Starting your own design firm straight from university...

Hi all

I am about to undertake a gap year where I will be pursuing internships while homing my skills (big time!) before undertaking a BA Industrial design and Technology degree. I am fanatical about design and wish to become one of the finest in a new sustainable world by starting my own design firm straight from university… Ambitious? I agree.

So, I want to see what people think of this idea. I tend to spend every waking hour of my time working on design related skills and learning Chinese (as I am due to move from Britain to Beijing in mid August) and I want to push even harder throughout university. I intend to focus on outside projects mostly (competitions, projects and a few other little things, hopefully including kickstarting a few things) and (I know a lot of people will disagree with this) basically do my degree on the side.

Do you think drive, ambition, persistence and naivety will prevail and I could start building a successful company straight away or do you think experience in other firms (apart from internship experience throughout university years) is just too valuable?

Fire at me people!


In my opinion the single most important attribute in starting your own venture (of any kind - not just design) is experience.
I would highly recommend that you spend at least a few years once you’ve completed your degree working for someone else.
The benefits are numerous… a steady paycheck, the opportunity to develop your skills on real-world projects, expanding your network of contacts, meeting vendors and establishing relationships.
Find an organization with similar values and learn the ropes on their dime.

Product development is complex and time consuming.
Maintaining a successful business is also complex and time consuming…
My suggestion would be to become incredibly proficient at at least one of the two before contemplating starting your own design firm.

Starting your own firm is difficult. Real world experience is huge, and while you might be able to get some of that in internships, the knowledge you gain working your way up from the bottom is invaluable.

Additionally, the survival of your own firm is dependent on your ability to find clients and run a business. It’s very difficult to know all of that AND be a good designer AND have the skills needed to develop a product end to end. You might be able to start off as a freelancer doing very specific niche areas (visualization, research, and front end ideation and sketching) but to actually get your hands dirty and learn about manufacturing you need a company with the funding to get it done.

I have also always wanted to start my own firm. Currently I am working towards this goal. After working for a few years I think the above posters have it right. You really can’t beat working to gain experience. It really hones your skills not just sketching but problem solving and one of the most important skills communication between people in a company. I freelance on the side because it is great for a little extra money but it also allows me to keep honing my quoting and client relationship skills.

I have to also say if you get a very good design director you will learn a lot from him along with any of your senior designer you work with. Plus the regular pay checks are great as well. You really want to try and minimize your risk when you first start off because you will burn through money just getting started. If you don’t have experience and have never gotten a client before you will just be wasting money. Get an internship or full time job and try to get freelance work at the same time. Once you are comfortable working with your own clients then you can maybe think about it.

The experience you will gain working for and with people other than yourself, who more likely than not have different educational and professional backgrounds than yourself, is invaluable. Not to mention the quoting, client relationship, business development, and project management skills you’ll acquire in this time as you deal with a wide variety of clients. The mentorship of senior staff, exposure to vendors, trade shows, people in other product development disciplines. I think this experience is a must. Also, do you have the $50k you’ll need to spend to get good equipment, legit software, a usable studio space, startup marketing costs and a minimal cash cushion for project spending you will incur before your client writes you a net 45 check? I have been working for a little over 8 years, and honestly, it takes at least five or six years to get the range of experiences you need under your belt. Even after that, new things come up all the time. Product development is complex. You need to be able to sleepwalk the PD process before you take on biz dev - doing both at once, while perhaps a useful character building experience, is also likely to set you up for failure and result in you not being very good at either. Not to say it can’t be done, but the odds aren’t with you.

One thing to think about in any business venture is what your value proposition is to your customers. If your value proposition is profitable, produceable, sustainable design, the first thing your potential customers will say is “great, show us some examples of where you have done that for companies like us in production?”

It’s not to say it’s impossible to start a business straight out of school, but it really depends on what you are going to be doing.

A pure, traditional Industrial Design consultancy requires a lot of experience in many areas.

If you carved a very small niche - “I design custom furniture” or “I design coffee mugs” then you could probably do it. But if you expect to be a “firm” where you help clients explore ideas and take them into producible products there’s just too much for a fresh grad to really be able to handle.

Above posters are seasoned pro’s in the design field and I would agree with them, but on another side I personally know people who started their own studios right after uni. Some of them got quite successful very fast and are making a good living. For others it may take some time, but they show persistence.

So, if somebody asks me: There are little rules to the game. Personality, circumstances, funding, right time/right place and luck can make it happen.

Yo is actually working at a place started by a guy straight out of Uni :wink:

This is true, but lets not forget that was 1969, and Hartmut slowly grew frog from a few designers in his parent’s garage to a lighthouse for global design excellence. I’ve spoken with him, he is a force of nature, one of a kind, and I could believe he built his vision on sheer will. You could be that person. It is a possibility, so I don’t want to limit you, but be you will still have to be prepared to answer the question I laid out above.

Harmut does seem like he would be one of a kind!

It also was a different decade when Harmut started frog. Design today seems to me like a bit of a different ball game. Still need that grit, creativity etc. to make it happen- but I think the landscape, scope, technology and values put on design have changed- making it that much more challenging and exciting.

Having just completed an undergrad degree myself and now working at a studio- everyday is equivalent to a week worth of learning. It is amazing and awesome! So much more to learn that school could not have prepared you for- or at least just touched upon. Anywhere from new terminology, to team and client relations, improving on technical understanding of software, materials, specs. etc.

As well just from being around people who are more experienced than you, I think along side the obvious big lessons, you subconsciously pick up little things here and there, that don’t phase you- but you take it in and embed it within your design practice. I think being exposed to that kind of mentorship is priceless.

I understand what people are saying and I agree with you, I certainly know that university won’t give you all the experience you need and I strongly believe you have to go out and do it yourself a lot of the time!

The quote above is great! I have always been interested to know how much and what sort of things are involved with the initial start up of a firm! Would you say that $50k is a rwealistic amount for setting something up to begin with or justr a benchmark? (I know there are a lot of factors involved with this however).

Great advice on here!

Here’s what $50k will buy you:

  • A year’s rent on a studio space (esp for those first six months when you need your business to “look right” but you haven’t received any revenue) $12k or so
  • Solidworks, CS, Keyshot, business software - $8-$10k
  • A good contract, tax guidance, basic bookkeeping - $2k-$3k
  • Membership in organizations that will provide you access to prospective clients - $1000
  • Phone, high speed internet, electric - $3k
  • Computer hardware - $3-5k (solid processor, monitors, backup hard drive, laptop, projector (for offsites), printer, scanner, etc)
  • Tools for making prototypes - $500 into the thousands if you pick up mills, lathes, bandsaws, etc
  • A website that isn’t behance or coroflot, i.e. a professional site with real email addresses and unlimited traffic - $250/yr for hosting if you DIY everything up to a few thousand if you hire someone to help you with the site.
  • Furniture - $0 to a few thousand for desk, some chairs, task chair, lighting, filing, shelves, etc
  • Cash cushion - $10 to make sure you can cover project related expenses

Wow! That is fair enough, I have been interested to see a breakdown of costs for starting a design firm and have unsuccessful so its great to hear what it takes!

Here is another question I would love to find an answer to…

What would you say are the key methods for getting clients?..

Re: Getting clients- a solid network of contacts- this is the most important thing you will gain from experience at another firm. Also, never discount the relationships you develop in school, if you work hard, establish good friendships and keep in touch, your current peers will be a great resource for work should you start a firm. Can it be done from a fresh start, yes, but it is a slow process, and will be a bumpy beginning. Some people just have it built into them that they are going to start out on their own right away, I’ve seen those that have done that and have successfully developed a design firm, and I have seen those who have done it for a year or two and gave up and moved to a corporate gig. The thing is, you are young and don’t have much to lose in reality, so if you’ve got the itch, now is a good time to scratch it.

I think this point is super important. I learned more in my first year of professional work than in 4 of school, and I think my design educated was fairly good, and balanced, going to RISD, doing an exchange semester at CIA and a summer program in Italy. The thing is, only so much of design can be learned in an academic setting, and while that academic foundation is absolutely necessary, essential, and critical to be able to build on, it is just that, a foundation you will build on. I think you will add to that foundation faster if you are working under and along side more experienced designers.

It is a bit of a real estate maxim to always have the least expensive house on the street because ll the bigger houses will increase your value, similarly, if you are one of the least experienced designers in a studio, you have the most learning potential. Go somewhere with people much better than you if you want to be one of the best in the industry.

I learned more in my first year of professional work than in 4 of school,


Pick up a job for a year or so.

Then start up.

The contacts you make alone will be worth it.

I hear this and it makes me raise another point…

I am going to be doing a straight year of an internship/internships in my third year as an industrial placement. Along side this I hope to get six months at the beginning of next year and 3X2 months between university years.

I understand internships tend to be basic jobs and sometimes unrelated to design (however I believe this should not be the case for a full years internship) but does anyone think that could substitute? Or is it primarily the responsibilities of a full time junior designer (being paid a full wage) that gives you this experience?

I’d say don’t count on the internships to give you great exposure. You probably won’t face clients, and your work will probably consist mostly of what I’d call production art rather than design. Not necessarily the case, but what I’d expect.

Let me put the experience thing another way: If you haven’t spent time succsessfully developing products for real clients (products often have 6-18 month timeframes), with real constraints, and you don’t have any experience with client organizations, what reason is there for someone to hire you as a consultant?

I have to slightly disagree with the pov on internships. I think it depends on the situation. I am in an internship right now- where in many ways I am am treated as a junior designer. Interface with clients (participating in meetings), present to my CD(s) the design work and research produced etc, come up with concepts etc. As well as putting forward suggestions for how aspects of the project could potentially take place (ie: prototyping, models etc.)

Not that it compensates making me able to run my own studio. Heck no. Just making a point.

I still don’t think time and experience can be replaced in this profession. You are obviously young and have time. Take it, use it and learn from others.

Why the rush?

This is what I did expect, but the comment above is what I would certainly look for in say a years internship…

In response to the question ‘Why rush?’ I guess my personal answer to that is (believe it or not) I feel as though time is a always a factor and you will never have enough when you aim to make a huge impact on the world through design! However I do really appreciate the experience you gain from designers who are much better/more experienced than you…