How to win at design without the unpaid internships (Interview with WellMade)

When thinking about taking that next step I find it helps to a – Not be drunk (apparently it is possible to fall up a staircase) b – Talk to someones that’s been there and done that. And WellMade? They well made it (ba-ding).

From a desire to avoid the whole unpaid internship route they grafted their way from skint grads selling phones, cobbling enough money together to put out their zines, through to running a successful studio with so much credibility they make Lena Dunham look like Rebecca Black (oh, and look, it is Friday!).

Their standout achievements include regularly designing cover-to-cover books for Penguin Random House, working on two Top Ten albums with The Wombats and Arctic Monkeys, a permanent display of work in Liverpool Museum, but above all, in their own words, “this month is actually our 8th birthday after starting up from scratch with no other experience – we’ve forged our own path all the way and still going!”

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Equally known for their straight-talking honesty (from posts such as ‘What a failed branding pitch looks like’ to their outspoken views against exploitative unpaid internships) and student/grad-championing ways (including taking 12 fledgling creatives under their wing for 12 months as part of the ‘Young Pines’ program) as their awesome work, they’re the studio you wanna be and the guys you wanna have a beer down the pub with.

So I decided to ask their Director and Senior Designer, Doug Kerr, about their journey to now and how they made like Sinatra and did it their way…

Tell us a bit about how you started up…

That 2002–2006 gap from graduation was a bit of a black hole really: Joe and I both wanted to stick around in Liverpool once we graduated, but we didn’t have much of a plan. He did a summer contract with now-defunct Juno Studio and I had a short placement with Nonconform lined up, but by the time Autumn rolled around we were both unemployed and didn’t have anything on the horizon – and we had rent to pay so neither of us were particularly keen on going down the unpaid intern route.

That was how the fanzine was born: we both had to take on ‘normal’ jobs (me selling phones, Joe doing bits of temping) and so we wanted to do something to keep ourselves busy and give us a creative outlet, and that was what we did. It’s another story in itself, but the fanzine ran for four years and went on to do quite well and we developed a reasonable profile both as individuals and as a ‘brand’, so eventually it just felt like a natural decision to try and expand that into a design studio. And we felt really good about it as we’d got to that point without having to do the whole work-for-free thing. We just felt like we’d built up a head of steam and were in a decent position to try and translate that profile into a commercial enterprise.

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Did you have any idea how to go about setting up your own studio?

I doubt anyone does really. The tipping point for us was just when we were beginning to wonder what the point of the fanzine was and what we were doing with ourselves, an opportunity to go on a business startup course at the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce materialised and Joe decided to go for it with a view to turning what we were doing into an actual business. So he picked up a few good lessons in stuff like cash-flow and the basics of actually getting started, and he also got us a grant to pay for some software and stationery etc. Beyond that, it was all a case of picking things up as you go along, although we had picked up a little bit of business acumen managing the very small finances of the zine.

A lot of it is common sense really. Even now we sometimes wonder if we’re doing certain things right, and I think the same is true of much bigger outfits than us if you speak to them. All that really matters is that you have some kind of ethos or a set of processes that you are all behind: if it works for you then you’re doing it right.

What were the first few years like? Is there anything you would go back and tell yourself to do differently?

We muddled along ok, just the two of us. We didn’t completely quit our jobs in the beginning, we just gradually scaled back our hours over a period of about a year so that we spent more and more time in the studio and gradually increasing our wage. I suppose we could have started off with a business loan and gone in all guns blazing, but we were always adamant not to borrow money, so we phased it all in gradually instead. I think that was a good lesson actually, it taught us to really appreciate the money we were generating and to keep setting new targets as the wage increased.

Most of our early clients were very localised small scale things: flyers and posters for Liverpool club nights, the occasional startup venture, bits and bobs for the artists we’d worked with on the fanzine. Loads of jobs priced in the £50-£200 bracket really.

The biggest challenges we faced all came back to our lack of experience. We might have been 4 years out of uni but the only ‘proper’ experience we’d had was those early placements and then what we’d taught ourselves on the zine. So there were lots of times where we felt out of our depth or perhaps were a bit too eager to please clients (charging too little, letting them walk over us), but that was always going to be the case as we learned the ropes. I don’t think I’d have changed anything looking back, it was a really good grounding to start small. There are lessons we learned then that influence how we work today.

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How did you manage financially?

Funnily enough it was easier to generate a profit back then as our overheads were practically non-existent! We had a decent shared studio space with a friend of ours that I think cost us something mad like £50 a month. The computers were our own, and we’d had the grant to install some legit software and get our stationery printed. That was about the sum total of our running costs, so although the turnover was quite modest, the profit margins were not bad at all. It took less than a year for us to equal what we had been earning in our old jobs.

For that I am especially glad we didn’t get any kind of startup loans: we’ve recently taken one out and it does add a bit of pressure to the month-to-month planning. All we had to worry about back then was earning enough to get by, which wasn’t too difficult.

How important is business training?

Training in general is very important and it’s been a weakness of ours in the past that we have not prioritised it as much as we should have. It’s important to be flexible in any business, and we’ve had to adapt our skill set many times over the years as print jobs have become web jobs and apps. There was a brief period where I was adamant we’d specialise in being a really good print and brand outfit, but it’s just not realistic to be so specialised, certainly in a studio of our size anyway.

In terms of actual ‘business’ training, I’m in two minds. We’ve picked up nearly everything as we’ve gone along and taught ourselves how to run a business pretty much through common sense and being practical. Designers and creatives tend to be good at lateral thinking and problem solving so I would hope most folk can pretty much work it all out for themselves. But it does put the mind at rest if you can get some reassurance that you’re doing things right, so it’s good to go to the occasional training session or conference, and even better to have a friendly ear you can run things by: a good accountant, your old tutors, etc. I recently signed up for the DBA’s Twenty/Twenty mentoring scheme, and it has been extremely helpful and rewarding to have the ear of a director in a bigger studio to compare notes with.

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How did you generate commissions? Did you ever have to do free work

We’ve done more free and underpriced work than I care to remember. I suppose it’s unavoidable in the early days but if I could go back I’d like to tell us to have a bit more confidence to dig our heels in on that. Very often free or cheap work ends up being the hardest to do, and it kills morale when it does. Nowadays we won’t agree to design anything for free as part of a pitch, and if we lose the opportunity then we don’t mind.

The best way to generate commissions is to put together a simple credentials document with your best work, some information about the studio and its staff and then to head out and target people you want to work for. They’re not going to come to you (disclaimer: they do sometimes) so it’s a case of making first contact and having a bit of confidence in what you’re offering them. If you can back that up with good work then experience should hopefully go out the window.

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What did you do to promote yourselves?

We were lucky in that the fanzine had been unwittingly promoting the company for 4 years before it existed (we called the company the same name). So it never really felt as though we were starting from nothing, because people knew us. So we had some core clients right from the off and then they just seemed to materialise into a few more through word of mouth and client recommendations. That’s something I really love about Liverpool too: it’s fairly close-knit and so there’s a lot of work that would come in just because someone we knew was a friend of someone else who needed design.

I did a talk at Shillington recently and that was my last bit of advice: never lose touch with anyone, ever. Even today we still get the occasional enquiry from someone we’ve not seen in years, or from someone who can remember the fanzine. That’s the best form of promotion: be good, be nice and don’t burn any bridges!

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How important do you think personal projects and exhibitions are for a business or freelancer?

We don’t do nearly enough of this, they’re a really great method of self promotion because they give you an excuse to call up everyone you’ve worked for or want to work for and remind them that you exist. Sometimes that is all it takes to get a conversation going about a new commission. You can get some nice press too which is always useful to have. I do think lot of studios over-egg this a bit though: it’s nice to get a spot in Creative Review or something, but it would be 10 times better if you could do something that generated press in your clients industry where they might actually see it.

What advice/tips would you give to students/grads wanting to set up their own studio?

Firstly, I’d think long and hard. Every year there are more new studios appearing, which is great in some respects, but it obviously creates more and more competition. The past 12 months have seen some improvement but it’s still tough out there. It’s amazingly rewarding but it’s not without its challenges: some months you might struggle to pay yourself and you can say goodbye to the notion of a 9–5. It’s a big commitment so you need to be massively up for it. We’re 8 years in but have still had the occasional wobble where we wonder if life would have been easier with a contracted pay check and a holiday allowance. That’s not to put a negative spin on it, but it’s a good rule of thumb to take off the rose-tinted specs and be prepared for the worst: if you’ve considered that and are still keen on the idea then go for it!

If you’re going into it with a partner or friends then take the time to think ahead and talk about your personal goals and where you want to be in 1, 3, 5, 10 years time. Not just as a business but your own personal lifestyle goals. If you have got wildly differing ideas of what you’re aiming for then there will come a point where you will be at odds with each other, so it’s a good idea  to have that as an ongoing conversation. We still do this every year, to make sure we’re working to the same targets and that we can achieve them with our business plan.

Go with your gut, you’d be surprised how often it’s right. Also, since there are no hard and fast rules about right and wrong anyway, the most important thing is to run your business as you see fit. If you believe in it then others will too. There’s a line in Adrian Shaughnessy’s How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul (which is essential reading if you are thinking about setting up a business) about having a bit of integrity, and it’s always been a big rule for us: to have some principles and to stick to them even if it meanings turning a job down or sacking a client. It’s up to you what those principles might be, but a successful business should have some kind underlining set of values that it adheres to, and a sense of identity.

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Update: If you do want to hang out with WellMade down the pub you can do so tonight! They put out a Twitter invite just last night:

“LIVERPOOL DESIGNERS. We’re having a few drinks @ship_forecast from 5.30 tomorrow because it’s a fun thing to do. Please come RT.”