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Charlie Smith on paving your own path

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Running a design studio is no mean task. As motivated as you or your team may be, there will be challenges and there will be obstacles that require your full set of skills.

Add to that the fact that, as founder and CEO of CSD Charlie Smith so brilliantly points out, they don't teach you how to run a design studio at college, and you've definitely got your work cut out for you. But Charlie made it, and she now runs an amazing team of six, while juggling parenthood, accounting, new business and overall business management.

This week we are Getting to Know an enthusiastic creative leader with loads of energy to spare, someone who's come quite a long way since those years in college. Kudos to you, Charlie. May the industry see more leaders like you.

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Tell us a bit about your current role

I am the founder and creative director of Charlie Smith Design, and my main role is to creatively oversee all projects, working closely with the designers and clients.

I set up the studio 17 years ago and we have slowly but steadily been growing. I now manage a core team of six, plus a range of additional highly talented freelancers. We also always have an intern in the studio. We find this is a great way to meet new talent while making sure someone is the right fit for our tight knit team. All our full-time designers started out as interns at CSD and stayed on.

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How did you get to your current position?

For the first few years, essentially it was just me working mostly from home. At that stage I didn’t necessarily aspire to setting up a fully-fledged design studio. I was just working on ad-hoc jobs when a couple of bigger ones came along and forced a step change.

So, I took on desk space in a shared studio with an architecture practice and another design studio in London and being around creatives just felt right. Soon after, John McConnell, then a partner at Pentagram, asked me to work on own brand packaging for John Lewis who has been a client ever since, and a fundamental part in allowing me to grow my business. By 2011, projects were coming up regularly and I was working full-time and had two children. That’s when I started growing the team and winning bigger projects.

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What was the biggest challenge?

Nobody teaches you how to run a design studio at art college, or when you are working as a designer in someone else’s studio. I have had to learn a lot as I go.

The creative side of running my own business is great but things like the admin and accounting side, writing proposals, growing and keeping a team of people happy, and how to generate new business was tougher at the start.

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What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

I did an Art Foundation at Kingston University before completing a degree in Visual Communication, specialising in Graphic Design at Glasgow School of Art. I did an internship at The Partners and Dazed and Confused before securing my first job at Pentagram, working under Angus Hyland for a few years.

I then took nine months off to travel around South America, and in my last month of travelling, I was approached about two jobs. One was to design a website for Jasper Morrison, and the other was working with exhibition curator Judith Clark (who I first met while at Pentagram) on an exhibition called Spectres at the V&A. These two projects were really the beginning of Charlie Smith Design

Working at Pentagram was instrumental in so many of the things I have done in my career since then. From the design learning to all the people I met there, and client / project opportunities that came along at the start of running my business.

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If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

During my Art Foundation, I very nearly went down the Fine Art path, but quickly realised that I was more suited to the structure that a career in the design world provided. I work much better with a brief rather than an open-ended creativity.

I also wanted to be a set designer and often wonder where I would be now if I’d gone down that path. My other interests are totally unrelated to design. I’d have loved to find something that involved spending more time in the mountains, although I’m not really sure what that would be!

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What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

Stay engaged! Pre-COVID, I visited lots of exhibitions and galleries and attended talks. As a studio we always visit D&AD New Blood to see what graduates are doing and are interested in. It’s also a great way for us to get in touch with potential candidates for internships.

How do you recharge away from the office?

Running is my main way of relaxing and recharging, and I enjoy listening to podcasts – there’s such a wealth of insight out there into so many other areas, they’re also a great distraction from your own day-to-day issues. A good night out with some friends and laughing the night away definitely blows the cobwebs away too – can’t wait to get back to that one day!

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What is the one advice you would give to creatives looking to be successful in the industry?

Talk to as many people as you can, listen well and be willing to work. Even if the job you’re given seems remedial or a bit basic, give it all you have, be enthusiastic and use your initiative. People pick up on this and will appreciate it.

For younger graphic design agencies, embrace motion and video and find the right partners to work with. Versatility is a key strength for the future, not just in the type of work you do, but the services you provide. And now more than ever, designers have a responsibility to be environmentally minded in everything they do.

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What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

Probably designing the Christmas Stamps for the Royal Mail last year. Both because we had to go through multiple rounds to be the chosen design studio, and for tackling the many creative challenges along the way. It’s also a piece of work that is so widely seen and recognised, so working on the project was an honour.

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What’s your one big dream for the future of the creative industries?

To be much more proactive in helping tackle the climate crisis. What we do is all about communication and we have the tools to help drive more change and educate people on the urgent need for action.

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