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The 15 characteristics of successful design businesses

What makes one studio stand out from another? Sure the design itself plays into it, but there are also other things to consider… like these 15 characteristics.

The 15 characteristics of successful design businesses

What separates the average (and most) architecture, engineering, and design firms from the most successful? Is it the design work? Their business processes? The personalities at the top? How are they able to consistently create great work, while growing their businesses, and achieving impressive profitability?

There are common characteristics across these leading and high performing firms that enable them to succeed where many others struggle.

They are industry leaders that are dedicated to building relationships and they work selectively, allowing their expertise and skills to shine. It is the characteristics of leading architecture, engineering, and design firms that, not coincidentally, enable them to be the most commercially successful.

1. They tightly control the design process and fewer people are involved

Leading design firms tend to have less (and not more) people involved in the design initiation process. Working with fewer people at the initial stages allows them to have tighter control of the design process. The central idea is strong, consistently applied, and clearly communicated to the client by the design initiators – a core group within the business. To borrow from Mies van der Rohe, “ less is more”.

2. They focus on what they are great at

Expertise comes with experience and talent – which doesn’t come overnight. Great design businesses have clarity about their expertise and they focus on this. They concentrate on what they are great at. They don’t take on work that isn’t within their expertise and they clearly articulate and deliver their value proposition. They thrive in their specific niche.

Working with fewer people at the initial stages allows them to have tighter control of the design process.

3. They are very good negotiators

The leaders of successful design firms are very good at negotiating – their opinions are considered and highly valued. Negotiations are reputable and more often than not, all parties feel respected, listened to, and satisfied with the outcome, whether that be a design, a project delivery, or business negotiation. Their negotiations strengthen their relationships.

4. They take on work on their terms

High performing architecture and design businesses are clear about the work they want to take on and just as importantly the work sectors and clients. They have a clear sense of the value they bring to a project; their point of difference and they are able to clearly articulate this to the marketplace. They don’t pursue and take on work with clients that don’t share their values. They don’t negotiate on price.

5. They are sought out by the marketplace

Successful design firms have a value proposition that sets them apart from most. They are sought out by the marketplace due to the reputation of their leaders, their expertise, their ability to collaborate and innovate, and their relationship skills. Due to their demand, these companies become very valuable.

6. They charge more than others

Successful design firms are typically more expensive than others. They are commercially astute but understand clearly the value they bring to their clients and to the project. They focus on communicating their specific expertise, innovation, and their unique value proposition—so that the client understands the flow on benefits to the project and their business. They’re not reducing their fees.

7. They surround themselves with business expertise

Successful design firms surround themselves with experts in business. It’s their team. Whether that be across strategy, finance, IT, BIM, project delivery, contracts, mentors, or systems. By surrounding themselves with business expertise, the leaders are able to focus on what they are great at – design, generating work, and client relationships; and they are constantly learning from these experts.

They are commercially astute but understand clearly the value they bring to their clients and to the project.

8. Their clients love working with them

Clients love working with these firms. The client experience across all touch-points is compelling – client service is paramount and this culture flows throughout the entire business. They partner with their clients to build mutually beneficial relationships to deliver outstanding work.

9. They attract the best and brightest people – and they retain them

One of their core capabilities is their ability to source and entice the best and brightest professionals and then to develop and retain them. People are at the core of what they do. They provide fulfilling challenges, flexible working conditions, and clear paths to leadership. For them, it’s about people, not buildings.

10. The leaders focus on client relationships, winning work, design, and representing the business

The leaders concentrate on building and maintaining close relationships with clients, winning reputable work, developing designs, and representing the business to the best of their ability. The leaders as a collective are across all elements of the business – the “business drivers”. However, they certainly aren’t intimately involved – there are others in the business that have this covered.

10. They don’t complain about the industry because they are winning

Their businesses are thriving, they are producing outstanding work, they are surrounded by talented people, working with good clients and they are commercially successful. What’s to complain about! For them, the industry is exciting and compelling.

People are at the core of what they do.

11. They don’t compare themselves with others

Because these businesses are winning, they’re not interested in comparing themselves with others – forget benchmarking! They are achieving their aspirations, well respected and sought out by the industry. They are outward looking, taking a global look at the industry as a whole and where it’s heading. But they pay minimal attention to others in their space.


12. They provide above average remuneration

These businesses have talent and they reward their people accordingly. That sets the benchmark across the organisation. Team members are valued and remunerated for the value they bring to the business. 

13. They’re clear about who they are and where they are heading

Successful design firms have an unclouded vision of why they do what they do. The leadership is aligned with this direction and hence this flows throughout the entire business. It’s articulated and communicated regularly. They are focussed and driven by this purpose and where they are heading. And it’s not necessarily to conquer the world. It’s to be the best at what they do.

14. Their consultant teams are of a similar ilk

Successful architecture, engineering, and design firms associate and align themselves with equally successful professional consultants. When they come together as a team, they are consultative industry leaders. They work with the best, in order to operate at the top of the industry. And they don’t talk about it.

15. They get business

Although the leaders are focused on what they are great at – client relationships, design and delivery, and generating work, they are somewhat surprisingly educated and informed about most business matters. And that may be across, commerciality, fees, contracts, the marketplace, financials, or people management.

Management for Design has developed a unique approach to strategy development and execution that if implemented effectively ensures results. Founder Rob Peake is a regular columnist on Indesignlive, read all of his other articles here.

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