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What does it mean to start a business and stay true to your original vision – and what do you do when things change, and each of your partners wants to take a different path?

Ross spoke to Carly Ayres (of the now defunct HAWRAF) about her journey in starting a design studio from the ground up and creating honest work that delighted those that interacted with it, be it client or end user. You can find this podcast here and all the others we’ve made here.

We loved this interview as Carly touched on three areas we feel are incredibly important for creating work that makes an impact.

  1. Be transparent
  2. Refine your methodologies
  3. Build (or take) great briefs

Let’s take a step back. HAWRAF was founded in 2016, by four alumni of Google’s Creative Lab. Run out of New Museum’s Incubator Program, New Inc, HAWRAF wanted to focus on the principle of ‘Creative Accessibility’ – being as transparent as possible and documenting their processes as closely as possible – allowing others to learn from their journey.

“We were so committed to being transparent, we really wanted people to know what it was like to be starting a studio from the inside.”

— Carly Ayres

The concept of complete transparency is a noble one that some clients may buy into, and an idea like this should help any newcomers and others looking for a guideline on how to price themselves correctly, especially in a competitive market where there’s always someone that can do it for cheaper – but that’s a blog post for another day.

“They often end up undercharging to the detriment of the client and the industry because people get used to paying for work at a rate that’s just not sustainable, which forces designers to take shortcuts.”

— Ross Drakes

The problem with the idea is that some clients come from a pre-internet mindset when information was scarce and therefore a rare commodity. They are not happy to share (what is usually restricted) information. There is a middle ground where transparency can be practised in a closed loop, the client-agency relationship.

We find that the most valuable solutions are created when we are able to immerse ourselves in our client’s business. This means that there is a free flow of communication between Nicework and our client and that we have access to all the information we might need, even if that information does not seem relevant. For a creative agency to create true value we need to understand a wider context than just the problem we have been brought on to solve. This results in better processes, and ultimately, a better outcome – if anything changes or new information arises, these are communicated so that adjustments can be made accordingly. Not once in the history of humanity has any long term relationship been made worse by more communication.

What HAWRAF was able to share freely was their creative process. Opening their studio to the world, and documenting and sharing their processes and outcomes allowed others to learn from them; there’s a chance that it also gave those outside of the design industry a window into what goes into creating work, helping them to better understand the processes involved.

One of their more popular forays into documenting and sharing their process was the 26 Hour Project. While still part of the incubator (New Inc.), and trying to understand how to better understand each other, work together, and manage their creative processes, three of the four members undertook the (dare we say brave) task of completing 26 briefs in 26 hours.

Briefs were assigned by randomly generating an English word, which corresponded with a letter of the alphabet, in order from A to Z, and a budget of $500 for the entire 26 hours. The project resulted in some very distinct outputs, illustrating the importance of each team member’s skill and contribution.

A deeper understanding of processes and methodologies when undertaking a project is important from both a client and agency perspective. By refining processes and understanding methodologies, you are able to increase efficiency, allocate teams to projects more effectively, and improve solutions and feedback between agency and client.

It is a great way to take a fuzzy journey like creativity and give it a little rigour and repeatability. While both being really impressive words to put in a blog post they are also very important. Rigour allows you to reliably solve the problems without being constrained by the outcome and repeatability allows for an agency or designer to build a solid body of work that serves as evidence of delivery. It allows you to calm the people involved in the project when you go through the inevitably hard parts of the project.

Our methodologies have been crafted over 12 years of business, hundreds of client interactions, and work that we are extremely proud of. If you’d like to work with us, or find out a little bit more about our methodologies, reach out to us.

From the get-go, HAWRAF placed a lot of importance on recording their process which culminated in well-suited and, at times, perfectly executed communications for their clients; but before we can get into process, it all begins with making sure you have the right information at the start of a project.

A good brief makes sure that it asks the right questions, but also helps bring-to-light information that may not be clear to the client at the start of the project – for instance, if you think you need a new website to increase sales, but we find that you actually need a new sales deck and a custom sales strategy, we won’t sell you the website, but we will make it our mission to increase your sales – through whatever avenue is best suited to your business. This point also lends itself to the importance of transparency between client and agency, but we digress – in most cases a brief should also help set expectations for work and processes.

“You’ve put together what you, as the client, perceive to be the solution, but it’s not always the solution. It might not be the right solution for your budget or your timeline.”

— Carly Ayres

In almost any brief, Carly’s favourite question to start with is what’s the worst case scenario – what is your deepest darkest fear for this project? This allows you to start from zero and work backwards from there – it allows you to avoid the worst and work toward the best outcome.

If HAWRAF wasn’t the first studio the client had approached, the question became what didn’t work out with your last partner? This reveals a lot, as if it was a simple case of a lack of understanding or a shortage of skills, this can be worked around, but if there’s a common pattern of replacing clients/agencies, this hoists a red flag. If you’re working with an agency, you don’t want to work an agency with low client retention, and if you’re an agency, the inverse is true.

I love the idea of a problem or a challenge because everyone can ask what’s wrong, what are you trying to fix here?

— Ross Drakes

A good brief addresses budgets, timelines, and expectations. It also starts out as a conversation, question, or a problem to solve. By doing this, you remove the assumption that a simple briefing document answers all questions and is able to articulate the problem sufficiently – you have to delve deeper, research more, and be sure that the outcome is the correct solution for the problem at hand. It is a bit like science, you need to explore and ask the right questions so you can be in a position to challenge the assumptions your client has made. I mean why else would you hire a group of “creatives” if they are not going to push back a little.

At Nicework, we’ve sent out a few briefing templates in our time, and each time we’ve improved our template a little bit (we still do). As a result, we’ve created a briefing template that works pretty well for us. You can download it here, unless you’d like to build your own. Every brief or client will have some subtle differences, what we have shared is what works for us. Regardless of the details there are a few questions that are sacrosanct and should be asked regardless of the project:

Who is it for?

Yes, who is the client that you’re working for, but more importantly, who is the end user? How will they be using what you are creating? What need are you fulfilling with the work?

What impact will it make?

What is it designed for, and what will it change? How is it going to influence the audience?

What are the victory conditions?

A victory condition (Thanks Rich) is a term from board games. It is the conditions that need to be met in order for you to win the game. It is black or white, you have done it or not. What are you measuring and why? These need to be noted at the start so that you can build for them, and to ensure that the goalposts do not shift (if they do shift, this needs to be noted).

What is in it for the client?

Yes, the company that has partnered with you on this project, but also the person you are working with. There are a lot of factors at play that you may not be aware of – a third party, or company politics that haven’t come to the fore. How does this project affect the person you are dealing with?

Solving for the problem at hand, for the real problem the business is facing allows you to create work for the right reasons. Creating work that is honest, interesting, and answers a question helps bring greater meaning to what you are creating and keeps it from becoming another piece of work in a world that is becoming noisier and full of gimmicks that are designed to grab attention for short periods of time.

The team at HAWRAF used this to create work that introduced multiple levels of interaction, making executions fun for those that chose to involve themselves.

A perfect example is HAWRAF’s campaign for dental startup, Lydian Dental. Imagine a visit to the dentist being a little more fun? Lydian’s goal is to make you wish you were at the dentist – a tall order, if you’ve been through fillings, route canals, or the worst of the worst – the dentist trying to make conversation whilst your teeth are being rearranged.

HAWRAF’s task was to help Lydian extend their brand and introduce them to new cities as they expanded their brick and mortar locations. Their solutions played out on multiple levels, from stickers on messaging platforms to interactive street posters that really made people smile; billboards and bus advertising (on buses and bus stations) were also part of the strategy, culminating in a campaign that introduced Lydian to its new clients in a friendly, interactive manner.

“It was more interactive in the sense that we were asking someone to connect the dots, to see it in a few different places, and to figure out that it was related to this new dental startup that was opening up in the city.”

— Carly Ayres

Carly puts it best when she describes HAWRAF’s short existence “Burned bright, burned out”. In their short time on the scene, HAWRAF introduced an interesting take on transparency and left their mark through creating honest and interesting work.

Fittingly, it was that same honesty that brought HAWRAF’s short life to an end. Carly describes starting out as getting into a boat filled with holes and setting sail whilst still trying to plug said holes – running a profitable business, paying salaries, delivering work to clients, and the other things that come with starting and running a design studio. Once they had figured out how to keep the boat afloat, they needed to decide where they were headed. Being three years in, having experienced running a successful design studio, the stresses that came with it, and with the option for each partner to follow their own path, HAWRAF decided it was time to close its doors.

Ross sees this as an important step for all involved – all four partners had remained honest and communicated their desires clearly. They had also managed to achieve most, if not all, of what they had set out to do.

It’s very interesting that you had the foresight, to a certain degree, to have those difficult conversations with each other and reach this point.

— Ross Drakes

Had they not remained honest or not had the foresight to have a difficult conversation when they did, they may very well have fallen victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

The sunk cost fallacy describes a situation where a person’s decisions are tainted by emotional investments – whether through time or money – making it harder for them to abandon a project. In this situation, a person will likely endeavour, even if what they are doing is no longer what they want to do, or if they are losing money.

By remaining honest with each other, HAWRAF’s partners were able to speak openly and freely about their desires to take their own paths, which they couldn’t take together. Carly admits that, at first, she wanted to keep HAWRAF going as she had no idea what she was going to do next. She does agree, however, that it was better to shut HAWRAF down rather than trying to split the company between the four partners.

The value is the people, at the end of the day. It’s the relationships that we have, the skillsets we each have.

— Carly Ayres

Though their goal of complete transparency wasn’t always easy to deliver on, they made sure that their final act was one that tied up all ends, and delivered on their initial goal. This Google Drive folder has been left behind for anyone starting out in the industry; it sets out processes and documents for administrative, new business, operations, and other areas of running a studio. It also includes what clients spent on projects with HAWRAF. Though this may seem like a risky move, client names have been scrubbed and Carly believes that the only way you’ll really know who these clients are is if you’ve followed HAWRAF’s journey and work, or if you’ve spent some significant time sleuthing – we’ll leave the investigating up to you.

Coffee on us!

If you’re looking for a creative partner that wants to know your business as well as you do, and does more than just create pretty pictures, get in touch with us – we’d love to see if we can help you.

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