Running a design firm can be tricky, especially if you’re a designer yourself. Not all design decisions are always profitable decisions.
Hunter Fleetwood left the company he was working for 10 years ago to comienzo his own firm along with his partner, Mariapaz Fernandez. In February 2008, they launchedFleetwood Fernandez Architects. Still in business and successful a decade later, Fleetwood attributes his success to a handful of factors. When sitting down with him to chat about his journey, it became clear that one thing was important to share with the world: how to keep a balance between profitability and design.
Prioritizing design can often lead down endlessly costly roads, leaving practices in the red and cash flow negative. If you focus too much on profitability and not enough on the creative design process, your team morale can get low, and you may end up a mediocre designer at best. In speaking with Fleetwood about his process, two points stood out.
1. Pay attention to the small corners of a project
“It is important to realize that not every project is a dream project. We have learned that there may be small corners of a project that contain opportunities for design that might not be initially apparent. So, we like to say that once we’ve made the decision to take a project, it absolutely is a creative project. This has two effects. First, it eliminates the tendency to diminish certain projects stature in the office. Second, it affords the team the challenge of creating something more than what might have been produced otherwise.”
The importance of paying attention to ‘the small corners’ of a project not only allows the design team to keep their designer hats on (versus their business-minded hats), it also allows the project to take on a shape that might not have initially been present. While staying committed to projects that are financially lucrative that may not have seemed creatively challenging initially, the exploration process keeps the design focus alive.
A prime example of this was when Fleetwood and his team took on a residential project in Santa Monica, California. This residence was a Tudor style house that initially only required an interior remodel with an addition. While the project’s level of design discourse was pretty low, the team took on a “look for small corners” approach and got the client involved in a deeper exploration. Together the design team and the client decided to rebuild the house from scratch instead. The project ended and was awarded a LEED platinum rating, the highest certification level for sustainable architecture. It also won Architect Magazine’s National Design Review in the Live Category and was featured in Dwell Magazine.
When you look for ‘the small corners’ of a project with your client, you may end up finding big rewards.
2. Learn to say the N word: No
When running a small to medium sized design firm, learning to say no becomes a valuable skill. Taking on any project just to say busy can suck your resources dry and end up costing you more than its worth.
“When we first started the office, it was very hard to say no. It still is, but we are getting better at it,” says Fleetwood.
Fleetwood recommends saying no to any potential job that is in conflict with your firm’s mission. He continues to elaborate,
“This can take many forms. And, of course, it is a lot harder when the workflow is thin. However, we use the rule of threes. We like to say that there are three reasons that we would take a job. First, and foremost is design agenda. Does this client care about our ideas? Second, is contacts. Can the project bring us more exposure? Does this client have the connections we need? All of those factors matter. The third criteria is the fee. In order to consider a project where the design agenda isn’t the main focus, we feel that we must have the other two in order to consider the project for our office.”
While Fleetwood’s mission is unique to their team and firm, every firm must have a mission or a set of priorities so it can evaluate each job it takes on before saying yes. Learning to say no can save you costly, time consuming projects that will wear out your team and resources and leave the client with a less than desirable end result. Saying no, in the end is always beneficial for both the client and the design firm.