Design Business

The most decisive difference between an outstanding creative team and a poor one is its quality of leadership. Ian Cochrane looks at how great leaders behave.

YOU can always recognise a successful creative team when you see one. The output of the team is usually outstanding and when you meet the team you can feel the enthusiasm, energy and drive just pouring out of it. Staff and clients alike are drawn towards these qualities.

In my experience, the single most important factor is the skills and behaviour of the team leader. It’s simple: great teams have great team leaders and poor teams have poor team leaders.

In our industry these team leaders are often the same people who are generating ideas for clients — they have either come through the design route or the marketing route. They understand the process of idea generation and how to sell these ideas to people. Broadly speaking, they see themselves as ‘creative’ people. They have a passion for what they do and this passion infects staff and clients alike.

Successful team leaders have learnt three things:

First, always surround yourself with people better than yourself.

Second, play to your own personal strengths.

Third, be selfish when it comes to managing your own time.

As well as having quality people, it is very important to make sure that you have a balanced team or performance can be lopsided. A football team with no strikers is hardly likely to win the league.

In a design consultancy, it’s important to have strong hunters and gatherers with the energy and drive to win new business as well as those who are more concerned with getting the detail right on a piece of print before it goes out of the door.

One way to ensure this balance is to use a recognised personality profiling tool to make sure that you understand and develop your senior people and recruit the right sort of people into your team. Noone should ever be hired at a senior level without being profiled beforehand.

Playing to your strengths is also key. I say, forget about your weaknesses and focus on developing your strengths.

David Beckham spends his time practising free kicks rather than heading the ball. Tiger Woods practises those long shots rather than his bunker shots. Similarly, we should use the various tools that are available to identify our top strengths, then focus on and develop them over time.

Going back to that tip about being selfish with your time, a team leader’s time can be defined across five categories:

Activity                    % time allocation

Finance and administration          5%
Billable work                      15%
Marketing and sales                15%
Client relationships               20%
Talking to staff                   45%

Generally speaking, by far the most important category is talking to staff. It should take up anything between 40 and 60 per cent of a team leader’s time.

What we are really talking about here is the role of a leader as a coach. This is about helping others to do their jobs and helping them to get their priorities straight. Everyone needs help in personal goal-setting and encouragement to stretch outside their comfort zones. In general, people do not perform best when left to their own devices.

The least important category, as far as a team leader is concerned, is that of finance and administration. If your business has over 15 people, you need to employ a fulltime professional financial person to take control of these aspects of the business.

There are two reasons for this. First, the team leader has more important things to do and second, there are people better qualified to do this job. The skills required for the two jobs are poles apart.

Ideas generators who become leaders can often be described as: driving, forceful, energetic, direct, influential, optimistic and communicative. Whereas the financial person is better described as: disciplined, careful, systematic, precise, accurate, cautious and logical. You get the drift.

Strong team leaders always ensure that they have a strong financial person alongside to take care of the financial and systems side of the business. The financial controller or finance director will support the managing director and serve as his or her right hand. This person will have a broad remit of responsibilities within the company, including:

* Producing and reviewing financials

* Preparation of budgets

* Preparation of cash flows

* Personnel administration

* Salaries and rewards

* Systems

* Dealing with leases and contracts

* Pricing of client projects

* Cash collection

* Cash payments

* Statutory obligations

If the business comprises less than 15 people, the team leader might well spend in excess of 5 per cent of their time on the previously stated areas, but they should also rely on their external advisors to provide some of this expertise.

In the current climate, as we gradually climb out of recession, we are likely to see more start-ups appearing like the green shoots of spring after a hard winter.

In a start-up things are slightly different again. The prime mover is likely to be a new businessperson or a rainmaker. Without a rainmaker there can be no start-up. These people tend to be rather charismatic, driven and persuasive people who can attract clients to their cause and away from their previous employer if allowed to. By their very nature, they tend to be positive rather than realistic people.

Talk to any venture capitalist and they will tell you that the business plan targets for start-ups are nearly always overstated — people rarely deliver what they say they will deliver in the first year or so of a new business.

If the rainmaker has a start-up partner, it is likely to be a designer or someone who can deliver the product to the client. The crucial skill that is missing, once again, is that of finance.

Since start-ups have no need for a full-time financial controller, it is imperative that they use an advisor for sound business advice on how to minimise tax and to help them in producing a business plan.

Without a business plan, the new business will find it impossible to raise finance or get an overdraft with their friendly bank. Even friendly banks today require the level of comfort that comes from having such a plan.

Art of functional design

A FEW years back advertising commercials director Tony Kaye and two agency creatives tried to get their venus in Furs spot for Goodyear (or was it Pirelli?) into the Tate Gallery’s collection. The film, they claimed, transcended its commercial function and justified inclusion as a work of art. The Tate demurred, Kaye picketed the gallery and lively press coverage was enjoyed by all.

This spat created tension in adland. Traditionalists were embarrassed by the pretension; others energised by the issues. As ever, perspicacity could be found in the grey area between the two camps. In reality, art and advertising remained separate and fixed in their constellation, what had changed was the self-confidence of the latter. Some ad people became so high on the industry’s growing social and cultural influence, and its obsession with its own ‘creativity’, that they had mentally dropped the word commercial from the term ‘commercial artist’.

The rapid increase in, and demand for, creative specialists hastened the death of this term. Where once was a commercial artist, suddenly there were art directors, copywriters, creative directors, typographers, graphic designers, planners, brand consultants, Web designers, engagement managers, imagineers and creative business holisticians.

The burgeoning design industry needed more precise job titles, but in playing fast and loose with conventional terms many designers lost sight of the differences between themselves and other trades and professions. While some claimed the most interesting fringes of contemporary graphic design and art were merging, others urged design consultancies to offer management consultancy services.

Advertising seems less interested in art these days, maybe due to so much contemporary art being hypnotised by the seductive and (worryingly) omnipresent language of commercial creativity. Many in the design world still hark after elevation to the gallery, however. It is a common fantasy that a creatively remarkable design work can transcend its origins and become art. I have two problems with this. One, it can’t. Two, believing creative excellence makes a work worthy of promotion to another realm misses the purpose of and devalues design.

Whether design can be art is a more complex question than whether advertising can. Neither design nor art are, by definition, promotional; advertising is. It’s tempting to say the difference between design and art is that the former is created on behalf of a client and the latter on behalf of the artist, but it doesn’t quite separate the two. What if a designer self-funds a poster to address a social issue?

For me, the difference between contemporary art and design lies in the relationship between form, function and audience. In art, form (expression) is free to take priority over function (effectiveness), and the artist is prioritised over the audience. In design, function has priority over form, and the audience is more important than the designer. This remains true even with a design work considered aesthetically or sensually beautiful – its beauty is redundant if it doesn’t achieve its functional objective.

Take the example of the self-funded designer – they are not constrained by the client, but they are by the need to communicate rather than simply express. A work of art has none of these constraints – it is what it is, regardless of how it is received. These contrasting positions with regard to effectiveness are why the world generally pays artists respect and designers money.

I take these tentative steps into the dangerous, labyrinthine design-art debate as a preface to a simple desire. I’d like to see the next generation of designers recognise the difference between design and art, banish the notion that design should aspire to be art, and celebrate the huge value of excellent design. Those driven by a desire to create art are free to do so, whenever they’re not designing.

Drawing a line between design and art is healthy for a design community to do. It lets us measure what we do against something other than the spurious, vague notion of ‘creativity’ that exists in most groups. Form, style and expression are vital, but can only be judged in relation to function. We’re here to inspire people to act in a certain way, and we should measure our success according to that, not just the pleasure evoked by the combination of design elements we employ. So design is a means to an end, art is an end in itself. The greatest question facing a designer is to what ends do you want to go?

Will we meet at the spa?

KEEP-FIT culture has come a long way since Jane Fonda and the Green Goddess. From pumping iron to practising Pilates, there are now numerous ways to keep in shape. How you exercise is as much about fashion, it seems, as fighting the flab.

Spending on health and fitness reflects its growing status as a lifestyle option. Consumers sweated out almost pounds 1.7bn in health and fitness clubs last year (source: Mintel). This figure has grown 145 per cent since 1996 and the market is expected to double over the next five years.

Membership and admission charges represent around 70 per cent of this expenditure, with a further 10 per cent going on one-off joining fees. This still leaves a significant sum for health and beauty treatments, bars and cafes, which suggests consumers are looking for much more from the experience than a couple of gym circuits.

Traditionally, health and fitness club design has been more readily associated with a Lonsdale than a Gucci belt. But this is changing fast. The multi-million pound KX Gym, which opened this week in west London with interiors and architecture by Thorp Design, is the latest luxury offering. It follows Third Space and Naked, which opened in Soho and Earl’s Court respectively last year. Edinburgh now boasts Escape, owned by the Scotsman Hotel group, and Cambridge has The Glassworks, designed by Conran & Partners.

The fit-out of the pounds 2000-a-year KX Gym (pronounced ‘kicks’ and derived from ‘kickboxing’) is far from run-of-the-mill. Thorp Design managing director James Thorp says it displays a ‘residential mindset in a commercial space’. And he doesn’t mean two up, two down. Thorp’s track record is mainly in designing expensive houses, yachts and planes.

‘We understand what quality is,’ he says. ‘The style of KX evolved from these private commissions. It’s maxi-minimalist, or minimalism taken to a more opulent level.’ Design accounts for more than half a budget in the region of pounds 8m to pounds 10m. There are ebony panels and textured plaster walls. The flooring is either natural hammered stone or teak, Thorp adds. ‘It’s used for yacht decking.’

The positioning, like the look and feel, resembles that of a boutique hotel and is intended to appeal to a similar clientele. So important is location to the target market, Thorp confides, that plans for a site in South Kensington that were ‘shut down a week away from work starting’ when the old Harrods depository in Brompton Cross came up. ‘It’s nothing like a Harbour Club, Cannons or Holmes Place,’ he says.

Ian Sherman, Corporate Edge chairman of interiors and architecture, warns against seeing all health and fitness clubs ‘in the light of KX’. He says, ‘it’s at the extreme end of the market, both in terms of costs and what it is offering.’ Corporate Edge has designed 70 gyms over the past 15 years, including the Harbour Club (first and second time around), Champneys City-Point and most recently the ‘affordable luxury’ brand Amida, which opened in Becken ham, Kent, last November.

Sherman says, ‘The market has changed massively. Early on, design was not seen as a key element in the mix, but now it’s increasingly important. The market is also broadening and stretching, so it’s inevitable that there is greater segmentation and more differentiation.’

He likens the position of the larger groups, ‘Fitness First, LA Fitness and Cannons’, to that of retailers such as ‘Burton and Top Shop’ in the 1980s. ‘They’re developing and evolving standards,’ he says — but suggests this has led to a generic style.

Bespoke clubs like KX Gym, Third Space and Naked certainly break the mould. But the challenge, Thorp suggests, is integrating the ‘hotel aspects of the operation, like laundry and day-to-day running’ with calm, spacious design. How feasible it is with more typical budgets, though, is another matter.

The wiring at KX Gym is hidden away ‘under the floor, like a dealing room’, says Thorp. Using a PIN, personal fitness programmes can be downloaded to all the exercise machines. Such individualisation also depends on consumers becoming more sophisticated about fitness techniques. KX is ‘very studio and martial arts-based,’ says Sherman. ‘People have to understand training.’

However, what is common to both the high-end and the mainstream market is a broader definition of what gyms are about. Mintel leisure analyst Richard Bowyer says, ‘In general, a more holistic approach is being taken towards health and fitness. Consumers are interested in a wider range of exercise activities, which explains the popularity of Tal Chi and Pilates and alternative therapies such as reflexology and aromatherapy.’

Sherman points to ‘the growth of relaxation’ as opposed to fitness. He describes cardio-vascular gyms as the ‘pump primers of the industry’, but says the Amida concept is ‘not quite 50/50 but 60/40’ in its ratio of fitness to relaxation. Design, necessarily, has to be more ‘warmer, softer, lower-lit, more contemplative’, he suggests. Having more varied spaces will make greater demands on designers.

With its self-conscious exclusivity, KX Gym’s aesthetic will remain aspirational for most. ‘It’s the Ferrari ticket,’ says Thorp. He thinks the technological rather than the design elements will ‘filter down’. But the boutique hotel comparison might suggest otherwise. First there was Schrager, now there’s Malmaison.

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