Resident in Focus: Chris Murphy, Founder of The School of Design

For this month’s Resident in Focus feature, we sat down with Chris Murphy, via email, to discuss The School of Design, a community built by Chris for design-focused entrepreneurs, building the products of tomorrow. The joy of a conversation with Chris is having access to his fount of knowledge and philosophical approach to business that encapsulates what it means to be a creative entrepreneur. And this conversation is no different.

“I’m in the second half of my life,” Chris tells me.

“Peter Drucker – the consultant, writer and teacher – writes about this in his book Managing Oneself (which is my most recommended book). Here’s Drucker:

For the first time in human history, individuals can expect to outlive organisations. This creates a totally new challenge: What to do with the second half of one’s life?

Knowledge workers are [never] ‘finished’. They are perfectly capable of functioning … and yet the original work that was so challenging when the knowledge worker was thirty has become a deadly bore when the knowledge worker is fifty and still he or she is likely to face another fifteen if not another twenty years of work.

To manage oneself, therefore, will increasingly require preparing oneself for the second half of one’s life.

Drucker proposes three suggestions for Part 2 of your life:

start a second and entirely different career;

establish a ‘Parallel Career’, usually in a non-profit; or

become a ’social entrepreneur’ (again, with a non-profit focus).

The School of Design is a blend of all three of the above. As a designer with 30+ years of knowledge in Design Strategy, Branding and UX +/ UI and a teacher with 20+ years of learning materials to share I was looking for an opportunity to help share this knowledge.

Tell us more about The School of Design.

The School of Design is a community for design-focused entrepreneurs, building the products of tomorrow. I'm taking everything I've learned as a designer and a teacher over the last 30 years and sharing as much of it as possible at an affordable price:

as a design strategist I’ve worked with companies, large and small, driving innovation by drawing on my three decades of experience working with clients including: Adobe, Electronic Arts (EA) and the BBC; and

as a teacher, I worked for two decades as a Senior Lecturer, leading interaction design provision at Belfast School of Art.

I'm passionate about the intersection of design and business (and, to a degree, technology) and The School of Design sits right at the heart of that sweet spot. I love helping design-focused founders turn their ideas into a profitable and sustainable reality.

The community is just £95 / year for membership and we're growing slowly, but surely, welcoming ~3-5 new members every month. We're intentionally keeping the community small, which levels up the calibre of members.

What inspired you to start The School of Design?

My teaching focuses on design × business, with a heavy emphasis on nurturing startup founders who understand the importance of design to today's and tomorrow's products and services.

One of the aspects of design curricula that's weak within art schools is business. The majority of design lecturers are busy teaching, not working, but that leaves a gap in equipping graduates with the business understanding they need to thrive post-university.

I started the School of Design to address the need for design × business education and I'm happy to be working with some of the world's best art schools to do just that.

I'm currently working with Glasgow School of Art, Winchester School of Art and Durham University to help young (and not so young) creatives to embrace business, building the startups of tomorrow. That excites me.

I'm also working with incubators like Propel and Ignite in Belfast and Durham City Incubator.

What excites you most about building and running your business?

I'm a passionate designer, but my passion for design is amplified when I focus on design × business. I'm excited about how design can amplify business and, vice versa, how business can amplify design.

I love venture testing, road-testing business ideas and separating the wheat from the chaff. I've just finished a three day #NoCode workshop for startups in Durham. I compressed a one year Masters into three days and the results were incredible. Seeing others learn to build well-designed #NoCode apps in just 72 hours was amazing.

Throughout your experience as a designer and as a teacher, which projects have really stood out to you?

I'll always be grateful to my mentor, Rodney Miller, for supporting me with a day a week (on full pay) to run my record label, Fällt, for a decade and a half. Miller saw my passion for music – and the web, in its early days – and supported me wholeheartedly.

My work on packaging for the music industry – under the name Fehler – is what gave me my first big break, particularly Adrian Shaughnessy's articles for Eye.

Some of my favourite projects, however, barely saw the light of day. My top three:

Glyph, "the world's smallest typography journal," for BERG's Little Printer, was delivered to a global audience of typographers once a week;

untitled folder, a 'sculpture' created out of nested untitled folders for macOS predecessor System 7 (which rendered my PowerBook G4 unusable); and

Facsimile, a ludicrously limited edition fax magazine that mocked the, "join 35,864+ subscribers," trope with a message, "Join four subscribers – including Mr Bingo – and enter your fax number below."

The projects that stand out most for me are the projects where I've done things, "The wrong way." (Who's to say what's 'right' and 'wrong', after all?)

What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur during lockdown?

I've found lockdown to be incredibly challenging. I thrive on human connection and Zoom just can't replace that. The biggest lesson I've learned is that the future of teaching isn't a wholesale jettisoning of studio experiences in favour of Zoom. The future is a blended opportunity.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your entrepreneurship?

Some of my most successful projects have been 'managed-loss-making'. Contrary to what many believe, entrepreneurship isn't solely about making (lots of) money. There are countless opportunities to use entrepreneurial thinking to affect massive change beyond £$¥s.

What are some of the highs and lows you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?

Life as an entrepreneur is a rollercoaster. One minute you're on top of the world the next you've crashed spectacularly back down to earth.

One of my most memorable highs was being accepted onto Propel in late 2019 and participating as one of Cohort 3. That experience gave me the confidence, that I'd lost somewhere, to leave my job at Belfast School of Art.

The lows? There are too many to mention. I prefer not to call them failures. To me a failure is only a failure if there's no lesson learned.

If you could pick up a new skill in an instant, what would it be?

Organisation – from a financial perspective – is a challenge for me! If I could instantly learn how to balance the books while spinning up some spreadsheets, I'd be delighted.

Who is your dream business mentor?

That's a tough question! Usually I occupy the role of mentor, so choosing a dream business mentor is an interesting idea. I'm going to cheat and – after the team at Propel – Chris, Ian and Tristan – who have helped me so, so much – I'd say Susan O'Malley of IDEO.

I've love IDEO's multidisciplinary approach and the rigour with which they address design challenges so having Susan on speed-dial would be a dream.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

I'm looking forward to: finishing, launching and running my course Building Beautiful UIs. It covers everything you need to know to confidently design beautiful user interfaces.

When I outlined my vision for The School of Design, I wrote: "Imagine a design school with the best teachers in the world. Thanks to the generous support of some incredibly smart friends, that’s what I’m building."

I've got some incredible teachers lined up and I'm delighted that eight of the 24 places have already been pre-booked. I can't wait to start teaching in April.

What’s one business tip that you think other entrepreneurs, business owners or freelancers should know about?

This is incredibly obvious to me, but as Derek Sivers writes in his book, Hell Yeah or No: "Everybody’s ideas seem obvious to them. I’ll bet even John Coltrane or Richard Feynman felt that everything they were playing or saying was pretty obvious. So maybe what’s obvious to me is amazing to someone else?"

My advice would be this: Just start.

All too often we turn ideas over and over and over in our minds, never actually getting them off the drawing board. My first self-published 'course in a book' was ‘Start! Stop Procrastinating and Pursue Your Passion’.

I learned a considerable amount by taking my own advice and actually starting it. The biggest lesson I learned? I should have sold it as a course, not a book, which under-valued it.

You can get it, for a hefty discount (I massively underpriced it!) on Gumroad.

And with that, every day really is a school day when Chris Murphy is around.