13 November 2006
Erik Spiekermann
Erik Spiekermann

Design companies call themselves studio, office, agency or even atelier, depending on were they come from and where they think they're going. All these legal entities are usually run by designers. They may have studied product design or graphic design, often labelled as visual communications, but they never took courses in accounting, management, human resources or marketing. That knowledge comes along over time, gradually turning designers into managers and entrepreneurs, who learn by doing work for smaller outfits, where it is fairly easy to estimate how long a job will take and who's doing what in the studio at any given time.

As soon as more than a handful of employees have to be coordinated, it gets pretty tough to keep on top of things. You have to watch out for projects not only to be kept on track as far as the design part goes, but also to stay within the numbers given in the proposal and to make sure the client is still going along with it.

Enter the controller. I never properly understood what controlling is that could well be a mental block on my part. In essence, I think, the idea is to generate numbers in order to have some control (sic) over expenses and revenues. That should enable you to tell whether a project is generating profit or going down the tubes. Once controlling has established the key figures and factors, it should not only be able to document who spent how much time on which project and for how much money, but should also predict future trends. Estimates could then be written more accurately and resources planned more easily.

So much for the theory. In the real world, controlling in a design studio meets two challenges: firstly, everybody knows that timesheets are usually filled out at the end of the week, with everybody trying to match the planners' expectations. And secondly, this approach looks at the efficiency of the process, not the effect, i.e. the work. It's not the result that becomes the reference for success, but the way it was achieved.

This totally distorts the reality in our profession. Our clients do not judge our work by how it came about, but by how it works for them. Is their brand stronger after the redesign? Does the product sell more? Is it manufactured more cheaply and swiftly? Whether we get there by working day and night or with handmade software, under the influence of substances or by being exposed to loud music nobody cares, as long as the client is happy.

Owners or senior employees are responsible for the quality of the design work, as this is what clients look for in design offices, firms, ateliers, agencies and studios. Of course, they have to earn money, and controlling can provide very useful tools and standards for judging business parameters. If, however, efficiency of process becomes the most important one, the quality of work will eventually be compromised.

No controller or accountant can decide whether design work is good or bad. They can only reward those who obediently filled out their timesheets in my experience not the most creative people. Once the work gets mediocre because design quality is no longer appreciated by the system, design fees go down. Then one starts to make economies like hiring cheaper employees, and the quality of the output sinks even lower. The whole purpose of controlling earning more through efficiency is turned on its head. Ergo: controlling in the design business is good, as long as it is controlled by designers.

About this article
This text was first published in form 193/194. form has been Germany's most renowned design magazine for 45 years. Its text being in German and English, form belongs to the leading design magazines of Europe. Every two months, six times a year, competent writers report about current issues and trends in the international graphic and product design scene. Next to the focus on up-to-date information, worldwide leading graphic designers, illustrators and photographers render each issue of form an indispensable source of inspiration.

Erik Spiekermann
Erik Spiekermann is an information architect, type designer (FF Meta, FF Unit, ITC Officina, FF Info et al) and author of books and articles on type and typography. He was founder (1979) of MetaDesign, Germany's largest design firm. In 1988 he started FontShop. He holds a professorship at the Academy of Arts in Bremen, president of the International Institute of Information Design and a board member of ATypI and the German Design council.

In July 2000, Erik withdrew from the management of MetaDesign Berlin. In 2001 he redesigned The Economist magazine in London. Erik now lives and works in Berlin, London and San Francisco running the United Designers Network.