David Sedgwick on running a lean studio, being nice and how the design industry can change for the better
David Sedgwick is a designer and the mastermind behind Studio DBD, a design studio based in Manchester.
Hard-working and with a great reputation, not just locally, but worldwide, David doesn't just work for an impressive range of clients, he also finds time for side projects, such as the successful BCN: MCR exhibition or his Forever Manchester collaboration with Stanley Chow.
A champion of other creatives in Manchester, and always one of those who happily puts people in touch with one another, David gives back just as much as he puts in – it's no wonder he's a popular chap. We grabbed a few minutes with him to find out more about what he's up to.
First of all, tell us more about you and your career. How did you get started?
I guess I started pretty much in a fairly usual way. School, college, degree, placement, job. I wish it was more interesting sometimes, but I took the standard journey into the design world.
I was fortunate that after university I took a placement at an agency called Tucker Clarke Williams. No longer in existence, but at the time it was a very good design and advertising studio. Literally days before I started, half the staff had left to set up Love Creative! In many ways, this worked out for me as TCW needed new designers. I worked there for a few years and got to know what the 'real world' was like, then after I was made redundant I started to freelance a bit for a few other studios. I fell into some new jobs and worked for a variety of Manchester-based design studios before finally going solo in 2011.
At what point did you decide to go solo, and how did you survive those initial years?
I was getting married and wanted a really long honeymoon! This is kind of true, but really I’d worked for my last studio for about four years, perhaps a touch longer and I guess I fancied a bit of a new challenge.
I learnt a lot at 999 Design, but I wanted to try and do my own thing. Like lots of designers I’d always worked on my own projects on the side to earn extra cash, so going solo was more of a transition than a major change.
I wanted to fully concentrate on my own work and build up my own reputation. Firstly I freelanced in agencies for a while. This was a real eye-opener going into so many studios and working on loads of projects. I really enjoyed it and built up a network of friends and contacts. But I always felt slightly on the outside looking in. You never get to fully work on something from start to finish and you are essentially just a helping hand. I also knew that at any point I could be 'dropped', so to speak. It’s great fun being your own boss in this way, but it can also be very scary.
I think at the start it was 75% freelancing and 25% my own clients. Slowly that shifted and now it’s 100%, my own clients.
Manchester, like many UK cities, is a competitive playground – how do you find and win new clients?
Over the past few years, I have tried my best not to just focus on Manchester clients but to work with businesses around the world. I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’ve not really had to do any cold calling or anything overly pushy, most work has kind of fallen my way. For that, I am very fortunate and never ever take anything for granted. I am constantly aware that things could dry up though.
Like lots of other creatives, being self-aware is really important to me. I always look at other people's work and think, shit, I’m not very good! But I just feel really lucky to have been able to work on some cool stuff over the past few years. I think winning work mainly comes from doing as good a job as you can for everyone, then hopefully word of mouth starts to happen. I also get a fair bit from social media, which I think over the years has become more and more important when winning new clients.
What type of clients approach you? How do they benefit from working with a smaller studio, as opposed to a larger agency?
I remember working for a previous agency and doing literally everything for (quite a large) client. I did the initial brief meeting, creative visuals, design, artwork, print management, client liaising etc. Then the agency invoiced for the work and I got paid my small salary! I appreciate that I might not have been able to bring that work in solely on my own. But then once it came through the door, the reality was that I was doing it all…like ALL of it. I just started to think that maybe I could do this for myself as a smaller studio.
I think that certainly after the recession more and more clients are now used to working with smaller studios. They perhaps don’t value the bigger models as much as they perhaps used to. I bring in people as and when I need them. If a project comes in and I can’t handle it alone then I call upon other designers, illustrators, photographers, animators etc to help out and we work together. The client still deals with me and I handle it all. But I am not working alone on things as much these days.
Without having the large overheads of staff salaries it allows me to be more selective of the kind of work I take on. If I'm too busy or a project doesn’t sound quite right then I don’t have to say yes to everything.
Being the main focus for clients helps the process though. They don’t need to have to go through a load of account managers or other people to get to speak to someone who is actually doing the work. Don’t get me wrong, I still see a need for all kinds of agency models. I just feel that for me, the type of work I do and my clients, it works best to stay small and flexible.
You have a great reputation, not just in Manchester, but UK wide. How've you achieved that (apart from delivering great work)?
Thank you. I don’t always feel that way, but it’s nice for you to say so. I think doing the best work you can do is really important. But also, and, maybe I don’t always succeed in this, by being a decent person who doesn’t try to bullshit or pretend to be someone they aren’t.
The reality is that we are designers and although we have amazing jobs and do some really good things. We aren’t saving lives (in the same way as doctors or nurses) and we perhaps need to remember that sometimes. So a reputation for being a good designer is one thing but I’d prefer to have a reputation for being a decent human being at the end of the day. So I try as best I can to live like that. As I say, I may fail at times.
You run a lean studio. Have you deliberately avoided growing into a larger agency?
As time has passed I’ve often felt the urge or had the need to grow. But as things stand right now, I am happy with the way things are. When certain work comes along I grow accordingly. It’s this flexibility that I like.
I have spoken to lots of other agencies who started like me and then grew. Although they maybe wouldn’t necessarily change things, they admit that actually being a larger studio hasn’t made them any more money. It’s just meant they need to take on more work to cover all the extra salaries they need to pay.
I admire lots of designers who work alone and continue to produce great design work. It’s not easy. I guess we are all doing the best we can.
Is there anything that frustrates you about the creative industries? What would you like to see change?
Now there’s a question! I'm no doubt guilty of some of this still, so I answer with some hesitancy.
The first thing is the constant negative discussion about other design studio’s work. There’s not a day or week that goes by that I don’t see social media explode with comment and opinion about the next new brand project to launch. I think it’s ok to have an opinion and maybe discuss this with your colleagues and friends, but do we need to share this vitriol online? I may have in the past, but I’ve tried more and more recently to be less judgemental. We don’t always know the brief, the client’s involvement, the budget or the hoops they may have had to jump through. So I think it’s best we start to sit back a bit. We can’t expect to be taken seriously if we are internally at each other’s throats. You hardly see this level of bitchiness in any other industry.
Secondly, we need to be more open about the process. We see so many amazing projects, but I’d love to see the process more. How do people get to this stage or end point? As well as process, budgets! We keep this kind of thing to ourselves. If we open up this kind of discussion then we allow clients into our world. We don’t keep the 'us and them' thing going on, we admit to how much things cost, we show the amount of work that can go into a new project or website and we stop with the dark arts.
Finally, as an industry, we need to admit more to shutting down. Social media suggests to us that everyone is working late, working on projects, learning new software, is the best designer in the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The reality for me is that I work hard, I put the hours in. But I love shutting down. I love playing with my two-year-old daughter, going to the pub, watching football or reading magazines. It’s not all design for me. If design is for people, then as designers we need to remember that’s what we are, people. We need to admit that although we love our jobs. It still works at the end of the day and being involved in other things outside of design is crucial to becoming the designers we want to be, or more importantly, the people we want to be.
Manchester has suffered a great deal in recent months, but its reaction has been truly humbling. What are your thoughts on this?
I never would doubt that Manchester would have come together in the way that it did. But I also believe most cities and people would do the same in similar circumstances. It’s (hopefully) a human thing. Most of us are decent people at the end of the day. I spent some time around St Ann’s Square though and the atmosphere was something else. Very sombre and emotional.
I think it’s great that so many events and projects have come out of this all to raise money for the victims. It certainly showed the world how great a city this is. Hopefully, it won’t ever be needed again though.
I don’t know if I could ever work for someone else ever again. It’s the best experience being able to manage your own time and work whenever you like.
Have you ever been tempted to move to London?
Yes, I think it’s perhaps a regret of mine not to try and live further from home. I love London and I love visiting for meetings and short breaks. It’s definitely got 'something' about it that gives it such an edge.
For some personal reasons and some reasons that probably involve a fear of change if I'm honest, I have just always felt an attraction to the North. I do feel these days that you can still produce great work wherever you are. There’s amazing design coming from all over the world, with the way the internet and technology have brought us all closer together you really don’t always need to be working in the big cities in order to produce good design.
A lot of people are choosing Manchester as home these days. There are cranes all over the city, and the growth is fast-paced. Is it good to see?
It’s nice that Manchester is growing and changing. It’s important for a city to never stand still and it’s good to see investment here. But we can’t lose sight of our heritage either. Knocking down pubs for new builds isn’t always the answer. We can continue to grow whilst holding on to what makes the city special.
Any projects you'd care to mention?
Well hopefully, soonish, I should have a new website online. I’ve been working on that for a while now as I have quite a lot of new projects to share. I’ve worked with Oscar at Solo in Barcelona on a new brand identity for myself as well.
I am also working on a really exciting project with Foilco, which turns 30 this year. This involves some of the world’s best designers and creatives and has been a really nice project to work on. I also have quite a few nice branding jobs that should go live soon.
Obviously, recently I was proud to be part of the team who won a D&AD award for The Pilcrow Pub in Manchester. This was a really nice feeling as I always thought I’d never get to win one, so to be involved in this was amazing.
You're known for putting on great exhibitions (BCNMCR and Manchester With Love, as examples) – any others in the pipeline?
I have something coming up also with Foilco in early November that promises to be quite special. Not much more I can say about that just yet, but it will be worth keeping an eye out on that. It’s also five years next year since the first BCNMCR. I won’t lie, it’s crossed my mind a few times about doing something to recognise that!
Honestly though, finding the time to do these kinds of things isn’t easy, especially with a toddler. I certainly gained a fair few grey hairs over the years doing exhibition stuff, so I might leave it to a younger fresher generation, so I can just turn up and get drunk instead. It’s a bit easier…
What advice would you give to graphic designers looking to go freelance?
It’s important that the time is right for you. I wouldn’t necessarily leave a steady job unless you have a bit of cash saved up and a few potential clients to start working with. Don’t just think the grass is always greener. If you really feel you are ready, then go for it. But be prepared for the hard slog, the chasing invoices, the client meetings that go nowhere and the constant feeling that you might run out of cash.
That all said, I don’t know if I could ever work for someone else ever again. It’s the best experience being able to manage your own time and work whenever you like.