1 year on: what happened when we went transparent?

A year ago, we took our biggest step yet towards operating as a transparent company, when we open-sourced our Playbook. A year later, let’s see how it panned out…

Pre-release fears

There’s no denying that this was a scary step to take. Again and again, we’ve seen that there’s always a certain fear of the unknown and a sense that ‘there’s no going back’ before we’ve taken this kind of decision. There’s definitely a certain comfort in being able to hide behind opacity and not have to face up to public scrutiny of how you’re operating!

I can’t deny that we were a little bit worried that our decision would be taken negatively and that it might hurt our ability to win new projects. There was always a chance that clients would look at what we were putting out there and decide that we simply weren’t the right team to work with. And perhaps that’s what has happened–I’m sure our transparency scared off some potential clients and teammates.

But it’s hard to deny the positive effects

The flip side of this is that any negativity seems to have been massively offset by all the benefits we’ve gained from making the move:

  • Our Playbook is one of the strongest ways we’ve found to further our brand and it generates tons of new business and leads for us.
  • Equally importantly, it’s great for hiring: many other designers get in touch with us because they’ve seen our Playbook and want to work with us.
  • It saves us a massive amount of time, because instead of having to write lengthy pitches and proposals, we can refer people to the Playbook.
  • And perhaps most importantly, it forces us to hold ourselves to higher (public!) standards and continually improve the way we operate.

Don’t underestimate the importance of standing out in a noisy crowd

There’s so much competition for great projects in our industry that we simply had to find some way to differentiate ourselves. The move to transparency definitely hasn’t prevented us from winning bigger projects either. We’ve ended up working with some huge corporate clients since we became transparent and it has never presented any legal or confidentiality issues. If anything, the big guys value it even more because it shows we’re not simply doing the same as many other companies out there.

Being transparent sends a clear message to those outside the company that you’re confident about the direction you’re taking. It also shows that you’ve at least some commitment to honesty and fairness.

We hear so much about negative corporate behaviour these days, that I think many people find it refreshing that there are some businesses out there (we’re certainly not the only ones!) who are trying to do things differently.

So what does this mean for the design industry? What’s stopping other design firms from being more transparent?

It’s easy for young studios like ours to come along, plant a flag in the ground for transparency and then criticise bigger, older studios and agencies for not doing the same.

I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that the bigger you are, the harder it is to have the guts to go through with transparency and other things that come along with it (like self-management). I think that bigger studios inevitably have to make this change in the future in order to survive, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do so. It took us a long time to build up the guts to do it, so I can only imagine how tough it would be for even bigger companies.

But beyond simply having confidence that the world isn’t going to end if you make things transparent, I think that there’s another, bigger reason holding some companies back… sometimes, the reason people are against transparency is because they have something to hide. If you’re a CEO and feel like you really can’t open up your financials internally to your team, I think you have to ask yourself whether those financials are actually set up in a fair way. Especially when it comes to making public the pay gaps between different employees.

For me, transparency in business is important for just the same reasons as we demand transparency in politics.

Without transparency, it’s far easier to exploit the weaker members of a company. Being transparent means you’re held to far higher scrutiny (from everyone in your team, and even the public as a whole) which means we’re pushed to build better, fairer and more successful companies in the long run.

I think the transparency movement is here to stay, so it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens when it starts hammering on the doors of the bigger companies who are a lot more reluctant to embrace it.