The Magic Number

November 13th, 2012 by Mat Dolphin

There are millions of design agencies out there. Some have been around forever, some are eager young start ups. Some are brilliant, some are awful. Some are huge, corporate machines who employ thousands of people, some are simply one person, working from the kitchen table in their flat.

Mat Dolphin, at it’s core, is two people.

Of course we work with a number of suppliers and collaborators for specialised skills that fall outside the remit of design (developers, printers etc). We also have a community of friends, connections and associates who offer invaluable advice and feedback. But when it comes to the fundamentals of running a design studio, it’s just the two of us.

Broadly speaking, we fulfill the same roles within the agency. We both maintain the day-to-day running of the studio, we both oversee projects and manage clients, we both quote, write proposals, invoice and, when time allows, do a bit of design work. The fact that there are two of us plays a huge role in the way we work and shapes the way we approach design projects as well as the way we choose to run the company as a whole.

Our skill sets are complimentary and the areas in which one of us lacks, the other is naturally more proficient. It would be nice to say this was always part of the plan, but the truth is, this simply happened more by luck than design and is something we took advantage of early on.

Not having a larger team to rely on, share ideas with or delegate to can be difficult. The responsibility for everything rests solely on our four shoulders. Whether it be the quality of the design work or paying the rent on time. We quickly came to the realisation that there are tedious, unenjoyable jobs that need to get done and – as there are only two of us – we’re the ones that are going to have to do them. There’s no point in moaning about these things; they’re part of what we signed up for and, if we do complain, the only person that will hear has exactly the same role. So we learnt to put processes in place and get on with it.

On the other hand, working as a dynamic duo has huge advantages. The flip side of complete responsibility for everything we do is complete control over what we do. It’s us, the designers, who dictate the direction of the work. We choose which projects we want to work on and which clients we want to work with (or not, as the case may be). Yes, there’s pressure in being accountable for everything that leaves the studio, but there’s also a huge amount of freedom in not having a board of directors to answer to or appease. Authorship and ownership are hugely important things in design, and having the independence to steer these things without the need to keep anyone happy other than our clients and ourselves is something we’re pretty lucky to have.

This level of control over all aspects of our business has advantages for our clients too. As a two man unit we’re able to adapt to our client’s needs swiftly and without a chain of command. Two people can make decisions more quickly than 20 people, and those decisions can be communicated to the client by the people who made them. The simplicity and fluidity of this work flow is something we (and the people we work with) feel is hugely important to our offering and makes a genuine difference to our working relationships.

Similarly, our size allows us to decide at the drop of a hat to leave a couple of hours early and go down the pub, come in late if the previous evening was a late one, or choose to work from home without having to book it off with the team. There’s only ever one other person to clear it with.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a partnership however, is the creative process. Whilst we have certain similarities, we’re very different people who approach design problems in very different ways. Our initial perspectives on how a brief should be answered are rarely the same, and the results are always different than if we had arrived at the solution individually. We have a strict rule that both of us need input into a project, or it simply can’t be considered Mat Dolphin work. The amount of input differs and is certainly not always a neat 50/50 split, but the shared decision making on all levels is essentially what forms our work and makes it ours. A unique combination of viewpoints will always create a unique way of thinking. There’s plenty of design agencies out there, but none of have us at the helm. This is our uniqueness, our strength and our point of difference from everyone else.

This isn’t a criticism of other ways of working. Whether you play a key role within a massive agency or you’re a one man band, you’ve got to find your place in a set up that works best for you. For us, however. Two is the magic number.

Thanks for reading,

Phil and Tom

2 Responses to “The Magic Number”

  1. Great insight guys. Thanks for sharing.

    One thing I’ve always wondered, if you’re two guys called Phil and Tom, then where does the name Mat Dolphin come from?

    Comment by Valentino — November 18th, 2012 @ 8:02 pm |
  2. There are many theories, a chief one being that ‘tom and phil’ rearranged give you the afformentioned.

    However this isn absolute lie. What in fact happened was while on holiday in the Florida Keys Tom knocked a pot of matte paint into one of the tanks and voila; a matte dolphin, was born*.

    (* definitely not true).

    Comment by Ian — November 19th, 2012 @ 11:32 am |