By Sofie Jacobs

PhD cover picture

Independent designers work in a highly competitive and complex environment. Most studies research the growth of large design companies. However, the majority of independent designers is very small-sized or works as a freelancer. Small-sized independent designers have a higher chance to succeed when working full-time, developing a clear design line, owning a strong personal compass, and having a strong network.

When we take a closer look at the design sector, and especially furniture design, we see that this sector counts a large number of small enterprises with a high level of self-employment. Thus, in such firms, the person that designs, is mostly also the person that manages and takes the decisions. Therefore, I made the decision to look at individual characteristics that can lead to success. After consideration of important academic literature and practical experience, the characteristics we researched in relation to success are personal values, product focus, job rate and age of the firm. Personal values reflect basic aspects of a person’s character and can be desirable, very general goals that people pursue in life. Figure 1 portrays the core set of ten values reflecting distinct, but related motivational goals (Schwartz, 2012). In relation to success, emphasizing on openness to change (vs. conservation) relates to generating creative and novel ideas, and thus, be successful as designer.

Figure 1: Ten motivational types of value (Schwartz, 2012)


The other characteristics, namely product focus, job rate and firm age, are characteristics that are typical for the sector. In the furniture design sector, there is a difference between designers that are focused only on creating furniture (product focus) and designers that also have other activities, like being an architect, designing fashion accessories, etc. Moreover, a lot of furniture designers are just part-time designers (job rate). Besides designing, they teach or work somewhere else.

I also chose to work with two parameters of success: business growth and high perceived success. This reflects the real complex performance of a creative organization. Small business owners, especially in the creative industries, measure their success using both financial and non-financial factors (Walker & Brown, 2004). In this study high perceived success is seen as non-financial success, and I measured the success of furniture designers by their own definition of success. Examples include having a good work-life balance, accomplishing an artistic dream, and being recognized by others in the field. The concepts of the study are shown in figure 2.


Figure 2: Visual representation of the study

Figure 2

To execute this research, I interviewed 21 small-sized independent furniture designers in Belgium. Besides, I gathered additional information through their websites, press articles and a survey on their personal values. After doing a qualitative comparative analysis I found different pathways leading to business growth and high perceived success.

A first major conclusion concerns business growth. The analysis shows two pathways wherein fulltime designers with risk-oriented values are central. This pathway leads to business growth in combination with a full focus on furniture as product. A second conclusion concerns the condition job rate. Being a part-time designer is sufficient on its own for no business growth, and it is also sufficient for low perceived success. On the other hand, being a fulltime designer is part of the two pathways leading to business growth. However, creatives often hold multiple jobs. These multiple jobs are described as portfolio careers, or protean careers, in which individuals are involved in multiple work and/or development activities simultaneously (Ashton, 2015) and, as such, there exist a multiplicity of career pathways and trajectories. A portfolio/protean career is not the same for every furniture designer. For some it means working within the arts, combing their creative practice with a teaching role or another creative role. For others it covers a number of unrelated occupations and places of work. This presents a challenge for those hoping to secure creative occupations as a first choice, and it requires creatives to shift and adapt to diverse opportunities and to work in multiple roles. It means dealing with uncertainty, setbacks, and constantly shifting opportunities. Thus, these designers have to have a strong personal compass, a sense of what makes them tick, what they are good at, and what network of enterprises, persons or projects will best sustain their career.

These findings concern both policy makers and furniture designers themselves. In order to achieve business growth, furniture designers must find stimuli and support to be powerful enough to be a designer as primary occupation. Looking back into the cases I interviewed, most of the ‘part-time’ designers are so because of financial reasons. They cannot make a living out of design and therefore their primary occupations are elsewhere (higher education and other furniture or architecture firms). These pathways also stress the importance of having a clear product focus on furniture design, or related products like tailor-made interior objects. This advice may be of use for starting furniture designers when defining their strategy and for policy makers on drafting policies to stimulate start-ups and creative starters.

The article is based on:

Jacobs, S., Cambre, B., Huysentruyt, M., & Schramme, A. (2016). Multiple pathways to success in small creative businesses: The case of Belgian furniture designers. Journal of Business Research, 69(11), 5461-5466.

About the author:

Sofie Jacobs, Postdoc researcher Creative Industries at Antwerp Management School; Lecturer Cultural Entrepreneurship & HRM at Antwerp University & Erasmus University Rotterdam.


Ashton, D. (2015). Creative work careers: pathways and portfolios for the creative economy. Journal of Education and Work, 28(4), 388-406.

Schwartz, S. (2012). An overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1), 11.

Walker, E., & Brown, A. (2004). What success factors are important to small business owners? International Small Business Journal, 22(6), 577-594.

Image source:

Design Flanders @ Flanders DC; photographer: Annelie Vandendael


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