Director of The Design Trust

 16 May 2013

Patricia van den Akker is director of The Design Trust, an online business school for designer-makers. She discusses the barriers to running a design or craft business, with 7 tips on overcoming them.

The Design Trust organises training and promotional events, as well as webinars and video interviews.
The Design Trust organises training and promotional events, as well as webinars and video interviews.

Patricia's journey into design

Patricia came from a creative background in Holland, and chose Graphic Design for her undergraduate degree.

A tutor quickly identified her talent for managing creatives, inspiring her to go on to do a masters in Arts Management in the Netherlands.

“The Masters course was very good at getting us out there, and I did five work placements, which included getting an Erasmus bursary to work in London at the Design Museum and the Crafts Council.”

Working with The Design Trust

After her placements, Patricia took a job with the marketing arm of The Design Trust, under the management of the late Peta Levi – who is also known for founding the New Designers exhibition.

Despite moving on professionally, she kept in close contact with the trust, running workshops with them while employed with the Cultural Industries Development Agency (CIDA) in East London.

In 2011, she was approached by Rachel Moses, who was managing The Design Trust at Metropolitan Works in London. Rachel asked her to take over as director.

Moving The Design Trust forwards

“I accepted. But I could see that the business model needed to be different.”

While Peta had started The Design Trust 25 years ago as an educational charity, it had fallen behind in its commercial marketing awareness and technological reach.

"Most design and craft graduates don’t know how a business or office works."

“It needed to have a greater online presence. So I introduced features such as video interviews and webinars to provide for designers and crafts people looking for online support."

She also extended the topics in their training and guidance programmes to include getting work in the press and working with online retailers.

The challenges of being a designer-maker

Patricia identifies a lack of business and work experience as a key barrier to a lot of people who start selling crafts or designs. “Most design and craft graduates don’t know how a business or office works.

“You need to make room in your life to learn these things before you start selling. This is the kind of learning that is done after you graduate, not in the classroom.

"Making a serious living as a designer-maker is very hard, and you need just as much commercial awareness as you need creativity."

“People often come to me because they want to set up a craft business, but it’s clearly more of a hobby for them than a career. I tell them to be careful – you need a whole range of skills, not just creativity, to start up professionally. It can become an expensive hobby!

“I see books which suggest that passion can easily become profit, called things like ‘Turn your craft into a business’, and I think: no!

“Making a serious living as a designer-maker is very hard, and you need just as much commercial awareness as you need creativity.

“In a way, I think that this is dragging down the craft industry.

“On the flip side, I’m increasingly seeing people who first had thriving professional careers in things like law or business. These can be good backgrounds for running your own business, and I’m so interested to see what happens with them!”

7 business tips for designer-makers

1. Focus on a niche

“It’s so important to be a specialist. Know what you want to be known for and get to grips with your target client-base.

“If you try to be everything to everybody, nobody will be interested. You can broaden your offering later.”

2. Do your research

“What is your company? What is your pricing strategy? Who are your target clients and what are their needs?”

3. Sell directly to customers

“If you try and sell to galleries before you sell to consumers, your prices are likely to be too high. Galleries and shops add a markup, often up to 300 per cent – they need to in order to survive. But this can be unaffordable for the customer.

"If you sell directly, you can control the mark up, so if something costs you £40 to make if can be sold for £80."

4. Make sure your images are professional

"It’s very important to get the best professional images of your work that you can, particularly if you are selling online. This will also help you to get your work in the press."

5. Think about extra income

"It’s not a problem to do a part-time job as well as your business. It would certainly help with your cash flow. Having money problems can stop you being creative.

"If you try to be everything to everybody, nobody will be interested."

"So many people who run their own crafts business work 80 hours a week for as little as £10-15,000 a year.

"This is hard enough if you’re young, but if you’re older and have a mortgage it’s nearly impossible. Other sources of income can be a real help.

"I’ve had to be flexible in my own career. I’ve been full-time, part-time, freelance and even been made redundant four times!

"Don’t resign yourself to blaming the recession – it was never easy. It’s the pro-active people who get somewhere."

6. Get on the job experience

"I’m a huge fan of apprenticeships because they train you up while you’re working – that’s how it used to be done.

"I was lucky when I was studying for my degree, because a six-month work placement was a course requirement.

"By the time I graduated, I understood the design industry, including things like how branding and graphic design agencies worked and how I could fit into them.  

"Getting experience on the job can be a reality check too, but at least then you know what you’re in for. I know of a young designer who was reduced to tears when a client criticised her proposals, but you have to be able to deal with it if you want to run a business yourself."

7. Market yourself

"When I give marketing and promotional advice, I ask people to market themselves as well as their work or services.

"I ask them if they know how to define their own skills – are you specialist or generalist? Can you say what you are good at in great detail and show proof?

"It’s important to have the communication skills to tell people what you can do, what you like and why – use your personality to connect with people over it. Make it clear why you’re different."

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