We wanted to build a studio that thrived on creating work that could compete anywhere in the world. Have we nailed that dream? We think we’re still on our way there, but we’ve come a long way from just a dream. What started with two founders has grown into a vibrant team and has impacted designers in and out of Nigeria. We’ve checked some awesome things off our to-do list, and we’re very optimistic about our future.
Nigeria is a recovering nation or developing, one if you may. We have a rich history of arts and culture, but we haven’t translated that into a strong design culture, at least not in the contemporary sense of what design is. We have many problems that give the illusion that design is a luxury.
That said, the world is changing rapidly. There’s more competition. Tools and educational resources are much more accessible, so these days, there are many stubborn Nigerians (ourselves included), doing amazing work in product design, brand identity design, etc. – choosing to defy the odds to create a culture and career around design.
Defying the odds is chaotic. When you add running a business in a place like Nigeria, plus selling a service people don’t fully understand or appreciate, plus the persistent mission to create great work, you set the game at probably the highest difficulty. The point is, we’ve had to make a ton of mistakes, we’ve had to be inventive and for that, each win has been beyond rewarding.
So, for anyone who’s curious, or anyone (masochists) who would love to try this sport, we’re sharing with you our top dos and don’ts. Here we go!
Have a clear dream even before you’re sure of what goals will get you there. The dream will keep you grounded and unify your team, even when things are difficult.
This one sounds cliché to say, but it’s by far the most important thing on our list. Amazing is relative, but if amazing is the uncompromisable goal, you will impress someone regardless. This sort of developing space has its cons, but it definitely has its pros. Consistently doing good work in such a young space makes it easier for you to get noticed, in comparison to places where design already has an established presence. People we've never dreamed we'd work with have been watching and reaching out to us for collaborations.
With the gift of the internet, think of good work like something that stinks (in a good way). People will smell it whether they want to or not. This is especially helpful because not only does it force those around you to pay attention, it expands your audience beyond your immediate environment where design is underappreciated.
We know you’re probably thinking “Duh! We’re designers, we should solve problems, that’s the whole point of design.” We agree, but think of it this way: Go out of your way to find problems to solve, especially problems that are unique to you and your client’s environment. Be obsessive about finding these contextual problems and their solutions. There’s no better way to end the myth of design being a luxury than revealing its purest form: problems solved.
People see value in solutions that matter to them. We’ve had clients tell us we made them fall in love with design and truly mean it.
"People value and show off what they have to pay well for. You don’t need to be underpaid to get exposure."
When you’re doing design in this sort of space, you have to bring out your inner Mr. Krabs. Money is an issue, because people are more likely to pay for what they truly appreciate or need, not what they think is a luxury. So for the little you can get, especially in the beginning, be very intentional about how much your work costs and how you manage your money. You will find yourself doing a lot of the don’ts in this article if you don’t have money or you undercharge.
You really don’t need all the money, you just need a structure around the money you have. Budget everything. Don’t be shy to ask for your money or to charge well; if you do good work, clients will come. Besides, people value and show off what they have to pay well for. You don’t need to be underpaid to get exposure. Cheap clients typically refer you to more cheap clients. A smaller, well-paying market is actually bigger than a large market that won’t pay or won’t pay well.
To be fair, money isn’t everything. So the occasional “pro bono” or small fee isn’t a bad idea, but you have to be clear about the value you’re getting. Even if it isn’t monetary. In an environment where your line of work isn’t yet fully understood or appreciated, working without getting value is a bad habit and leads to low designer-self esteem.
If it’s exposure you want out of the engagement, outline what that means in clear terms. Meaning: How many referrals are you getting exactly? How many promotional posts? Do you appear on the client’s public sponsors list? Is that meaningful for your business? In what way is it meaningful?
This applies for all the work you do. Clearly define the value you’re getting. Monetary or not.
Carve a niche that’s tailored to your dream. You may be tempted to spread yourself thin and do everything remotely design-related you can find, just so your customer base is bigger and you can make more money to sustain your studio. (Whispers: “It’s a trap.”)
In our experience, when you have a niche, you build a reputation faster. People see and respect you as a specialist and people are far more likely to think of you when they need exactly what you offer. It’s like, how you’re more likely to be scared to pop your back if a spine surgeon told you not to, than if a general practitioner told you the same thing.
Plus, doing a singular thing over a period of time makes you a badass at that thing. This increases trust, as opposed to being good, but not excellent at many things, or doing what everyone else is doing.
To be fair, this particular ‘do’ is mostly our personal opinion. If doing multiple things is important to you, that’s OK too. We just think expanding from a successful niche is even better than starting out wide in a tough space.
"It’s funny how people come to you because you’re good, then make demands that make it harder for you to deliver your best."
It’s funny how people come to you because you’re good, then make demands that make it harder for you to deliver your best. Choose confidence and pride in yourself, even when you don’t have it.
It’s your duty to pace the engagement and paint a picture that reminds you and the client why you’re collaborating. It’s easy to get sucked into the culture vortex of not giving design the effort and credit it deserves. In the short term, compromising your standards may bring more money, more clients and make it easier to scale your business and team. And that's OK. But for us, we think if you’re crazy enough to come this far, you might as well focus on truly making an impact.
A good way to avoid money-related compromises is working toward at least one long-term-retainer arrangement with a client with whom you have a good relationship. No matter how small the money is, it’s a positive engagement, and at least you won’t die of hunger.
Good design can come from a lot of different types of briefs, but great design only comes from good briefs.
Good briefs bring out the best in us and our selling point is being our best. Sometimes big names are distracted by the size of their names, so they may not put enough effort into their briefs. Getting too excited about your client’s status may make you shift your boundaries in ways that harm your work, studio and process.
Also, a lot of them in Nigeria for instance, are very familiar with the underappreciation status quo, and may knowingly or unknowingly force you into it. Bigger companies also have longer processes for sorting out payment, resolving any dispute and giving feedback. All of which may not be the most efficient or beneficial for your growing studio.
Don’t get us wrong – working with established clients with strong reputations does a lot of good for a designer, their reputation and most likely their pocket. But it’s far from everything. We’ve created rewarding work for our larger clients. But some of our most rewarding work, the work that has gotten the right attention, has also been from our smaller, growing clients.
"In a difficult environment, there’s no way a design studio is a sprint project. It's a marathon."
Please, not everyone is your client and yes, there are bad clients. Protect your energy and your dream.
Clients who have no intentions of shifting from the current state of things for the better, who show no interest in seeing the value in your work or any design work for that matter, are not good clients. Having short periods of financial dryness is better than always bringing in revenue that doesn’t allow you to get closer to the dream of your studio, or challenge your team in a positive way.
In a difficult environment, there’s no way a design studio is a sprint project. It's a marathon. So think long-term when choosing clients. Bad clients only bring unsatisfying work and more bad clients. It's also OK to fire your client.
Be careful what you sign or don’t sign. If people don’t even understand design, they may unintentionally or intentionally try to put you in agreements and situations that don’t favor you at all. Read everything twice and have an affordable lawyer read it twice. Document everything you agree with your client no matter how small. In some cases, even an email will do. You don’t want to ever feel forced to continue with a bad client or to compromise your standards because you signed something bad, or forgot to document something you all agreed on.
There’s always something you can do better. Find it and even if you can’t do it better now, set a plan to do it better in future.
Because the environment is tough, it's easy to blame it for everything and never look inward. If you think all your clients are bad, you probably have a lot of issues to work out yourself. If you’re honest with yourself, you are more likely to push your work further, learn and look at things from your client’s perspective too.
"Encourage those in your community who share your dream."
Good clients allow a positive work environment, give helpful feedback and they keep you hopeful. Don’t take them for granted.
Good clients bring good clients. A lot of times, good clients take it upon themselves to be ambassadors for your work. They value your work, and they usually come back with more business. Especially if you’re a small studio that doesn’t have the time or resources for proper marketing, referrals are your saving grace.
Find out what makes them happy with you and your work. Support them. Try to connect to and genuinely care about their goals and business. It’s very fulfilling.
It’s hard, but it’s easier when you have a support system. Encourage those in your community who share your dream, and if there are projects that you can’t handle by yourself, seek to collaborate. The work gets better, you feel inspired by others and you don’t stay stuck in your own head. As a studio, we don’t totally have this on lockdown, but we’re working at it.
We know everything we’ve said seems somewhat contrary to this last 'don’t.' It isn’t.
What exists in your environment is your opportunity to have a unique position, especially in the larger global conversation. That design is underappreciated here doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist here at all, and because it isn’t as good as it can be, doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. At the very least it offers lessons on what you shouldn't do, and at the very best it offers a whole world of context and authenticity.
Not everything on this list is absolutely set in stone all the time. That’s not the way life works, we think. Sometimes, we trust our instincts and objectivity to make compromises. The big questions for us are:
1. “Is the compromise worth the reward?"
2. "How much does this reward matter long term?”
The situation is hard. There are enough challenges as it is, challenges will always be there. Don’t burn out for burning out sake. Don’t romanticize hard work just for the sake of it. Breathe. If you have team members, enjoy having them on this journey with you, laugh, play, eat good food, be optimistic, relax when you can and enjoy yourself. It is also important to note that everyone agrees Dami is the funnier and sweeter partner. Thanks for reading. xo