10 Questions with Shel Perkins—All Business

Read Time: 9.5 minutes

This week, we caught up with Shel Perkins, author, graphic designer, management consultant and educator specializing in the operational management of design firms.

With more than 20 years of experience in managing the operations of leading design firms in the United States and the United Kingdom, Shel Perkins provides management consulting services to a range of creative firms in both traditional and new media. Perkins is the author of the Professional Practice column for STEPmagazine, the Design Business newsletter for AIGA and the Design Firm Management column for Graphics.com in addition to his best-selling book, “Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers,” which is now in its third edition.

Perkins teaches graduate-level courses in professional practices and he has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association of Professional Design Firms. With a speaking engagement at SEGD’s Business & Leadership event fast approaching, we thought it apropos to chat with him.




How did you get into this very specific niche?

SP: I have a degree in graphic design. After I graduated from art school, I started working at various agencies and found that most of them were doing pretty good work—creatively, visually—but things were a bit chaotic behind the scenes on the business practice side. Over the course of several years, my career slowly redirected itself.

Within each studio, there were business issues that came up that other people weren’t interested in learning about or dealing with. Over the years I learned a lot about operational issues, financial management and legal issues in particular. I’ve worked with a lot of outside advisors, insurance agents, intellectual property attorneys, benefits advisors—it’s been an ongoing education for me to learn all that which was not included in my design degree.

Identifying that need has brought me into teaching. I teach several courses, but the main one is called Professional Practices. We spend 15 weeks talking about all these different aspects of setting up and managing an agency or studio and producing a profit—and staying out of [legal] trouble.


What are some of the most common concerns that come up in your consulting life?

SP: I’ve worked as an independent operations consultant for about 20 years now and for me, I love the variety: I get to collaborate with different studios doing different types of work. Usually, they’re at different points in their evolution, too.

Sometimes I work with startups, helping them to choose the right systems that will be scalable, helping them to get the basic things in place when their company is new. In other studios, I work with their growing pains—maybe they have some simple systems they cobbled together and now they have outgrown them. They need things that are more industry standard and need to take another look at best practices.

And, sometimes, I work with mature studios where the founders are thinking of retirement, or ownership transition. It’s the process of putting together a three or five-year plan to prepare the company for a transition and identifying the new owners or next generation of management might be and then working on the details of that transfer, like shifting the loyalty of the clients and making sure everything carries through and the transfer is completed successfully, so that the founder can go off and do the next thing in her or his career.


What do clients wish designers would do differently?

SP: From my perspective, clients want their design agencies to understand their business’ needs. Typically, the client contact is a product or marketing manager—someone with an MBA coming from a business background—not a creative background.

Sometimes, young designers don’t really do enough to see things through the client’s eyes, which I think is because most design degrees don’t include any marketing or business classes; we don’t even learn the vocabulary. Designers need to come into in the field knowing a little bit about how clients think and talk about projects, how they describe things in order to manage expectations and design the best possible solution.

To this end, once a project is being negotiated, designers should aim to have a very detailed contract. As part of the definition of the scope of work with the client, designers need to find out what the metrics for success will be—usually it relates to something like an increase in sales, driving traffic to a site, or gaining market share.

Along the way, it makes sense to have multiple approvals, signoffs and billings for each round of work or each milestone, always making sure clients are involved in the process, problems are fixed in the moment and there are no surprises. By the end, when you’re reviewing the proposal and metrics for success, the client isn’t going to care about the shade of blue or position of that icon, because you’ve met their business objectives.

After all, when it comes to the visual side of things, you’re the expert.


Would you say that breaking the process into smaller milestones and steps for approval provides greater protection against liability?

SP: It’s just a smarter way to go. Clients sometimes are completely new to the process of working with a firm or agency, so that can become a teaching opportunity for designers. Clients want to be included, reassured, but not to have to do the heavy lifting.


How did “Talent Is Not Enough” come about?

SP: The book started as a single-chapter contribution to a business anthology that was published in the ‘90s. Then, I started doing business article for magazines, like Communication Arts and Step By Step Magazine (eventually, StepMagazine), even editing an annual business issue of the latter in addition to pieces for AIGA. Eventually, I met an acquisitions editor through a friend of mine who asked me to do a dedicated book. It took me about two years to write the first edition, which was very successful. Since then, I’ve done revised and expanded second and third editions. The third edition is now available as an e-book.


What do you find are hot button issues for experiential graphic design practices?

SP: I do have some EGD clients who I’m working with right now.

But generally, when interfacing with the community at events, the concerns are far ranging—at the last SEGD Business event we ended up spending some time talking about the law of agency. Copyright comes up a lot, too.

Most design professionals don’t know nearly enough about copyright law—it’s really the foundation of what we do. How does copyright apply to, say, signage systems, web design or architecture? It’s fascinating and doesn’t get discussed enough.


Let’s talk a little bit more about copyright law. Could you give us the basics?

SP: Copyright protection covers so many different things, but in the United States, copyright is not intended to protect things that are useful. Back when the constitution was being written, they separated out fine art from the useful arts, so things that are creative might qualify for copyright protection, but things that are useful might end up in the realm of patent law.

There are some things that fall very narrowly into one or the other or both. In the 1780s, type design was deliberated excluded from copyright protection, because they didn’t want to limit the growth of the free press. However, starting with digital font design being essentially software, it is protected by copyright. Software consists of lines of code (written in a machine language) and as such, is considered literary work.

A lot of designers are very cavalier with their font licenses—exceeding the use limits or violating them by modifying existing typefaces for projects. In this case, a designer would need to contact the foundry for permission to customize the typeface, and it could create costly issues for your client.


What are some of the emerging legal issues for designers?

SP: I think one of the big issues right now has to do with independent contractors versus employees.

Creative companies traditionally have used a lot of freelancers to cope with spikes in work or large projects in addition to a typically lean internal staff of regular employees. The documentation of which employees fall under what category and how they are different has become an issue lately because of the rise of the gig economy; many companies like Uber and FEDEX who use independent contractors are going through big state and federal lawsuits right now over whether these freelancers should have been on the payroll, receiving benefits and whether employer taxes should have been paid.

I think a lot of independent workers are being taken advantage of. Within the design community, we don’t want to be taking advantage of freelancers—we want the relationships to be very clear and mutually beneficial.

A lot of these lawsuits are happening in the tech world, but those legal precedents will apply to us. The way that designers do business may evolve a bit as these various gig economy lawsuits work their way through the legal system.


Would you weigh in on the debate around doing design work for free?

SP: I’m not in favor of spec work. Pro bono is a different issue—most design professionals are very generous to organizations that could use their help, and that’s great.

Spec work in design, is like a competitive pitch where a client is talking to several agencies and wants them all to show first-round creative on something—for free. I’m not a fan of that. It’s fairly common in the advertising world because accounts often come with large dollars and longtime commitments, so the risk/reward analysis might work out.

These business practices don’t carry over well into other disciplines like graphic design, motion design and web design. In most fields, there would almost never be a payout large enough to cover all the initial investment made because you’re competing for an individual project, not an ongoing relationship.

My advice: Turn down spec work requests in favor of meeting with the client, show them your portfolio, case studies demonstrating success and share references. If they respect you as a professional and like your portfolio, they’ll hire you. They can afford to pay you and they should.


You’ve served on the national board of AIGA and as President of their San Francisco chapter. What role have professional associations played in your career and what benefits do you see professional associations providing to design firms?

SP: This is a conversation that I had with my grad students recently.

When I was working on my design degree, I joined various professional associations as a student, and they helped me to build my network. However, a lot of my students are not ‘joiners,’ they don’t see the point in paying dues and going to physical events. They’d rather be part of an online community—especially one that’s free—that allows them access to some of the same people and work.

I believe it is worthwhile to pay dues and join associations. As humans, we need to find our community and get into the same ‘meat space.’ Occasionally, there’s a good reason for gathering the tribe—to celebrate, to mourn—not just be part of some online discussion thread. I don’t think you can replicate the human interaction that happens at a live event electronically.

Most of my best friends I met through professional associations; I wouldn’t have met them in a discussion group online.



This interview has been edited for length and clarity.