The birth of a graphic design studio

Perhaps it’s all the wrinkles on my face or my ancient collection of design books, but I am now asked quite a bit how my design journey started. 20 years on, the design world is a different place now, and my headspace has definitely changed, but the dream is still just as fresh.

From my first ever design class, I imagined having my own studio. Through the whole of my study, I daydreamed of running my own show. At university I decided on a major in Graphic Design and a minor in Business Administration, solely with the thought that I would need some proper business skills to start my own gig.

But, as in most professions, it isn’t all that advisable to go out on your own at the very beginning. Experience working for others is an almost-must. So, I interned at an advertising agency in Seattle while I was getting my degrees. Shortly after graduation, I moved to San Francisco, one of the hubs of graphic design greatness, with dreams of landing a job in one of the major agencies. (You know…the architecturally designed, open brick warehouse, couches in the corner, wine rack in the conference room kind). I had graduated at the top of my class with honours, had a phenomenal portfolio – if I do say so myself (in a designer metal case as we used to show them then!) and felt ready to take on the design world by storm.


The reality was that San Francisco was over-saturated. It seemed everyone had the same idea to move there for their design career Sadly, though I didn’t realise it at the time, no one wanted a newbie fresh out of Uni with no “real” experience. Months went by with daily checks for new jobs, resumes being sent, portfolio being shown, a few interviews but nothing. I hung my head, bit the bullet and out of necessity took a job as an in-house designer at a computer company. Hardly my dream job but it paid the bills and gave me something under my belt.


What I hadn’t realised was that there was a recession brewing, about to slam San Fran harder than anyone could imagine. The dotcom crash of 2001 hit the Silicon Valley in San Franscisco (an area known for IT innovation and high technology) like a title wave. My company, which was built in the rise of tech years earlier, was in trouble. Less than a year after I started, all the staff were called into a big room in the basement where 97% of us were laid off, including the entire marketing and design department.


As we’ve learned again from Covid, recessions are a time that people start to think outside the box. Most new businesses are begun in recessions. Folks get creative, they get brave, and they work from a place of ‘what if?” If necessity is the mother of invention, then the doors are open to new possibilities.


This was definitely NOT the time to find a job in the design field. So, after months of failed job searching, crying on the couch, and smashing all the company gifts with a hammer in the garage, I officially started my own design studio. I knew that was what I wanted long-term, but the turn of events made the reality more short-term.


Was it scary? Heck yes. Even now, a couple decades later, I wonder if I made the right move. Those incredible perks that people in the non-entrepreneur world take for granted – retirement packages, holiday pay, sick leave, knowing what you are meant to be paid – are a mysterious beautiful unicorn of an idea to me.


But I know myself, my personality, my need to be my own boss and do things how I like and I’m pretty sure having my own studio is the only way I could have done it. I love my job, fully and truly. The design part is easy for me. But the management, finances, systems, technology, education, and general life balance are challenging as hell.

Today, the world of graphic design is a different place.

It is a smaller world. Physical boundaries don’t exist. We can thank technology for bringing us closer together. No longer do we need to sit down for a face-to-face meeting, show work in person, or be in the same town to work together (although all of those things are very very nice). We can see what others are creating at the touch of a button, or a hop on Instagram or Pinterest. Inspiration comes at us at lightning speed if we choose it.


If you are starting out on your own and have any questions for me, please drop me a message on social media. I love hearing about what makes people start their own businesses. For those designers who are just getting your feet wet, it is one of the best gigs in the world. Stick with it. Before you know, those wrinkles on your face will prove that you’ve got stories to tell about your start too.

Wondering about my tried and true strategies for working from home without losing your sanity? You’re in luck! Here’s the blog post!

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