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How to open a small product design studio and make it work – DesignWanted

December 27, 2023

Francesca Gugliotta
I am a design editor for La Repubblica, Interni magazine and Living – Corriere della Sera. Assistant professor at Iulm university in Milan.
Maybe not at the beginning, but during their career, almost all designers sooner or later ask themselves the big question: 
should I work by myself, in a free and authentic way, or is it more convenient and safer to stay in an established studio? 
This is what happened to Italian designer Maddalena Casadei who, after a long experience with James Irvine, in 2017 decided to set her design studio in Milan. 
She focuses on product design, exhibition design, art direction and interiors, working with brands like Ichendorf, Kettal, Quadro design, Marsotto edizioni, Trame, Paola Zani, Pretziada.
We asked her to share her tips on how to open (and run successfully) a small product design studio, from the initial budget to invest to the basic skills to have, from getting to sketch your own ideas, to choosing the best design tools, to asking the correct fee for a project.
[ You may also like: How much should I charge for a product design? ]
“There is no recipe to copy”, is Maddalena Casadei’s first advice: “Everyone has different life experiences, economic possibilities, certainties and shyness”.  And she adds: “A risk component must be taken into account when you open your studio. The pros are naturally the flexibility of time and place, the human relationships, the continuous stimuli, the satisfaction of seeing a project go from paper to reality by following each step”. 
Crucial, for a designer who works as a freelancer, is to establish the right fees: “I believe it is essential to obtain a fixed initial fee that covers expenses and recognizes the intellectual work”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“Definitely by nature, by ego, by enthusiasm, by passion, by madness”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“In a way, I’ve always been a freelancer. 
Working for someone in this industry doesn’t mean you’re an employee. 
The desire to move from collaborator to employer was natural for me, over time the desire to get involved with my ideas and skills has grown. 
So it is important to take advantage of the time spent collaborating to develop one’s own sensibilities, form a culture of design, study and learn. 
Don’t just work on your computer but 
visit companies, attend meetings and build good relationships with everyone involved in your projects, from colleagues to clients. 
Being gritty and curious but always humble”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“As I said there is no recipe for all. I know people who just left university and opened their own studio and others, like me, after years of experiences and collaborations. However, a risk component must be taken into account when you open your studio and/or become freelance. It is fundamental to:
And this is just the basics”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“Also in this case everyone builds the working environment they prefer, also on the basis of their own design habits. 
After working from home for a while, I realized that it wasn’t a constructive condition, so I decided to invest in a space. 
It is not necessary to use very expensive material: study models can be made with cardboard, poliplat and other materials that do not require particular equipment and excessive expenses. 
Making models is fundamental for me but I believe that the real prototypes should remain the responsibility of the companies”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“Being part of that generation formed between the drafting machine and the computer, for me paper and pen (or pencil) still don’t have a worthy substitute today, as well as colors, in pencil and Tombow felt-tip pens. As you know, there is a lot of 3D software: I use Rhino and Keyshot for renders, they are quite simple modeling software to get good results but are not manufacturing ones. It will be interesting to understand what applications to find for the potentials represented by artificial intelligence”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“There are many difficulties, I won’t hide it, especially from an economic point of view. 
Our work is mostly remunerated with royalties. This means working on projects for years totally on personal investment. 
It is a sector where sustainability does not really consider all the pieces of the puzzle. And I hope this changes over time. 
The pros are naturally the flexibility of time and place, the human relationships, the continuous stimuli, the satisfaction of seeing a project go from paper to reality by following each step”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“Design is applied and applicable to many areas: technology, yachting, medicine… 
In Italy furniture is the sector that attracts the most and it is most taken into consideration, probably also thanks to a virtuous system that has created a globally shared narrative around Italian products and companies”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“I prefer to first establish a personal acquaintance with the company and/or the art director in order to understand if we can share the same vision and then I propose projects more in line with the future company strategy. 
Sending projects at random risks becoming a frustrating exercise. 
Surely today those who communicate well through social media manage to work more than others…. however, this does not always translate into true design quality”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“As I said before, I choose them based on an affinity of approach and vision, whether they are looking for me or vice versa. I like concrete, human and calm realities with whom I can establish lasting exchange collaborations and truly focused on design research”.
[ Read also: Spotting (and avoiding) companies that greenwash ]
Maddalena Casadei:
“I wish I could really decide them! For years, like many of my colleagues, I have been trying to share the concept of royalties as a reward and not as the right payment for a job
Let us consider, for example, the happiest result, i.e. that the project is good and the company has the ability to sell a lot. The company receives 95% of the turnover and the designer 5%. 
This percentage imbalance would be correct if the company paid for the designer’s work by fully assuming the risk, while today the designer must practically participate in the company’s risk with his 50%. 
Therefore, I believe it is essential to obtain a fixed initial fee that covers expenses and recognizes the intellectual work. Of course, the fee cannot always be the same but must be calibrated on the customer and the amount of work to be done”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“I’m not good at it so I just invest in it. I clearly weigh trips into whether or not they are worth it. For me, business dinners and leisure dinners often coincide. Each sharing around a table is a mixture of both, and it feels good that way”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“Let’s say that after university I never worked at night and rarely on weekends. 
It happens that you work on Saturday or Sunday but for a self-employed worker these are days like any other (indeed perhaps calmer and therefore more productive in some respects). 
This is a job in which you do not feel the need to separate private life and working life. 
Perhaps because designing is more a condition of life than a job”.
Maddalena Casadei:
“I believe that a little training experience at one or more studios is essential
I would recommend an experience in a small studio where you can really see and deal with all aspects of the creative and management process, from the dynamics with customers to participation in brainstorming, to the working progress of projects but also to the creation of contracts and organization. 
The big studio risks putting a computer in your hands and making you do the same thing every day, the small studio has less division of roles and everyone participates in everything”.
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