We gathered in the comfort of Dishoom's Carnaby conservatory to hear from Heidi Lightfoot, co-founder of Together Design
On the morning of the 11th of June, we welcomed Heidi Lightfoot, co-founder of design studio Together Design, to speak at our regular Design for Breakfast series at Dishoom. Founded in 2003 with business-partner Katja Thielen from Heidi’s ‘spare bedroom in Kilburn’, Together now counts Roald Dahl, Fortnum and Mason and Liz Earle amongst just some of its clients. Importantly Together’s clients are all united by the values that inform their company name — collaboration and an open approach to design. Heidi told us how they've ‘grown into their name after plucking it somewhat randomly'.
In conversation with YCN's Katy Kent, Heidi shared her insights into beginning and growing a design-led business, creating a positive team culture and maintaining a good work/life balance.
Here’s what we learned:
Heidi described finding their feet as a new business. "We were quite tenacious", she explained, describing how the best thing they did was ask people they admired for advice. They did have a business plan but aren't sure where it went or if they ever really looked at it. By asking other businesses how they did it and what lessons they could share, it not only generated goodwill but gave them a starting point from which to carve out their own path. Heidi believes it was this "open-dialogue" that still sits at the heart of everything, and that drives their success.
Create an open culture
Although Together has had "many families over the years", Heidi believes their culture has always stayed the same. She attributes this to their emphasis on collaboration and an openness to swapping ideas.
This fundamental approach is strengthened by doing team activities together. Daisy, a member of the Together team in the audience, shared some sessions they'd enjoyed as a team: screen printing, wreath making and even making sourdough bread (not one to be repeated said Heidi, "It was far too complicated.")
Well known exercises like Show & Tell have also helped to bring their company together, allowing for the team to share the projects that they’ve been working on, something which encourages "an open dialogue and collaborative way of working."
When it comes to leadership, Heidi explained that like many other aspects of running your own business, it is something that you figure out along the way. In line with what Together stands for, Heidi described being collaborative, approachable and empathetic as attributes that mark her leadership style. Learning to make decisions and take responsibility is also an area she pointed out as important. Crucially, she loves to see people succeed and grow, and helping them in this journey is something that has made her leadership meaningful and fulfilling.
Find a balance
Heidi explained how she's uncomfortable with the idea that for design to be good, it means you have to work over-time. If anything, she believes this means organisations are doing something wrong. The strength of relationships with big corporate clients, relies on being clear about boundaries and ensuring their expectations of one another are open and aligned. Fostering these kind of relationships with clients is part of what allows Together to create a balanced work/life balance for everyone in the team, founders included.
Heidi described some things they've put in place which have helped such a culture to flourish. They recently introduced two hour lunch breaks, so that people can take time to see an exhibition they are interested in or go eat that Pho they are dreaming about. Of course the work still gets done but this allows people the freedom to work in their own way and fulfill other interests.
This also ties into their acceptance of employees wanting to work 4 day weeks, including Heidi herself (although she says she can still sometimes work six). As an organization who, since the beginning has had a multitude of pregnancies, Heidi says this kind of attitude is crucial. It creates an environment in which life outside work can continue yet women can continue with work that they enjoy and find fulfilling.
Prepare for challenges
Running your own company inevitably incurs challenges and Katy asked Heidi how Together had tackled them and, what had been learned in the process.
For Together, outside circumstances such as the financial crash in 2008 and a change of government in 2010, created problems for the business. Their early clients had been government and arts organisations. So with changes a lot of their projects dried up "pretty much overnight". However, this just meant they had to re-think who they were, who they worked with and who their work appealed to. They had to learn how to reassess and remould their business, an experience which ultimately makes your stronger.
They’ve found that another difficulty in running your own agency is the stark contrast in business - sometimes it is really dry and other times phones are off the hook. Having a strong new business and strategy team has been really helpful for Together in this regard. Heidi says that while Katja and her "buoy each other up" it is always helpful to have someone they trust to keep them in check and make sure they meet deadlines.
A big thanks to Heidi for her candour, for everyone that came to share their thoughts and questions, to Dishoom for another delicious breakfast and to Sam Bush for his photography.