How to ensure a good design partnership

Designers who have made a name for themselves as part of a duo give their advice for ensuring a smooth, creative and business-oriented relationship.

“A lot of design partnerships begin in the pub after a pint or two, I find,” says designer James Webb, one half of the London-based studio Webb & Webb. “Of course,” he continues, “a lot of design partnerships end in this way too.”

The design world is full of dynamic duos, but nurturing a design partnership can be hard work. Beyond managing day-to-day creative projects, it requires a healthy business relationship and division of labour.

As Webb explains, “everything sounds good in the pub” – but what exactly goes into a successful design partnership? We asked three pairs to share their advice for those looking to strike up a design duo.

Recent work from Webb & Webb for Royal Mail’s Sci-Fi stamp collection

A “words-and-pictures approach”

Webb says one of the standout reasons his and fellow designer and studio founder Brian Webb’s relationship works so well is down to complimentary creative techniques.

“When Brian hears a brief, he draws out his thoughts – whereas when I hear a brief, I immediately write down my ideas,” he says. This difference in working methods has its roots in the designers’ early careers – Brian initially began work as a technical illustrator, while Webb worked in marketing and journalism.

Having different instincts to hearing a brief means when both designers put their heads together, they’ve got ideas in both words and images. As well as knowing how the other communicates effectively, this “words-and-pictures approach” makes it easier to convey ideas to the rest of the studio team, Webb says.

Recent work from Webb & Webb for Royal Mail’s Sci-Fi stamp collection

“Have rules about who you will and won’t work for”

Complimentary creativity ensures the day-to-day running of projects goes well for Webb & Webb. But a well-understood delineation of boundaries ensures the two designers work well on an ideological level too.

“It’s good to have rules about who you will and won’t work for as a team,” Webb says. “For example, we’ve both said we won’t work for any politicians, so as to avoid that problem.”

Politics is just one example though, Webb says – another might be working for an alcohol brand or fast food company. “Have a plan when it comes to these kinds of things, and there will be fewer surprises later down the line,” he says.

Recent work from Studio Minerva, for Cartografie Chocolate

“Be mindful of your partner’s commitments to life outside of the studio”

Like Webb & Webb, the two leaders of Studio Minerva also credit communication and complimenting working practices for their success. Coral Harker, managing director of the studio, describes her relationship with founder and creative director Daniela Nunzi Mihranian as being founded on “trust, mutual respect and friendship”.

This basis is helpful, as the pair are both working mums. “Being mindful of your partner’s commitments to life outside of the studio is so important,” Harker says. In the last 18 months, with the pandemic threatening all aspects of life, she says having “someone to share the highs and lows with” has been invaluable.

Being friends out of work doesn’t mean allowing work to slacken inside the studio though, she adds. Harker compares a good design partnership with a marriage, saying “you have to be able to support each other but also push each other at times too”.

Interior work for Bondi Green restaurant from Run for the Hills

“Heated creative debates around the dinner table aren’t necessary”

Of course, while some design partnerships feel like marriages because of the close working relationship, others have it in writing. Chris Trotman and Anna Burles, the heads of interiors and graphic design consultancy Run for the Hills, are husband and wife as well as long-time collaborators.

In their studio, Trotman handles the branding and graphic design aspects of the projects, while Burles looks after the interiors. He says the different specialisms flow into each other very well. “My branding and art feeds into Anna’s interior design perfectly, so we’re never stepping on each other’s toes,” Trotman says.

Both Trotman and Burles have their own separate teams, which means “heated creative debates around the dinner table aren’t necessary”, he says. “Anna’s interiors team do a lot of residential work that my graphics team aren’t involved in, aside from designing the odd wallpaper, neon sign, custom fabric or art piece.

“And my team does a lot of branding and website projects that Anna’s team aren’t doing the interiors for.”

Branding for for Miscellany from Run for the Hills

“It’s very easy to let work take over”

Having different strengths on the team is something Burles and Trotman encourage others to consider when looking to embark on a design partnership.

“Two graphic designers going into business together just means initially they’ll need to get twice as much work and might fight over the best jobs and best clients,” the pair say. “Same for two interior designers joining forces – it’s best to have different strengths.”

Design disciplines aren’t the only kind of strengths you can have, though. “Maybe one of you is very conceptual, and the other is super technical or great at project management,” they say, echoing Webb & Webb’s division of labour view.

Like Studio Minerva, Trotman and Burles caution that it is important to “have other things going on” outside of work. They say their two young children are a “welcome distraction” from work, but also that they share a love of travel, cinema and food. “It’s very easy to let the work take over – we love what we do so it’s natural it would always be a topic of conversation”, they say.

Do you have advice to ensure a smooth design partnership? Let us know in the comments below…

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