Running a design studio – interview with KABO & PYDO
For five years Katarzyna Borkowska and Tomasz Pydo have been managing an interdisciplinary design studio KABO & PYDO. In their interview for Element Talks they talk about how they started their own business, what are the advantages and disadvantages of working on your own, how they get their clients and what they pay attention to when gathering a project team.
Michał Mazur: Did you gain some experience by working for someone before you set up your own business?
Katarzyna Borkowska: Starting from my first student holidays I spent each summer on internships. I got a few internships at marketing and design agencies in Poland and Italy. Some of the internships turned to commercial commissions. I combined freelance work with studying.
On my first year of industrial design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw a manufacturer asked me to design a complex cosmetic device. I was happy to receive the proposal, but I didn’t know how to design yet – I didn’t know 3D programmes, nor knew how to conduct a design process. I knew that this was too much for me to do it alone.
Of all my fellow students of industrial design I thought Tomek was the most gifted, a third-year student. We didn’t know each other well back then, but I had a feeling that he’s going to be a good designer. I presented him with the idea to do the project together.
Tomasz Pydo: In the end, the commission didn’t work out. After two years Kasia called me to ask whether I would teach her to make visualisations in V-ray. And so it began. Now we share a studio, a number of implemented projects and rings on our fingers.
Although before it happened, I got hired by a branding agency – just after I got my Bachelor’s degree. Back then I didn’t know yet if I wanted to design furniture, electronics, cars or something else. I gave myself some time for my career path to unfold.
For more or less two years I designed product packaging, including shapes of glass and plastic bottles. In the same time, I started my Master’s and was thinking about setting up my own studio. I wanted to have a greater influence over the final projects.
K.B.: A real breakthrough moment for us was taking part in the “Entrepreneurship in creative sectors” programme organised by Kozminski University helping to start your own enterprise. Formalities and trainings took us a year. In 2012, we started our company and received a grant from the UE funds. We got a number of serious commissions. Just like Tomek, I was doing my Master’s at the same time.
T.P.: 2013 was the hardest. We were designing sixteen garden tools from Ergo line for a Polish company Cellfast. I guess we slept for about five hours a day. We defended our Master’s later than we planned, but we graduated with a vast experience of working in the industry.
Now you employ students and younger graduates of Polish design universities. What are they good at and what they don’t learn at the university?
K.B.: The graduates of Polish Academies of Fine Arts know well the design programmes, majority of them knows how to work in a team and is seriously involved with their work. However, they don’t know how to create projects which are to be implemented in the production. Majority of design university graduates in Poland doesn’t have experience of working with the industry.
T.P.: Acclaimed foreign universities teach that because they work with companies. Projects are implemented as a part of atelier classes. Polish universities either don’t teach it at all, or they do so, but only to a lesser, definitely insufficient extent. But it depends on the university, not on students themselves. Despite all of that, we are very fond of our team – everyone quickly made up the material. At the moment in our inner team, apart from us, there are four young people. We also create a cooperative network with our creative friends.
What you didn’t know about managing a business right after you graduated? Does the knowledge of computer programmes and experience with industry suffice?
T.P.: At the beginning, we didn’t realise how important a team, cooperation with people, sharing ideas and openness to critical remarks are. For first two years we thought that everything can be done just by the two of us. We thought that creation of a team will only pose difficulties and costs. We were wrong.
K.B.: Now we know that a well-organised team is of great value. We had to grow up to understand it. The change of stance took us about two years. Apart from their knowledge and ideas, other people bring their good energy to the team. Our relations are friendly which allows us to be sincere with each other.
T.P.: At the beginning of our business it seemed that we didn’t fully realise how important is the stage of work before designing itself. Now, before we run our 2D and 3D programmes we thoroughly analyse the environment of a given product. We go out, we ask prospective users a lot of questions, we observe their behaviour and analyse their needs.
K.B.: Designing only with a piece of paper or in front of computer isn’t a way of coming up with a good idea. In the outside world, the solutions just pop into your head. It speeds up the designing process.
Speaking of time. Do you take commissions “for yesterday”?
K.B.: Experienced companies don’t send inquires which would require work under a lot of pressure. Only those who plan the implementation of a project for the first time, act in a hurry. Some people think that a polished project and prototype can be ready in a week. In practice, this isn’t possible.
T.P.: We need one or two months for making the concept of a project – a piece of furniture, mug, or a toothbrush, etc. We need this time to, after we have developed a few preliminary versions, keep them in a drawer for a few days and put them into perspective. After a week-long break, we come back to them, we critically evaluate, change and polish them. In the meantime, we find a number of fresh ideas.
Of course, you can’t prolong the designing infinitely. The deadline is set in advance. If we’re sure that we created something of value before, we go and meet the client to present our concepts. Then we create a mature project in contact with the client. This stage takes the most of our time – it depends mostly on us and on the technological and implementation teams of the client.
How many versions of a, let’s say, mug design, do you show in the meeting with a client?
T.P.: In case of a mug we show a number of options. In case of more advanced projects sometimes we show only one, the best concept, or sometimes a few versions – it depends on the design process.
You can’t show all ideas to your client, because there’s a risk that he’ll like not the best solution – the one we dismissed due to some well-founded reasons. We try to avoid such situations.
How do you know that the project is good?
T.P.: It comes out in the testing phase. The tests conducted before project production implementation are very important and can’t be omitted. We let the users test the prototypes, express their opinions, check whether everything works fine, that nothing breaks, etc. On the basis of the outcomes of the test we implement the adjustments into the project. It’s an important stage of our work.
Does your preciseness draw or discourage your clients? How do you get them?
K.B.: At the beginning of our business we sent our offers to companies. We quickly learnt that – at least in our case – showing ready-made projects to clients doesn’t result in commissions. Now we have a few regular clients and new ones come to us on their own. It’s a comfortable situation, but we had to work for it.
T.P.: We work with companies which care about ambitious projects and introduction of the polished products on the market. You can feel the intention in the first meeting. We care about high quality of our work, we wouldn’t forgive ourselves if we handed over a rash and sloppy project.
Do you reject some collaboration proposals?
T.P.: We did reject a proposal which was against our beliefs. For some time now we are receiving so many inquiries that we had to start choosing the projects which have the biggest potential of implementing innovations.
Apart from designing you also prepare design strategies for enterprises. What do you sometimes discover about the manufacturing companies while doing such commissions?
K.B.: Throughout the last year at least half of our time was devoted to design audits. We get to know a company, its environment and on the basis of our analyses and research we create a design strategy for them.
We are witnessing how in a couple of companies established in the 90s a generation change is happening – the parents give the companies over to their children. Apart from management, also the production technology and – in turn – design change.
T.P.: The companies invest in new machinery, but unfortunately there aren’t enough of specialist who would know how to use them. It’s a huge problem. The companies have to train employees from scratch.
K.B.: What also surprised us was the lack of good communication between people in a number of companies. After our training sessions, we often received feedback that the management and employees learned a lot about each other and about the company.
T.P.: The most important thing was that we made them realise that they can do much more than they’re doing at the moment, that they can think innovatively.
K.B.: The main barrier against innovation was the fear of failure. People are afraid of risks connected to the implementation of the project which doesn’t have its counterpart on the market. Our suggestions are based on the needs analysis and observation of clients and users, so we limit the risk.
Do you take risks in your work?
T.P.: From the designer’s point of view the risk is usually hidden in the agreements concluded with clients. Especially when the full responsibility for the so-called patent purity is shifted by the production company onto the designer.
Even if you design something on your own and you make a profound research, after the implementation on the market it might turn out that someone already made it and patented it – this is when you can find yourself in big trouble. Patents are a serious thing. But you can’t know them all. Even patent spokesmen don’t know them all. In order to issue their opinion they have to precisely analyse a given field.
K.B.: Even such details like the angle of rounding of smartphone edges or technical solution regarding matching different materials in a given product can be registered on one or many markets. Designers aren’t capable of knowing all patents from all over the world. It’s easy to get into trouble.
T.P.: Of course, we guarantee our clients that we will never plagiarise, because our projects are authorial. It’s the company which hands over the basic premises for the project. That’s why, if it is necessary for the project, the agreement contains a provision which states that the client will provide us with a technical state report, i.e. the information about the patents.
In practice, it means that a patent spokesperson will be designated. It can be quite costly sometimes, but it is necessary. I also advise our clients to register the designs, which they implement on the market on their own.
Is following of the contents of agreements the hardest part of conducting one’s own design business?
K.B.: It’s like with everything: the hard part is the only one what we can’t do. When you learn how to do it, it’s no longer that difficult. But really there is a lot of paper and organisation work in your own company.
T.P.: When you work for somebody you can focus on designing. When you conduct business and employ people, you have to sort things out like calls and e-mails from clients, pricings, visits at offices, paying taxes – it can be really time-consuming.
Very often my day looks like that: from morning to 3pm I deal with the “whole rest”. Only in the afternoon and evening I can get into designing. And if something didn’t work out, the stress connected with it kills my whole creativity. I can’t design when stressed. Keeping the balance is the hardest bit for me.
K.B.: I like this moment, when all things are sorted out and I can launch the design programme. This is when work becomes a pure pleasure.
T.P.: Without our team dealing exclusively with designing, we wouldn’t be able to get everything together on our own currently.
Would you like to change your day mode?
T.P.: We’d like to have a bit more of free time. For ourselves, for travelling, for redirecting our thoughts. At least once a year. For three years we’ve been unsuccessfully planning a longer, month-long vacation. Another set deadline of our holidays is January 2018. We hope this time we’ll be able to make it.
K.B.: I wish I didn’t think about work when I’m going to sleep. I’m stressed because I have to be constantly online. A few years ago, it wouldn’t be a problem if I answered an e-mail a day later. Now clients expect my immediate response. Because you aren’t just fully available with your phone, but also with your e-mail, wherever you are. Smartphone doesn’t make my life easier. It distracts me.
T.P.: We console ourselves that we aren’t the one and only who have such dilemmas. Much more experienced designers and entrepreneurs burn candles at both ends. However, we make sure our designers don’t stay longer after their working hours. In extreme situations, they want to stay longer on their own. We appreciate it in them. But usually after eight hours of work we kick them off from the studio.
K.B.: We’re planning on hiring a design / office manager. The new person will streamline our work in the company. If only they want to wear slippers at the studio. We put shoes on only when we have visitors. (laughs)
To end the interview, I will ask you about the accuracy of subjects touched upon on fairs, festivals and design conferences. Ecological materials, recycling, circular economy, etc. – these are interesting issues, but apart from curators of exhibitions aimed at design environment are these matters interesting for manufacturers of consumer products devoted for the mass market?
K.B.: Definitely yes, it’s a strong trend. At the Design talks Business conference as a part of Gdynia Design Days 2017 dishes in the lunch break were served in biodegradable plates made of wheat bran – it’s a Polish product and business.
At the same festival, at the “City on the wave” exhibition you could see valuable products made of waste, including – surprise, surprise – bricks. There are plenty of similar examples. These aren’t just concepts - they are ready profit-generating products. Profits for wallet and the environment.
T.P.: The problem is that the biodegradable material can cost even five times more than the regular material which decomposes through hundreds of years.
K.P.: Manufacturers want to be ecological and ask us what to do to be eco-friendly, even if they’re about to face higher production costs. However, none of us really knows what is really eco-friendly and what only pretends to be so. It’s not necessarily true when something is made of recycled cardboard or corn that it’s automatically ecological.
T.P.: It would be necessary to analyse the source of used materials from the start till the end, its mode of transport, energy consumption of processing and reprocessing. It’s a difficult issue, requiring a thorough analysis.
K.B.: I’m sure though that it’s worth asking the organisers of design festivals: How many manufacturers and business representatives came as participants? Were there as much of them as designers? At the aforementioned conference Design talks Business, 35 percent of the participants were linked to business.
I’d like to hear questions and opinions of business people on the subjects mentioned at the GDD festival or DTB conference. Most often it is the designers who speak up at the conference. The business part either sits quietly or is somewhere else.
The organisers of Element Talks conference could be asked the same question: do business people are only speakers and expositors, or are they a part of the audience as well?
T.P.: Maybe there’s no time to wait for the business to come to – a highly interesting, by the way – a festival or design conference? Maybe it’s the design environment which should take part in conferences strictly aimed at business? Or maybe it would be a good idea to bring those two events together? Maybe it’s worth to put forward an initiative?
Katarzyna Borkowska and Tomasz Pydo – the founders of KABO & PYDO design studio. Numerously acclaimed: Red Dot, iF Design Award, Dobry Wzór and must have. The alumni of industrial design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.
Michał Mazur (TrendNomad.com) – a journalist, trendwatcher, nomad. Each year he visits more than twenty fairs, festivals and conferences around the world. A large part of his information on trends comes from interviews with people working in design, architecture and new technologies.
Fot. in the studio: Natalia Dołgowska
Fot. of the products: Wojtek Woźniak
Fot. from Gdynia Design Days: Łukasz Strenk
Fot. of cups: Anna Dobrowolańska / Smaczne Ujęcie