Changes in McKean Studio

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2019 so far has been an interesting one… I made some decisions earlier this year that I knew would change the course of our business for the years ahead, focussing less on our traditional ways of working and saying ‘yes’ to some scarier prospects, and more importantly, saying ‘no’ to some of the opportunities and events we’ve relied on in previous years for business growth. It’s been a big few months of actively telling myself ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’, and trusting that the changes will be good decisions.

A couple of years ago we discontinued some of the McKean Studio product lines that were made with plastic. At the time, we were making our City Domes and City Scenes, our wall hanging mirrors and some other products that included acrylic material in their production. I made the decision to eliminate these product lines from our range because of the waste that was occurring while I was making them; using so many different components meant there was inevitably waste, and the only way to combat the waste was to scale up and try to produce more to make the most of the production processes. Obviously, although it makes sense from a financial perspective in terms of economies of scale, the decision to make more to make less waste was counter-intuitive. It was a cycle I was unhappy with, and after troubleshooting every way I could think of, decided it was better for the earth to stop producing them completely.

Last year I created a range of pieces for my ‘Land of the Rainbow Gold’ collection, a mammoth task that was hugely stressful but also hugely rewarding to see so many of my concepts come to life — and go on to be in some of my favourite retail spaces around Australia. The pieces from the Land of the Rainbow Gold collection were all inspired by the colours and creatures of Australia, theming back with my last book release, Hello, Australia!. The items I produced were all in small runs (many 100 units or less) but I’ve still felt uneasy about the waste that comes along with it — misprints or damaged pieces that aren’t ‘trash’ but are unable to be sold at full price, individual cello bags that wrap many of the pieces when they come from the supplier, and even my own control around packaging the items for retail; while I’ve been able to select paper/cardboard/recyclable options for many of our product packaging, there is seemingly always an unavoidable plastic component.

Last week our nation re-elected a government that doesn’t believe in climate change. Australia re-elected a government that believes in clean coal, without a hint of irony. The majority of Australian’s voted a party back in to power that actively supports selling off our natural resources, putting profit ahead of the environment. I’m disappointed and disheartened, and scared for our future.
I believe we’re all responsible for doing our part and being good stewards of the Earth, but there should be less focus placed on what we can do as individuals and more scrutiny placed on businesses and enforcing stricter controls on the pollution, waste and needless climate damage that big business does. While individual responsibility is hugely important, at some point, the focus on individual efforts (‘buy a reusable coffee cup’, ‘go vegan’, ‘don’t buy bottled water’) serves as a distraction, even a decoy, from the blatant abuse of our environment by major industries who should be held accountable.

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As both a person, and a business, this has led to some interesting reflection on what I can be doing, and where in my business and practice I’m going wrong (or can improve on). I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t in good conscience continue to produce many of the pieces we currently do in McKean Studio, and will be ceasing production on several lines immediately. I won’t be adding any new designs, or restocking any of the current designs across the City Bangles or the Pin or Key Ring ranges. Nothing will change immediately, but as products sell out, they won’t be reproduced or restocked in our online store. This is a scary decision to make from a business and profitability point of view, but I keep coming back to the bigger fear of what our earth will look like in 80 years time, and as we all know, you can’t eat money. The requirements for producing all of our enamel pieces are complex, and impossible to work with a ‘create on demand’ model. This means that each time I make a new design, I need to produce at least 100 units of that design to meet my minimum quantities and justify the set-up and material usage for each piece. Mistakes happen, there can sometimes be up to 20% of a batch that isn’t ‘fit for sale’ and I need to then decide what to do with it; usually offering it to customers at a deep discount to avoid wastage completely.

In small business, there’s often a mentality of ‘growth for growths sake’, the expectation being that more success means more money, which means being able to produce more, to sell more… rinse and repeat. I’ve been able to grow McKean Studio from being a couple-of-days-a-week work-from-home operation to my full time job with an external studio, which I’m extremely grateful for. I’ve been able to take bigger risks, have been able to afford big financial commitments, and things have continued along. I’m sure that things will ‘keep on keeping on’ as I move away from some of these pieces and find new ways of creating income.

As a designer, my job role is often ‘visual problem solving’, creating visual communications that offer a solution. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had as much success as I have had with almost all of the pieces I’ve concepted and created for McKean Studio, and don’t plan on stopping any of the joy that I find in design and communication — but it’s time to find ways to better problem solve that don’t rely on resources that are not renewable, actively work towards a smaller footprint, and to be part of the change that gives our earth and future generations hope.