By Tobias van Schneider Published November 17, 2016
How Sagmeister became one of the greatest design studios by staying small.
Let’s get one thing straight. If you’re in communication design to make big money, you might as well cash out and jump ship now. The service design industry at its core isn't scalable.
Most design agencies run on the billable hour, and while you can hire more people to do more work, there are only so many hours in a day. You are essentially selling your time, and your time will always be limited to 24h a day.
But making money isn’t why you’re in this business, is it? You do it because there’s nothing more satisfying than solving a problem by creating something useful and beautiful. You do it because creating anything, beautiful or not, is better than creating nothing.
In an industry where success is measured by scale, by how many people you can hire and how much money you can make, it feels like the natural next step to go bigger.
Stefan Sagmeister, arguably one of the most influential designers of our time, does not live by these rules. Instead, he’s deliberately chosen to keep his studio small. And we’re not saying his projects are small — we all know his work for the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and Jay Z, to name a few.
So why does someone like Sagmeister, who could easily hire any talent he wants, choose to run a small studio? In a recent NTMY Show interview he tells us why staying small helped make Sagmeister & Walsh one of the most respected design firms out there.
1. You are more focused.
With a small team, the people who get briefed on the project are the same people who work on the job. This leaves less room for miscommunication and errors.
Consider a typical agency scenario, in which the account or new business person meets with a new client. They take what they learned from that meeting and relay it to a project manager.
The project manager now translates that information for the creative team. By this point, designers are doing work based on a game of Telephone. They may never even meet the client until they’re presenting the work. And in a lot of agencies, not even that is the case.
Cutting out the middlemen means less misunderstandings and more effective work. This leads to a larger percentage of your ideas and projects being actually produced and shipped.
Before Sagmeister owned his own design studio, he worked for Leo Burnett studio at Hong Kong Design Group.
“I would say in the 200-person office in Hong Kong, maybe 10% of what we made actually saw the light of day,” says Sagmeister. “Now I would say probably 70% makes the light of day…That’s definitely related to size.”
2. You have freedom to be selective.
As a smaller studio, you are more independent to take on jobs you want to do.
This means creating work that feels worthwhile. Work you can be proud of. And when your portfolio includes work you like to do, you’ll draw more clients who want that kind of work.
It may sound like an oversimplification for those who don’t have the luxury of turning clients away, but the same is true for any kind of freelance designer.
While there are times when you may need to take on jobs you aren’t exactly passionate about to make ends meet, the freedom to say yes or no still lies with you.
The earlier you start being selective, the easier it will be to attract the work you want to do in the future. It’s true that the early years as a freelancer shape your career the most.
3. You can't hide, and that's good.
You can’t go undercover in a small agency, because nobody can afford to carry your weight. You do the work or it doesn’t get done.
“…there are situations where I know that if I don’t do it, nobody will, so I’m forced into coming up with something,” says Sagmeister. “While if I know that if two or three other teams are working on it, I’m like, ‘Well if something comes to mind, excellent. But if not, I’ll hope that someone else [comes up with something.]’”
We all felt this way before, or known the guy who sits back unnoticed while others lead a big project or meeting. It’s a social behavior known as the Ringelmann Effect, or Social Loafing.
French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann first observed the phenomenon in 1913. He conducted an experiment in which he asked both individuals and groups to pull on a rope. He found that people who pulled the rope individually tried harder than those who pulled with a group.
The more people you have on your team, the less work the average individual will do. And don’t get me wrong, the phenomenon describes that people don’t do this on purpose, it’s just the way it goes the more people you have on yor team.
Michael Johnson of the London-based studio makes the same observation. Like Sagmeister, Johnson chooses to keep his team small. And also like Sagmeister, Johnson feels more personally responsible because of it.
“Your arse is on the line. There’s nowhere to hide,” Johnson said while presenting with Sagmeister at the What Design Can Do conference in Amsterdam last year. “You could maybe get away with a couple of duff projects a year — there inevitably are some — but you’re emotionally invested in it because your name’s on the door.”
You just have to get shit done; there is no excuse.
4. Small teams make better work.
For a short time after his stint at Hong Kong Design group, Sagmeister worked with Tibor Kalman at M & Co., right before Tibor closed up shop and moved to Rome to do COLORS Magazine full time. Sagmeister weighed the option of taking over his mentor’s studio, but knew he wanted something smaller.
“Ultimately, when I came out of M & Co. and looked at the work as I see it — the work created by companies around the world — I found the work created by small entities to be vastly superior to the work created by large entities,” says Sagmeister.
Why? See the three reasons above.
Legendary designer George Lois of “I want my MTV” fame seconds Sagmeister’s aversion to large teams, but for a slightly different reason. He calls it Group Grope: when too many people are in the room pushing for their own agenda and selling their own ideas. Then there’s that asshole in the corner playing “devil’s advocate.” What an asshole.
“Nothing great can come of more than three people in a room,” George Lois says in a Fast Company interview. “If you had 10 incredibly bright people, nothing would come out of it.”
This doesn’t mean small studios can’t take on big clients.
“You can make it work,” says Sagmeister. “I think the pendulum is swinging back in our direction.”
The truth is, Sagmeister states, there are few large agencies producing good work. And those he does respect actually operate like a small studio. He notes that often, successful projects credited to a large agency were actually the work of one person or a small team.
“The few times when a large entity in our space designed something good or did something well, you did a little bit of research and it immediately became clear that it was a small team within that large entity that was left alone or went offsite to do it,” he says.
Take branding projects, for example. Sagmeister references some of the most recognized branding out there — Coca Cola, IBM, Nike, Google, AT&T. These institutions have huge agencies at their beck and call. Yet with some research, you find their iconic identities were not created by these large firms.
“Those five brands, the major visual signifier, meaning the logo and its surrounding, has been made by a single person, not by an international branding conglomerate,” Sagmeister says.
“The most difficult thing when running a design company is not to grow.” — Tibor Kalman
One of Sagmeister & Walsh’s larger clients is EDP, an energy company in Portugal. The studio created a new identity for EDP, including TV commercials, an ad campaign, interactive posters, iPad and iPhone games and social media campaigns. Sagmeister says producing all of that between a team of five was no problem.
In fact, he suggests a smaller team can serve a large client better than an equally large agency could.
“Many large corporations think they would want to have matching hierarchies all the way down, but what they normally get is more confusion,” he explains. “I would think specifically for a very large company, a small one like ours that’s focused and nimble and agile and doesn’t have internal misunderstandings, and where the people who get briefed are also the same people who work on the job, where there’s no layers of account people in between, we can actually move very effectively.”
But big clients aren’t the point.
Sagmeister credits his experience in Hong Kong for teaching him how to run a studio and build a team. But more importantly, it taught him what he didn’t want to do with his life.
“All those things that…people who start a studio in the U.S. would think — that growing big is good, or larger clients are good or international clients are good — I could go through that stuff very quickly in Hong Kong and see how that really is, learn about it fast and never have to do it again.”
But his decision to open a small studio went beyond the logical reasons. At the end of the day, he trusted a gut feeling.
“As soon as I had the idea of doing something music related and finally rekindling the old reason I had become a designer in the first place, I vividly remember having that warm feeling in the belly, as in this just feels right. No matter if this is going to go well or not well but it just feels right,” Sagmeister says. “I don’t think I’ve had that feeling all that often in my life, but whenever I did, it always went really well.”