Shan Preddy’s simple truths

Designer Breakfasts

In the next of our series from 26’s collaboration with Designer Breakfasts, Elise Valmorbida goes along bright and early, but a little cynical, to Shan Preddy’s talk ‘How to Run a Successful Design Business’. Can all this stuff we do – creating, consulting, competing, challenging, imagining, problem-solving, negotiating, nurturing, networking, dreaming, managing a business – be reduced to three, five or even ten short and simple tips? Elise wonders…

A long time ago, when I was young enough to study physics and two whole types of maths, my teacher wrote out a long and beautiful proof. It filled the entire blackboard. There were white chalky brackets within brackets, curly fractions piling up in layers, and squares throwing their roots out all over the place. At least, that’s how I remember it.

The teacher carried on in perpetual scribbling motion, his commentary as natural in its forward momentum as The House that Jack Built. I was only just able to keep up with the mathematical narrative – my brain chafed against its own ceiling. But keep up I did, until the finale: a satisfying series of crossings out. A trashing. This phrase equalled that, and this cancelled that one out, cross, cross, slash, slash, burn, erase. What was left? A short sweet simple thing: e=mc2. Ah, the beauty of it. The tiny enormity of it.

Some time later, when I was deep in the quicksand of philosophy, there were official searches for universal definitions. Say, of beauty. Or pleasure. Or success. There was never an answer as simple as an all-purpose algebraic formula. But ideas could be reduced to simple truths, even if the simplicity of those truths hid verbal pile-ups of history, detail, experience, example, exception, the complications of context.

The purity of abstract scientific truth – like physics in a friction-free environment – made my brain happy. But my brain got happier still with philosophy as lived – the likes of Socrates, Epicurus, the Existentialists. They emerged from verbal profusion with simple aphoristic guidance, and attempted to live by it.

So I thank Socrates for affirming that contradiction is often the way to truth. And I love Epicurus for identifying what is natural and necessary for happiness: friends, freedom, thought, food, shelter, clothes. (Perfectly plain!) And I embrace the Existentialists for their ethics of responsibility.

The ‘practical’ philosophers seem to have been marginalised by the priests, the politicians and the psychotherapists. They all seem to have been overshadowed by the self-helpers whose global industry is nothing if not an almighty mash-up of disciplines. The seven habits of this. The three steps to that. The six secrets, keys, truths, paths…

“Want to get rich?” the news headlines say. “Write a self-help book.”

For the self that is being helped, it’s cheaper than hiring a costly expert you’d have to pay by the hour. It’s easily wrapped in brown paper if your problem is of the shameful variety. It’s faster than years of training. It’s safer than jumping in at the deep end. Self-help resolves matters of the heart, the soul, the life as lived – and business matters too. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad it’s horrid.


So here am I at the opulent offices of ad agency BBH, attending an early-morning talk called ‘How to Run a Successful Design Business’. It’s a far cry from Epicurus and co, and yet the philosophers are on my mind, playing mischievously with the controls of my radar (an early-warning system designed to detect the dangers of self-help). It’s my instinct to test, through contradiction, anyone who stands up to dispense advice and make a public claim on truth. I’m allergic to proselytising. Can all this stuff we do – creating, consulting, competing, challenging, imagining, problem-solving, negotiating, nurturing, networking, dreaming, managing a business – can all this be reduced to three, five or even ten short and simple tips? Of course not. And yet…

Author Shan Preddy, not daunted by numbers, has brought together more than 100 people – creatives, design-buying clients and reviewers. So for starters, it’s not a one-person show. And then, emerging from this verbal profusion (a tome of over 400 pages), there is simple aphoristic guidance.

Preddy offers us five tips for running a successful design business “because any idiot and their dog can run an unsuccessful design business!” Fair enough.

TIP 1: Understand the industry you work in.

OK, that’s the simple directive. But the devil is in the detail. There are lots of us in the UK. 10,800 design consultancies. 6,500 in-house teams. 65,900 freelancers. This is a huge sector, mostly comprising micro-businesses, about a quarter of which have been operating for fewer than three years. So we’re over-supplied, undifferentiated, inexperienced and small. Which means we’re flexible, dynamic and energetic too. But it’s extra-hard for clients to find us, and clients return to people they know. Have a clear definition of what you do for a living. Say it in terms your audience understands. Make it short and simple.

TIP 2: Understand your client perspective.

The client wants to get results. But what results? They are increases (in profit, response, awareness), improvements (say, in attitude), and reductions (eg staff turnover, waste, customer complaints). These are measurable results. Your work must help your client achieve them.

TIP 3: Have vision. Have values.

We forget to dream. “You gotta have a dream,” Preddy quotes from South Pacific. “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?” If someone were to write about you or your company in five years’ time, what would they say? What would you want them to say? In three years? In one year? Stop now to imagine your future.

TIP 4: Learn to love marketing and sales.

The sole purpose of marketing is to generate income – not profit, because that is the responsibility of good project management and financial control. As for USPs, it’s impossible to be unique in a crowded marketplace. Preddy prefers the term ‘meaningful’. So bring on the MSP.

TIP 5: Specialise, specialise, specialise.

So good, they named it thrice. (But perhaps you can be successful specialising in generalism?)

Such simple advice! Here is a wise counsellor, whose handy tips sit atop mountains of research. The easy ending is the reduction, but of course you need the proof, the curly fractions and chalky brackets. It’s a big book, with a range of opinion that embraces contradiction, insights about what is natural and necessary for the happiness of your design business and, every creative’s duty, the ethics of responsibility.

BONUS TIP: Do it your way.

Be authentic. But don’t waste time re-inventing wheels. Can we take this to be a rejection of bad faith, pretence and pretension? A recognition of our own MSPs? This must be the bonus tip at the heart of every guru’s guidance.

…Then the spirit of contradiction barges in, just because. I’m remembering a film, and it ain’t South Pacific. It’s The Last Days of Disco. The canny character Des McGrath says: “You know that Shakespearean admonition, ‘To thine own self be true’? It’s premised on the idea that ‘thine own self’ is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, *not* to be true to thine own self?”


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