Blend Creative in Adelaide is a design studio with a difference. It’s a multi-service commercial graphic design business that also has a social purpose of creating employment opportunities and career pathways for people with disability.
“Of our 45 employees,” says Blend Creative Account Director Monique Russell, “37 identify as having disability, ranging from people with high care needs to those that are high functioning.
“When new staff come to Blend, they may not have completed high school, had much exposure to computers and design software, or have even considered a career in design.”
The studio has built training into their employment model, using supervising graphic designers with qualifications in both design and disability services to coach teams of employees to deliver briefs for a variety of national clients including health and education organisations, governments, NGOs and not-for-profits.
New employees are usually referred to Blend through disability service providers and, once part of the team, are offered bespoke training and support tailored to their interests, capability, and unique talents. In addition to all facets of design, employees learn how to succeed within a workplace, from upskilling in occupational health and safety, to being encouraged to join committees.
“For some of our employees,” says Monique, “our workplace is the only social environment they’re part of.”
“Everyone at Blend is like family,” says graphic designer Donna, “I have grown up there and I am definitely a more confident person now.”
Ideally, Monique says, employees will be set up to transition to work opportunities in the mainstream jobs market, but an individual’s career pathway remains their choice.
“Some of our employees have been with us since the beginning. Others have gone on to be freelancers or taken mentoring or advocacy positions within the community to share their learning.
“There are plenty of success stories – among our alumni are published authors and a comic book creator.”
She says that some of the barriers to finding suitable opportunities for Blend’s employees lay with potential employers.
“Some businesses think it’s hard to employ a staff member with disability. We offer some softer commitments to help employers build confidence. The goal is to develop a string of partnerships to help create more employment pathways and break down barriers.”
It’s not just employer perceptions that can create challenges for the social enterprise. Monique and the team must also negotiate the shifting landscape of the NDIS and the restrictions that come with being a registered Australian Disability Enterprise (ADE).
This hasn’t stopped Blend Creative from developing plans for growth.
Following 30 years in business, they opened a second studio last year and, in 2023, have been selected as one of eight social enterprises to participate in PRF’s inaugural Social Enterprise Growth Incubator, being delivered by Sefa Partnerships.
The 10-month-program will provide Blend Creative access to customised learning sprints, expert coaches, a dedicated incubator manager and opportunities to connect with fellow participants and the wider for-purpose sector.
“We’ve got plans,” says Monique.
“We have ideas that we’ve put down on paper, but our management team is just a few people. We're at the point where we need to drill down into the business and solidify our plans to grow and scale.
“What we want might be different to what we need.”
Following the Incubator’s orientation week in Sydney last month, the Blend team have found different ways to consider the future and the opportunities ahead.
“The diagnostics session with our coaches blew my mind!” says Blend’s Creative Services Manager Bec Fletcher.
“I wasn’t expecting such a deep dive, but it felt so good to unpack our business and explore and extract what we need to grow and scale.”
“We have always known the importance of lived experience as a voice within the business,” says Monique, “but everyone here is speaking it. There is serious opportunity ahead in the social enterprise sector and for Blend Creative to be a driver of change.
“The difference between scale and growth is significant. We are here to scale.”
“Ultimately,” she says, “Our vision is to be a standalone social enterprise operating under a fair wage model to help people with disability achieve their career aspirations in graphic design.”