Studio Snapshots #2. / by Paul Pensom

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In his latest column on life as an independent designer, Paul Pensom reveals the unexpected, but vital, lessons to be learned from business self-help books when setting up your own studio

During WWII the US Airforce had a problem. Its bomber fleet was sustaining unacceptably high losses on each raid over Europe. On some missions the chances of any one plane making it home were poorer than 50%; for once the word decimation was not hyperbole, but understatement.

Airforce command reasoned that more armour was the solution, but any increase in weight affected the distance, height and the duration of a mission. So they examined the bombers that had returned. They recorded every bullet hole, and overlaid their results.

They detected a pattern. Bullets were clustered around the wings, down the centre of the fuselage, and about the tail gunner. So they reinforced these areas, leaving the rest unclad – a trade off between strength and agility.

The result? Nothing. Statistically, losses remained the same. In bewilderment the airforce took their problem to a think tank called the Applied Mathematics Panel attached to Columbia University. There it came to the attention of a Hungarian emigré and mathematical genius called Abraham Wald.

Wald listened in silence before delivering a wholly unexpected solution, one which presaged a new approach to statistical analysis. “You’ve got it the wrong way round”, he told them.

What did he mean? Just this: the airforce had analysed only survivors, so had highlighted nothing more than the amount of damage a plane can take and still survive. A wise use of resources, Wald correctly hypothesised, would be to reinforce the areas which hadn’t been hit, since planes that sustained damage to those areas must now be lying at the bottom of the English Channel.

“Your humble columnist can show you exactly where the bodies are buried, or more accurately, where in the ocean the B17’s with payloads of failed ideas are lying.”

And how, you may be asking, oh patient reader, does this relate to the setting up of a creative studio? It’s like this: you have as much, if not more to learn from failure, as from success.

I suppose it’s also a way of establishing my credentials. Why should you invest your time reading about my struggles to build a prosperous business? My studio hasn’t been running a year yet, we’re only three people strong and though we’re breaking even, we’re yet to turn much of a profit. Better surely, to read the thoughts of the serial entrepreneur; the creative director with three successful agencies behind them?

Well, yes. And no. It’s useful to acquaint yourself with the big picture of course. But don’t forget that such people are, almost by definition, outliers; their career trails are what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Black Swan events: improbable and essentially unpredictable. As such, they are of limited use as models of instruction.

Your humble columnist however, can show you exactly where the bodies are buried, or, more accurately, where in the ocean the B17’s with payloads of failed ideas are lying, fuselages riddled with the flak of sheer apathy. Remember: failure can be your friend. Recognise it. Learn from it. Then always pretend to be washing your hair when it comes calling.

“I pictured myself treading water in a swimming pool which was draining with alarming rapidity. From this perspective, these collections of sage advice look like lifebuoys.”

That’s not to say that failure has been my constant companion these last twelve months. That would be putting it too strongly. More apt perhaps to say that success has been more elusive than anticipated. At this time last year, I was in the process of setting up the studio. I thought I’d planned exhaustively, but before looking at what I did do, I want to discuss something I didn’t, because lack of success can often be attributed as much to a dearth of action, as a surfeit.

My first shortcoming can be summed up neatly in four words. I didn’t read enough. That’s an odd confession for me, the bookish equivalent of a chain smoker, but it’s true. I’ve spent the last six months immersing myself in specialist texts. Books about marketing, social media, running small businesses, project management, presentation skills. All useful knowledge, much of which has been instrumental in modifying our business practice, but nevertheless it occurs to me that I should have been reading these books eighteen months ago, when I was first planning the business. If I’d done so I could have dispensed with much trial and error, and commenced with a set of systems and protocols far more efficient than those I actually began with.

I didn’t do this, because I naively presumed that a degree of expertise in the business of graphic design was qualification enough for running a graphic design business. Not true at all. The simple fact is that starting any kind of business requires you to become a businessperson. Yes, a bitter pill to swallow it may be for creative types, but if your business is to prosper you must join the ranks of the suits, the bean counters, the number crunchers. You must be all of these and more, if you’re not to hit the rocks very soon after weighing anchor.

It was this epiphany that explained to me the phenomenon of business self-help literature, a sector I’d always looked on with a mixture of puzzlement and amused contempt. In as much as I’d ever considered it, I’d thought it a purely cultural phenomenon; something for self styled high achievers to read in bed after The Sunday Times Rich List. Once I’d sunk my own money in to a venture though, I began to see these books differently. I pictured myself treading water frantically in a swimming pool which was draining with alarming rapidity. From this perspective, these collections of sage advice looked less like entrepreneur’s ju-ju’s than lifebuoys, to which one clings with deepest gratitude.

So if I could give one piece of advice to you, the talented designer, one hand stroking your chin and the other hovering over the button, it would be this: start thinking like you already run the place. That means diving in to the business section of your local library or bookshop and sifting for pearls. Yes, there’s modish cod-philosophy and pseudo-intellectualism down there, but there’s also a huge amount of wise instruction to be found, on everything from keeping control of budgets to time tracking and invoicing. A few judicious hours spent reading can save days’ worth of trouble further down the line, so make the effort, and do your homework. You won’t regret it.

Paul Pensom is the Creative Director of StudioPensom and Art Director of Creative Review magazine.