Ever dreamt of setting up your own design studio? Well recent Shillington London graduates joined forces to make this dream a reality with the launch of Duzi Studio. Ella Donald and Charlotte Carnegie-Brown studied together on the full-time course—and following a serendipitous trip to Australia shortly after graduation, they started building a client base which rapidly brought Duzi to life.
We caught up with Ella and Charlotte to find out more about how they’ve been growing their studio, why taking a risk on an unpaid project worked in their favour when it ended up involving Hilary Clinton and some sage advice to current students hoping to develop a studio of their own.
You both studied together at Shillington on our full-time course in London. What attracted you to study with us and what was your experience like?
Ella: I am a big advocate for specialised courses that are short and intensive, and a friend of mine who had studied at Shillington a few years before couldn’t have spoken more highly about it. She wasn’t wrong;
Shillington was truly the most unbelievable experience, from both an educational and cultural perspective.
Charlotte: I was studying English and Philosophy at Bristol when I first heard about Shillington. Although I enjoyed my degree I was always looking for creative opportunities; I accepted/helped with everything that came my way, whether it was designing sets for plays or branding friends make-shift companies on Microsoft Word! In my final year I fully realised that I wanted to pursue design as a career, and unable to bear (let alone afford!) another 3 year degree when I stumbled upon Shillington. I was trained to industry standard and working full time as a designer before I had time to change my mind!
Do you feel that your time studying at Shillington prepared you for industry life as a designer and would you recommend it to others hoping to work in graphic design?
Ella: Yes! I think what Shillington does above everything is prepare students for industry life. The briefs given are realistic, challenging and the short turnaround is (now I realise) very representative of the “real world”. I already have recommended it to many friends, some of whom have now finished their time at Shillington and are singing its praises as much as me.
Charlotte: Without a doubt to both questions!
Since graduating you’ve teamed up to form Duzi Studio. Can you tell us a bit firstly about what made you want to form your own studio and how you went about getting it off the ground?
Ella: Char and I met in the New Year after Shillington (2017) and both wanted to go freelance for a while because we were going to Australia together for 3 months. We decided the best thing to do would be to join forces out in Australia, as we both had some potential clients interested in working with us. I don’t think we ever believed it would take off as quickly as we did—we were lucky we had such incredible clients from the start, who recommended us to lots of other brilliant people and companies, and by removing ourselves literally out of the country at the start meant we could focus entirely on Duzi.
Charlotte: The honest answer is uncertainty made us do it. Having been trained so quickly we didn’t know where our strengths lay; I personally worried about applying to jobs that gave clear job descriptions or outlines as I didn’t want that to restrict my ability to develop as a designer. Freelance gave the opportunity to test the waters without committing to contracts or time frames, and ‘freelancing’ as a two gave us both added strength and confidence. It was a snowball affect from there!
You’ve already picked up some impressive clients and started building your portfolio. What’s been your favourite project so far and is there any in the pipeline you can share?
Ella: I really want to say it’s too hard to choose a favourite, but for the sake of not being boring and cliché, I think I would have to say Women To Look Up To was, and still is, an incredibly transformative project for Duzi. We believed so much in the idea from the outset (a not-for-profit brand selling 3D printed figures of empowering, inspirational woman to top your Christmas tree because “women are made of more than plastic and glitter”) and shared its female-forward vision that we took it on for free and under tight time constraints.
It was one of the best decisions we ever made—it went viral in the US, with 60,000 unique visitors hitting the website in a week, Fox News covering a story on it, and Hilary Clinton meeting her “angel” on the Steve Harvey show!
The brand is now being put forward for a handful of design awards, which is an incredible opportunity for Duzi and an amazing way to finish 2017, exactly a year after we had begun. We have more big and exciting things planned for our partnership with them this year.
Charlotte: Bumble has been one of my favourite companies to work for as I strongly believe in their values as a brand. Bumble’s approach, reach and impact seen visually across international markets is so rewarding for me as a young designer, from both a design and moral perspective. As two young female founders these are the brands that we enjoy aligning ourselves with and have fallen into a niche of working with primarily female-focused and female run brands, and for good reason too!
Both your website and Instagram feed are very professional with the latter being especially appealing! Do you think it’s increasingly important for designers to use social media as an advertising accessory for their portfolio and have you found this useful when attempting to attract new business?
Ella: Thank you! The ironic thing when starting an agency where your service is primarily branding other people’s companies is you have ZERO time to focus on developing your own brand, website, Instagram and so on! We recently underwent a brand refresh, which we hope is going to help massively on generating new work. In the digital world, our shop window is our website and social media so it’s imperative they look beautiful and convey our values and services successfully. We have actually had a number of first-time clients contacting us directly through Instagram, as well as met a fellow ex-Shillington freelancer because she reached out to us via Instagram too; we work with her regularly!
What’s it like working together? Do you both share the jobs or are there areas you prefer to divide and conquer instead?
Ella: I knew I always wanted to start up on my own, but there is no way I could ever have been physically ‘on my own’. The positive thing about having a partner when beginning your own brand/company is you always have someone to talk to; to share the workload, to vent about the shitty email received that morning, and to have someone to celebrate your achievements with. In the design world, particularly, perspective and other opinions are so important when it comes to the work, and I learn so much from the way Char looks at things. It would be very lonely, and I wouldn’t have improved as a designer, or enjoyed this past year as much as I have, without her!
We try and always make sure we are both heavily involved at the start for a client, and work together when developing the initial concepts & design ideas.
We have quite a lot of clients now, so dividing the jobs within each project is a necessity. However, we always show each other work before sending it to a client, and are still clinging on to our joint studio email account, so we can always know what’s going on!
Charlotte: Ella also definitely conquers the financial side of the business!
What’s the most difficult thing about working as designers within your own agency and conversely the most rewarding?
Ella: At the beginning, I think the most difficult thing was managing our time and trying to work out what we could & should charge clients. The most rewarding was realising that people really loved the work we were producing and supported, or even sometimes preferred, that we were a younger, ‘boutique’ offering (although admittedly this was probably because we were very very bad at ever saying no, and would always meet absurd turnaround times even if it meant needing our fifth coffee of the day at midnight 🙈).
Charlotte: Recently, I would say the most difficult thing has been trying to establish a balance of growing Duzi as an agency, with a team, and the financial implications this has, alongside trying to maintain our boutique values.
We want to continue growing with brands and offer Startups a start-to-finish approach, as opposed to doing overcharged, sporadic work here and there for clients we don’t have ongoing relationships with.
Do you have any advice for students hoping to follow in a similar path—either as a solo effort of grouping together with members of their cohort?
Believe in yourself.
Many people that finish Shillington have, on paper, only 3 months experience/training in design, and worry this doesn’t look like ‘enough’ to call themselves a graphic designer or integrate successfully into the industry. It absolutely is!
Work really really really hard.
Be prepared to live and breathe your work, and probably put your social life, and sleep time, slightly on hold! For some people that might sound scary and/or weird, but if you are passionate about what you’re doing, you won’t want to be doing anything else anyway!
Shillington was brilliant at encouraging us to look up from our computers, keep a ‘visual diary’, share inspiration with peers and so on. We will admit we haven’t had the time to upkeep a visual diary in the same way, but we always try and share findings from individuals or agencies that we have discovered, or a new skill we have learned.
Create your own process but listen to others.
This is particularly important if you are working with another person(s) and I guess this falls down to being organised. Without limiting creative freedom, and making sure you can still pivot at any point during a project, we would recommend creating processes both for the various different kind of design projects, but also for internal organisation purposes. We use Trello to project manage work, and on most days make hourly schedules (in memory of Shillington portfolio week!), which has helped our time management exponentially!
Be authentic & honest.
With everyone & everything! There is, of course, an attitude of “fake it till you make it” that can be really important and helpful when you start out, but equally you need to be transparent with clients. For example, last year we never hid the fact that we were just a duo to anyone we worked with and it was never a limitation (because we never treated it like one!)
If you’re keen to up-skill and maybe even set up your own design business maybe Shillington is a good starting point for you. We have regular Info Sessions at all of our campuses so feel free to come along and find out more.