece of non-client work that we committed to producing no matter what. We published them on our site. It allowed us to explore ideas without constraints. I was very proud of doing that. The funny thing is, the more I explored illustration, then painting, the more discontented I became with digital work. I had rediscovered the joy of the physical. It switched my focus from the work that was earning me money.
So was it a good business decision? Probably not. Did it gain us any clients? It is possible the guys at 7D8 were attracted to the idea but I doubt it affected anyone else’s decisions one way or the other. So would I recommend this sort of thing to anyone else? Absolutely. It is great for the soul and I think you could do it in a way that was more focused on the money generating part of your practice. For example, if we had said that you had to produce an image using code, this would have generated a lot more work that could be put in front of potential clients to demonstrate our ability or existing clients as a way to generate new ideas. We eventually did just that in the form of a component library called Patisserie. That was a far more successful way of using free play and creativity to generate money.
Do I regret doing the Friday image? Absolutely not. You need to do something to really be able to clearly see whether it is right or wrong. In fact, it is only in writing this reflection, six months after leaving the studio that I am able to see it clearly.
All sounds great, did the money work?
In the end, for me personally, under a quick change in situation (a second child in a new country), no. It had worked brilliantly for three years though. We made a number of decisions over the course of the three years that were driven by lifestyle and satisfaction, not just a bottom line (that is business speak for profit). Once, when due a pay rise, we decided to reduce our working hours to seven per day instead of eight. Another time instead of a pay rise we choose to section off half a day to free play, then a full day. These decisions allowed both Kevin and I to live the life we wanted in a way that a pay increase would not have. This is obviously not for everyone.
Tell me about the studio handbook
The Studio Handbook held details of the studio process. This included details on the team members, our tech tools, design philosophy, ethos, billing, terms of service, hosting providers we favour and why, version control processes, naming conventions, work placements and much more. It was the bible.
Why did you publish the handbook on your site rather than keeping it as an internal document?
Always public facing! The reasons are far more self-serving than you would immediately think. Firstly, it is the best way to give yourselves that cattle prod to get it done and keep it maintained. It also drastically automates the initial client contact. They can find out quite a lot about you before they need to call (this was a very important time saver for us in what was essentially a two person studio). It teaches you to talk about your product and process in a way that is truthful internally AND shows benefits to clients. Not something our industry is prone to doing. For some strange reason we usually try to hide the things that we do under a layer of complete bullshit. It is also a great place for your peers to learn about you and this generates great collaboration. In addition to all this it can be a great resource for other designers. That last reason is a little less self-serving than the others but seeing as EVERYTHING I know is stolen from people who have published it for free it seems my duty to contribute back.
How did you choose your jobs?
We were pretty honest about what we could achieve for people. With a small studio I think you have to specialise. We wanted to do digital, which means we wanted to design and code the things. We wanted to produce the product start to finish. This meant we couldn’t be good at ALL technologies. We had to specialise. Our contacts and clients (small to medium-sized businesses) essentially dictated our eventual choice of WordPress just by the nature of what they were asking for. There were many tempting offers to use different technologies, or try a different type of work but we always decided to turn those jobs down. This is a tough thing to learn to do but is vital to the quality of your work. If you try everything without enough resources then you produce crap work. Specialising was the key for us.
How did your pricing work and was it successful?
We charged by hour. We set a good rate based on maths. I wrote this article about how I did that. We did not offer fixed price quotations for projects, only estimates. Sometimes, during the completion of a task, you can come up against an unforeseen technical or design challenge that can add time over the estimate. In the same way, sometimes a task can be completed under the estimated time. To make sure those balanced each other out we had three budget review points during the project.
The budget review points were at 25%, 50% and 75% of the project hours spent. At these points we would examine and reprioritise the existing and remaining tasks and review the overall budget. These budget review points served to alert both the client and us of any additional costs. If more time was needed or if the job has taken less time than estimated then the final payment would be adjusted accordingly.
After trying a few other methods we found this to be the best. Once the clients started seeing the reward in us returning money or adding to the scope they loved it even more. I have always found that there are too many moving parts in a normal project to really be able to give a fair fixed price for both parties. This way was completely stress-free and led to much higher production values because we weren’t cutting corners to meet our fixed price.
Are you proud of your time at the studio and the work produced?
Very proud. We started as two freelancers with all the terrible habits that you have when working alone. We went into the studio with the mindset that every part of our practice could be examined and improved. We learned more doing this than we ever could have in established studios. We had the autonomy to take decisions quickly and with confidence. Our code quality skyrocketed due to this approach. Our design work took leaps for the same reason. We produced considered work for all our clients and established strong relationships with regular clients that are still going now. We did lots of fun projects for ourselves as well. I couldn’t be prouder.