Carol Mackay: What I’ve Learnt Working in Our Creative Industry



The last time I was an employee was July 30, 41 years ago.*


I left employment when the owner of the studio I managed declined new business I’d been offered. Problem was, it was exactly the type of work I liked and wanted to pursue. After a quick discussion with my partner, I handed in my resignation, jumped into my MG and drove across town.


Truth be told, the MG probably didn’t start. It often didn’t start. Something to do with the ignition being dodgy. Realistically, I probably headed out the door and jumped into the MG only to return a few moments later (it was pre-mobiles) to call Mick the RACV man (with whom I was on first name basis).


But I digress.


I know you are not meant to have regrets, but it’s hard knowing what I know now (the known 'knowns') and not look back and wished you’d done things differently.


Here’s what I’ve learnt.


One.

First and foremost, plan to change. Be adaptable. Change is constant.

We started the business doing paste-up. Thanks to a colleague who returned from seeing his New York family with an Apple Macintosh under his arm, we were early adopters of computers. But learning how to use a mouse right-handed when I’m a natural left hander was just the start of a learning curve.


Change happened quickly. We went from couriering marked-up typesetting; to faxing the specs; to setting the typesetting as part of the design, within a couple of years. I transferred my paste-up skills to a variety of programs: Ready, Set, Go; Pagemaker; Quark; and finally InDesign.


We worked through a variety of business models that culminated in closing the doors of one business and opening another.


We ‘do’ change well.

We continually invested in ourselves and our employees ,which leads me to…


Two.

Put your own oxygen mask on first. Treat yourself as well as you treat your employees.

At the beginning there was just me, and then there was my partner, Greg Branson and me and within 6 months we’d doubled our staff to four. To meet overheads and pay our employees well, we cut our wages and offered them a profit share. It was a great deal for them. Problem was, we took all the risks; it was our house up as collateral, it was our reputation on the line and when a deadline loomed it was our holidays cancelled, and our weekends filled with paperwork.

That said, with only a few exemptions, I loved working alongside every one of the creatives we employed. I am indebted to them all.


Each one introduced new ways of thinking and fresh ideas into our team. I was usually devastated when they left but grew to understand staff turnover in a small team is not only necessary, it’s valuable. It stops ideas and processes becoming stagnant. Which leads me to…


Three.

Take holidays. Always and often.

It took 15 years of business and a history of booking holidays only to cancel them at the last moment to finally make our first trip overseas to New York.


They say the mother of invention is necessity and for us, it was. After many cancellations we decided the only way we could both take holidays is to keep working while on holidays. And so started our ‘working breaks’. To acknowledge we may lose a couple of days working, we take longer breaks – usually 4-5 weeks. We lease an apartment equipped with a table that becomes our temporary office. We work for a few hours of a morning and few more late afternoon because that’s when north and south hemisphere timelines usually intersect. Middle of the day, after 7pm and during the weekend, we holiday.


Since that first, cold January in New York, we’ve had a ‘working break’ in London (twice), Rome, Paris, Florence, San Francisco, Lisbon, Porto and back to New York. It’s become progressively easier to pack a laptop and access work via the cloud. And clients didn’t mind, in fact they applauded the move, in some cases copying our MO. And our employees stepped up and filled any gaps we left easily and competently.


The experiences we had, the places we saw and the designers we met changed the way we did business. In fact, it formed the basis of Design Business Council. We benefited, our team benefited, and our clients benefited. It’s with regret – especially now – we didn’t start travelling earlier. Which leads me to…


Four.

Make the business work for you and not you for the business.

It wasn’t until we really understood our niche – how we differed from other designers – where we excelled and others didn’t, I lost the absolute fear of running a business and being responsible for the livelihood of others.


Running a business didn’t get easy but it did get easier.


I wish I’d done a personal journey map early. It was only after much trial and error I realised the type of design I excelled was luckily not the client sector of interest to many others. Understanding my niche meant I could hire more wisely and meet expectations better. And it meant I could sit back and enjoy the journey which leads me to…


Five.

Be an active part of the creative community.

One of our upward trajectories was after we joined AGDA. After a few years playing around the edges, Greg sat on the Victorian Council and moved in (and out, but that’s a different story) of Presidency. Suddenly, the design studio owners we’d viewed as competitors became colleagues. At monthly meets, wins and challenges were swapped and solved. Our confidence grew knowing others faced similar challenges; we grew as business owners and a direct result was the growth of our bottom line.


The Design Business Council is built on a community of knowledge. We have a crew of designers we’ve met for breakfast every month for over 5 years. We regularly network and are planning a series of UN seminars to hit the streets.


It’s easier than ever to become part of the design community. Here’s my community:

  • AGDA – Australian Graphic Design Association

  • Never Not Creative – a community of creatives helping each other never not be creative. The founder Andy Wright is particularly interested in mental health – I’m there to encourage internships, and specifically, the abolishment of unpaid internships.

  • Creative Women’s Circle – a network for creatives with many different pursuits.

  • Bravely Managing – a community of managers working in the creative industries: live producers and studio/ops/design managers who regularly share the best intel ever.

  • Mavens – I love the variety of the views and articles.

  • and of course, the Design Business Council. I love being surrounded by a community of knowledge… it’s at our monthly breakfast, in the chatter online in our Slack and FB groups and particularly on LinkedIn. There’s more being planned, just make sure you’ve subscribed to our email database to keep up to date.


Footnote


The creative industry I joined straight from uni is not the creative industry I’m part of now, and that’s OK. 🙂

*Yep, celebrating 41 is odd, it would make far more sense to have celebrated last year but... Eh! 2020 we were head down, bum up working with little time to acknowledge or understand the passing of time.


And yep, strictly speaking I am still technically an employee of my own company, it just didn’t read as well.


What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email carol@designbusinesscouncil.com


About Carol Mackay

Carol Mackay is co-founder of the Design Business Council (DBC). After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, Carol now uses her experience and research to help creatives manage their own design businesses. Carol’s special power has always been an ability to use design to translate difficult to understand or complex messages. She believes design brings clarity to complex issues. From clarity comes understanding and understanding leads to knowledge.

As a designer, she used those skills with clients like The Magistrates, County and Supreme Courts, Ombudsman schemes and Emergency Service agencies. At DBC she uses the same skills … helping designers de-mystify the complexities of managing a small business.

Outside of DBC, Carol mentors graduates and is a Board member at Never Not Creative, a community of creatives pushing for change in the creative industry.


About Design Business Council

Design Business Council helps designers build more profitable design businesses. This includes supporting creatives to learn management skills, helping business owners identify and target better clients, introducing tools and systems to increase a studio’s productivity, and focusing on a sustainable work/life balance. DBC shares their knowledge in a library of free resources, workshops, group and one-on-one mentoring.