One of the best things about being human is our ability to make choices. If you’re in the mood for a hamburger but also in a rush, you still have options. Do you go to Mcdonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or one of the other fast-food burger joints?
If you’re in the market for a new car, do you look at Ford, Dodge, Toyota, or Honda? Need a new computer? You can choose one of the many models of Pcs or go with a Mac. Regardless of your choices, the ultimate decision is still up to you.
But how do you go about choosing?
You do so by looking at what makes each option different and how those differences appeal to you.
We all know that not all hamburgers are equal. McDonald’s has consistently stated that “Great Taste” makes them different. I know, that’s very subjective. But it is a recurring marketing slogan they’ve used over the years. Burger King claims it’s the flame broiling that makes them different. At Wendy’s, it’s the fact that their meat is never frozen, so it taste’s fresher. Ultimately, you decide which one of these differences appeals to you the most. And that’s where you get your burger.
This same concept of what makes something different can equally apply to designers. What makes you different from the other designers in your town? What would make a client choose you over one of them?
If you can figure out this question and use it to your advantage, you may outpace your competition with more work than you can handle. So what makes you different?
Maybe your culture or heritage makes you different. People find it easier to deal with people similar to them or who understand them.
It’s currently the middle of May, which is Asian Heritage Month. As a white person, I would never expect someone to hire me to design a campaign for Asian Heritage Month. It’s not that I don’t think I could do a good job. It’s just that I feel that an Asian designer is better suited for the project. After all, they can relate to the subject matter better than I ever could.
Whatever your heritage or culture is, you should embrace it and find a way to use it.
A member of the Resourceful Designer Community is an indigenous Canadian woman. She’s using this to her advantage by marketing her design business to companies, organizations and groups run by First Nation people. And she’s killing it. She had to halt a recent marketing campaign because her available time quickly filled up for the rest of the year. Wouldn’t you like to be booked entirely for the rest of the year?
She’s become so busy that she’s in the process of hiring another designer to help with the workload. How is this possible? Is it because she’s terrific at marketing her services? That may be part of it. But her marketing message alone isn’t what’s bringing in so many new clients. It’s who she’s marketing to.
First Nations people, just like everyone else, need help when it comes to design and branding. And when given a choice, they are more likely to choose someone like them who is a member of a First Nation. Someone who understands their culture doesn’t need to be educated on what works and what doesn’t for them.
In other words, it means they are comfortable working with her because she understands them. And this makes it easy for them to choose her over another designer who isn’t a member of a First Nation.
Perhaps you can apply a similar strategy. Are you Hispanic, Asian, or a person of colour? Have you ever thought of marketing yourself to people of the same ethnic background? It may give you an advantage over others in your field as clients may prefer you over someone who isn’t of the same ethnicity as them. It’s worth a try.
There has never been so much discussion over gender and orientation as there is today. And that’s a good thing. The more we talk about it, the more it will become accepted. And when it comes to your business, your gender and orientation could be an excellent opportunity for you to attract clients.
If you are part of the LGBTQ community, you have an advantage over those of us who aren’t. Like-minded people prefer to deal with like-minded people. It makes them feel safe and understood. And it’s no different when it comes to business.
I know it’s not design-related, but I recently heard of a podcast editing company that only deals with LGBTQ clients. They’ve created a place where LGBTQ podcasters can feel safe and unjudged for the podcasts they make.
The same concept can be applied to a design business. An LGBTQ entrepreneur may feel more comfortable working with a designer from the same community. The manager at the print shop I used to work at is gay. And I know we had many LGBTQ clients because they felt comfortable dealing with him.
And when we talk about gender, it could be as simple as a female designer opting to work with women-led businesses. I’ve heard of several designers who do just this. They only work with companies that are run by other women. And they have plenty of work to keep them busy.
But what if you’re someone who can’t embrace your culture or heritage, or your particular gender or orientation doesn’t help? Then maybe you want to look at niching. Choosing a niche makes you different than other designers who don’t specialize.
Take Craig Burton, for example. I interviewed him back in episode 174 of the Resourceful Designer podcast. Craig’s design company is called School Branding Matters. And you guessed it; he designs brands for schools. That’s what makes Craig different. That’s what makes him stand out. And it’s helped him land clients around the globe. Not bad for a solo graphic designer from New Zealand.
But any time a school needs new branding searches for a designer, there’s a good chance they come across Craig’s website. And when given a choice between a generic designer and one who specializes in school branding. The choice is pretty simple. After all, chances are they won’t have to explain to Craig the intricacies of the school ecosystem and how a brand would be incorporated.
Are there other ways to make yourself stand out from other similar designers? Sure there are. Take Ian Paget, for example. You may know him as Logo Geek. He’s a logo designer from Manchester, the UK and has a popular podcast of the same name as his business, Logo Geek.
Ian specializes in Logo Design, but so do a lot of designers. So how does he stand out? I just mentioned he has a logo design podcast. So that gives him some authority in the space. Ian has also judged logo design competitions. And he’s written articles about logo design for some well-established publications.
All of this gives Ian credibility and has earned him some prestigious clients. He’s been hired to design logos for universities, big corporations, large conferences, etc. His credentials differentiate him from all the other logo designers around. So he uses it to his advantage. And it’s working.
Finally, I want to mention that you don’t have to do much to be different. The things I just talked about are significant steps. But there are little things you can do to set yourself apart.
Take me as an example. As you may know, a few years ago, I started a second design business called Podcast Branding, which specializes in podcast cover artwork and websites for podcasters.
Other businesses in this niche specialize in podcast cover artwork beside me. Even though I know I’m priced higher than most of my direct competition; I have a thriving business.
So what did I do to make myself different?
For one, I established that not only am I a designer, but I’m also a podcaster. I’ve been podcasting since 2013, and that lays a strong foundation for my credibility in the space. I get podcasting. Any designer can design a square piece of art. But the fact that I’m familiar with the podcast industry helps me stand out.
The other thing I do that makes me unique is offer a one-on-one meeting with every client. Most of my competitors provide a questionnaire for clients to fill out. They then take the client’s information and design a podcast cover.
On the other hand, I get on a Zoom call with every client to discuss their podcast. I ask why they’re starting a podcast. What do they hope to accomplish with it? What format will it be? Will it be just them, or will they have a co-host? Will they interview guests?
I find out everything I can about their new show. I do this for two reasons. I need to know about the show if I’m going to design artwork for it. And I want to get a feel for who the podcaster is. Their personality will affect what I create for them. If a person is very serious and formal, I may design their cover one way. However, if they come across as joyful and bubbly, I’ll probably create it differently.
These 15-minute meetings make a massive difference to me. And I’ve been told over and over it’s the reason why a client chose me over someone else. Even when I’m the more expensive option, they felt my way of doing things is more personal than a questionnaire.
We all know that finding new clients can be difficult, especially when you’re just starting. We also know that word of mouth is the most common way designers get new clients. I talked about this in length in episode 281 of the podcast.
Word of mouth spreads quickest among like-minded people. Why is that indigenous member of the Resourceful Designer Community doing so well? It’s because indigenous people talk to other indigenous people, and when she does a good job with one, the word spreads.
The same applies in all communities, whether it’s an Asian or coloured community, an LGBTQ community or even a school or podcaster community. Like-minded people talk to like-minded people. And when you do a good job helping one of them, they’ll spread the word. Especially if they know you specialize in people of that community.
So what’s unique about you. What can you do to make yourself stand out from the competition? What can you do differently that will make clients choose you?
Figuring the answers to these questions can mean the difference between looking for your next client and being completely booked for the rest of the year.
Worth thinking about, isn’t it?
It’s so easy to get caught up in what we do, be that logo design, vehicle wraps, websites, trade show booths; you name it. We forget that our clients don’t live in the same world as we do. Our clients don’t see the world through a designer’s eye.
When they look at a billboard, they see the message. When a designer looks at a billboard, not only do we take in the content and message. But we also take in the layout, the hierarchy, the use of negative space and the colour pallet. We note what fonts are used and what imagery they chose to relay their message.
When we see something that isn’t kerned correctly, we feel the need to point it out.
We feel almost obliged to mention every stock image we recognize out in the wild. "See that photo of that happy family in that car insurance ad? I saw that exact photo on Depositphotos."
And we stop to admire displays, posters, cards and everything else we think is well designed. After all, when you see something that you feel is well designed, don’t you secretly start cataloging pieces of it away in your mind so you can “borrow” the idea for something you create in the future?
As designers, our brains are just wired that way. We see the world through a designer’s eye. But sometimes, we forget that non-designers don’t see the world the way we do.
My wife has perfected the eye roll she uses whenever I start talking design about something I see. Sometimes she’ll feign interest, but I know that she doesn’t care that the line spacing on the restaurant’s menu is too tight. She just doesn’t get it because she’s not a designer.
But neither are our clients. That’s why they hire us for their projects. And sometimes, it’s easy to forget that they don’t have the same knowledge as us, nor the same interests. And they view the world through a different set of lenses than we do.
That’s why it’s a good idea that before you say or present anything to a client, you try to consider it from their point of view.
Case in point. A designer shared an intro packet PDF in a design group I belong to, asking for advice. The PDF is to give prospective website clients to explain what a CMS is, a Content Management System.
She went into great detail, outlining everything there is to know about CMSs. I how thorough she was. However, I and several others pointed out that it wasn’t suitable for clients.
She explained how databases work, with columns and rows and entry IDs. and how you can edit a database directly with tools such as phpMyAdmin. Then she explained how she builds a custom portal for each client that allows them to easily add, delete, and edit posts in the database.
And finally, she explained how the items in the database end up displaying on the web page. She even showed examples of the PHP code required to make it all happen.
Nothing was wrong with anything she presented, except that most of them are redundant to clients.
A client doesn’t need to know how databases work or how the info from the database ends up on a web page. All the client needs to know is their website will have a CMS with an easy-to-use interface allowing them to add, delete and edit the content of their site.
Remember, these are perspective clients. Meaning they haven’t committed to working with you yet. You don’t want to scare them away before they’ve had a chance to work with you. Donald Miller, the author of Building a StoryBrand, said it best. “If you confuse, you’ll lose.”
Let’s say you specialize in logo design, and you showcase your three-step process on your website.
Step 1) I start with a meeting. I have a list of over 50 questions I ask you, covering everything from how your company got started, to your mission, to where you see the future going. This allows me to get to know you and your business.
Step 2) I take the answers you gave me and start the research process. I take a close look at what your immediate competition is doing. I examine your industry as a whole to determine if there are any trends we may want to follow. I may conduct focus groups to learn more about what your clients think of you.
I then gather all this information and begin the concept stage, where I brainstorm and develop several different ideas.
I then narrow it down to the most promising ones and fine-tune them until I’m satisfied.
Step 3) I present you with the best ideas. If required, we then enter the revision process, where you are allowed three sets of revisions to tweak your logo until you are satisfied.
Once done, I’ll create a brand guide that outlines the rules for using your new logo and supply everything you’ll need in various file formats.
This shows a comprehensive process. And a designer may think this is perfect for showing the client why they’re worth the price they’re charging. However, it may have an adverse effect from a client’s point of view. "50 questions? I just want a logo for my new business. Why does it have to be so complicated? Maybe I should find another designer."
Imagine a client’s perspective if they saw this on your website.
Here is my three-step process.
Step 1) I take the time to get to know you and your business.
Step 2) This is where the magic happens as I develop the perfect logo for your business.
Step 3) I present you with the best concepts for you to choose from. Don’t worry. You’ll be allowed to suggest minor adjustments to tweak the logo until you’re 100$ satisfied.
Now, this a client can understand. All the other information is redundant or can be relayed once the person becomes an actual client.
If you are not using mockups in your presentation, you are doing yourself and your clients a disservice. I can tell you from experience that mockups make a massive difference in a client’s decision-making process.
Many clients are not visual thinkers like designers are. Their creativity isn’t honed like ours to imagine how things will look in different situations. A logo presented on a white background doesn’t have the same effect as a logo shown on a storefront, a shirt or a vehicle.
A tri-fold brochure displayed flat may look good. But it doesn’t have the same oomph as a mockup showing what it looks like when partially folded.
I’ve had several clients over the years tell me they were hesitant about a logo design I presented until they saw the mockups. Once they saw the logo “in action,” they saw its full potential. That’s because clients often can’t picture it on their own. Asking them to imagine the logo on the side of a delivery van is nowhere near the same as showing them the logo on a delivery van.
When you prepare your presentations, thinking like a client can help you close more deals.
You know the way you can sometimes tell when a person isn’t sure of themself. It’s offputting. Try to think about how you come across when dealing with clients. From the client's point of view, do you show confidence?
Think about it. As you’re pitching yourself to a potential client, They’re looking at you and considering whether or not you’re someone they want to work with. And that decision may have nothing to do with your actual pitch. From the client’s point of view, they want to see someone who shows confidence in themself and their ability to do the work.
You want every encounter with a potential client to end with the prospect thinking, “This is someone I want to work with.”
Once again, thinking from a client’s point of view. Are your prices too high or too low? Is a client willing to invest in you? There’s no right or wrong answer regarding how you price yourself. It comes down to the type of client you want to work with.
Think of it this way. Let’s say you’re in the mood to go out for a steak dinner. You can find a restaurant that serves a $20 steak. Or, you can go somewhere else and get a $200 steak. What’s the difference? The difference is how much you’re willing to spend on a steak.
People who opt for the $20 steak might never consider spending $200 for a similar meal. However, some people regularly go out for $200 steaks and would never consider a $20 cut of meat.
Now for all we know, both steaks came from the same cow. But that’s beside the point. The person who opts to spend $20 on a steak and the person who opts to pay $200 have two different mindsets. Neither is right or wrong in their decision. It’s just the way they are.
The same thing applies to design clients. Thinking again from their perspective. Most clients who consider Fiverr a good place to get designs made would probably never consider paying thousands of dollars for a freelancer. And there are just as many clients who are willing to spend thousands of dollars which would never consider ordering from a cheap designer.
So who are you marketing to? Do you want low-paying clients to say you’re their person? Or do you want high-paying clients to think you’re the perfect designer for them? Figure that out, and then target yourself to go after that group of clients. In this case, thinking like a client can help you land the clients you want.
I could go on and on about how thinking like a client can benefit you. But I think you get the idea. Most clients are not designers. They don’t think like designers, nor do they see the world around us the same way designers do. Don’t let that become a gap between you and them.
Before everything you do, ask yourself, “How would a client experience this?” And if you’re successful at doing this. There’s no reason why your design business shouldn’t be successful either.
Ask any designer, and they’ll tell you that their number one way of landing new design clients is through word-of-mouth referrals.
If you do an excellent job on a client’s project, there’s a good chance they’ll pass your name along should they hear of someone requiring services you offer. I’ve built my entire business on this model. And chances are, so have you.
But does that mean you should only rely on word-of-mouth referrals? No, it doesn’t.
Are you familiar with the term diversify? In short, it means “using different options.” Such as “you should diversify your investments,” meaning you should have multiple investments. If one of them isn’t doing well, your other assets can help make up for it.
Diversification can also apply to your income stream. If all your work comes from one client, and that client suddenly has financial difficulty and stops sending work your way, you’ll be in trouble. That’s why it’s best to have multiple clients. If one stops sending you projects, you can still make a living from the rest.
But I want to talk about diversity concerning how you obtain new clients. As I said, word-of-mouth is the most popular method in our field. But word-of-mouth has limits. That’s why you shouldn’t rely solely on it for your clients.
Imagine a tree. The tree trunk s one client. You design a project for this one client. They may refer someone else to you via word-of-mouth if they like what you did. That someone else is now a limb on that tree.
Again, you do a good job, and that someone else, the limb, tells another person about you. That new person becomes a branch on your tree, and so on. Every limb and every branch can trace itself back to the trunk, the first client.
Now you have a big tree of clients, all somehow connected back to that initial client. And that’s great. But there’s more than one tree in a forest. This means many people could use your services but have zero connection to anyone in your tree of clients. And if they have zero connection to your existing clients, they’ll never hear about you through word-of-mouth. That’s why you should diversify how or where you find clients. Because every client you land that isn’t connected to your other clients starts a new tree for you.
Now there are many resources available on how to find clients. Searching the phrase “How to find graphic design clients” will produce more than 247,000,000 results. Have fun reading through all of them.
But today, I want to share six unconventional ways you can find design clients.
And just a note, I’ve successfully landed new clients using 5 out of 6 of these methods. And it’s not because one didn’t work. I just never tried it myself, but I know others who have. Also, note that some of these methods may require a small investment.
So let’s get started.
Leaving your business card in a book is a great way to introduce yourself to someone who may not know you.
Look at your local library or book store for books on starting a business and insert your business card. If there happens to be a chapter on branding or marketing, place your card there. Should someone read the book, they’ll come across your card at the point in the book where they’re learning about the type of services you offer.
This method worked for me recently. A client contacted me saying, “I found your business card in a book I bought.”
BTW, you could leave a business card as I did. Or, if you want to get more creative, you can have a special card made for just this purpose. Imagine someone reading a “How to start a business" book and coming across a card that reads, “Are you thinking of starting a business? I would love to help you with your website.”
As I mentioned above, some of these methods require an investment on your part. This one isn’t financial. It’s time.
We all know that networking is one of the best ways to become known for what you offer. After all, if someone doesn’t know about you, there’s very little chance they’ll hire you.
But networking doesn’t have to be just at conferences or special events. You could join a local board of directors or a committee for an organization.
What’s good about this is you’re not just meeting people once. You regularly interact with people when you’re on a board or committee. This gives them a chance to get to know you. These relationships make it very easy for someone to consider you when they need a designer.
Don’t do this with the mindset of landing clients. If you're going to invest your time, it should be with an organization you believe in, even if it doesn't produce any clients.
I’ve talked before about how when I first started my business. I had a T-shirt made with the message “Hi, I'm a website designer. Is your site working for you?” on the back. I wore this shirt to local events and trade shows. It landed me several new clients.
But wearing a T-shirt advertising your services isn’t what I wanted to talk about today. Over the years, I’ve designed T-shirts for various organizations, events and festivals in our area.
Not only do I design the image for the shirts, but I broker the screen printing as well.
Whenever I give a client a quote for a T-shirt project, I offer them two prices. A regular price and a discounted price if they allow me to put my name and logo on the back of the shirt.
If it’s for an event and they want a list of sponsors on the back, I’ll ask to have my name and logo on the sleeve instead. Most clients jump at this opportunity to save money. And since I’m brokering the deal, I make sure I’m still making a profit either way.
I’ve had my name and logo on shirts for sporting events, festivals, concerts, charity events, etc. Each of them is an opportunity for someone to find out about my business. And over the years, it's brought in new clients.
Another option to get your name out there is sponsoring your kid’s activities. If you don’t have kids, you can still reach out to local youth groups or leagues and inquire if you can help them.
Growing up, my daughter played competitive soccer and volleyball and danced on a competitive dance team. I found a way to advertise my business with each organization.
For soccer and volleyball, I approached the teams with a fundraiser idea. I created a T-shirt not for the athletes but for the parents, grandparents, friends and siblings who watch the game from the sidelines. I designed a graphic with the team name and “Sideline Support” on the front. On the back, I put my business info.
My daughter's team sold the shirts to family and friends of every team in the league. And all proceeds went to my daughter’s team.
For the dance team, my daughter was on. I offered to design their yearly dance recital t-shirt in exchange for a full-page ad in the recital program. I’ve had several clients discover me through that ad.
Another way to get your name out there is simply by putting your information on your vehicle. Vinyl letters, a wrap or even a car magnet, create a moving billboard advertising your services.
This is the method I haven’t tried myself. But I know a few designers who have their business information on their vehicles, and they’ve told me it brings in many leads.
You’ll get to work on projects that involve ads from time to time. Maybe you’re asked to design a magazine. Or a program for a local event. It might be a sponsor board or a t-shirt with sponsor logos. Maybe a website client wants you to incorporate space for ads on their new site.
Whatever the project is, always ask for one ad spot to be reserved for you as part of the proposal. If it's a sponsor board, request to include your logo as a sponsor. Try to have your ad or logo on everything you can whenever possible.
Word-of-mouth is, and will always remain, the best way for you to land new design clients. But it shouldn’t be your only way. Try as many of these unconventional ways to land design clients as you can. Who knows what will happen. After all, people aren’t going to hire you if they don’t know who you are.
The more you diversify how you find clients, the more trees you'll have in your forest.
Let me ask you something. How confident would you be buying a meal from a food truck that is so rusted and smoke-stained that you can’t make out its name on the side? Or how confident would you be staying at a motel where the paint was peeling off the doors, siding was missing on the building, and duct tape held the cracked windows together? Or how confident would you be buying a car from an auto dealer whose windows were so dirty you couldn’t see through them and whose sign was missing a couple of letters?
I bet your confidence wouldn’t be very high in those situations.
How do you think a client would feel if they came across a website that contains errors while looking for a designer? I bet they wouldn’t feel too confident in hiring that person. That’s what I want to talk about today, making sure your messaging doesn’t contain errors.
Let me give you a bit of background here. I decided to talk about this today because someone sent me a message earlier this week.
Now, if you’ve ever contacted me for whatever reason, there’s a good chance I looked at your website. It’s just something I do. Any time someone emails me or contacts me on social media, I’ll try to find their website to see how they present themself.
So, someone sent me a message earlier this week, and when I found their website, the first thing I saw was a spelling mistake. The very first line of the website was “I Designs Websites.”
Other places on the website included passages that lead me to believe this person is not a native English speaker. But I’ll touch more on that later.
And even though it was a beautifully designed website, and this person had a fantastic portfolio, those spelling and grammar mistakes made me question the quality of this person’s work.
Now imagine I was a client looking for someone to build a website for my new business. Those errors may be enough to make me second guess this person and move on to another web designer.
But it’s not just spelling or grammatical errors that can hinder your chance of landing clients.
Another section of this same website described their services and how they work. They mention that the first thing they do is build a wireframe to show the client before making their website using WordPress. Elsewhere on the site, it said their web hosting includes a CDN. You probably understand what I just said if you're familiar with websites.
Imagine a client with no knowledge of websites other than knowing their business needs one. “Wireframe,” “WordPress,” and “CDN” don’t mean anything to them. Reading these things may cause them more confusion, which may make them look elsewhere for a web designer.
I talked about Jargon in episode 217 of the podcast. Jargon is common terminology in specific industries but maybe not so common outside of them.
I’m a web designer, and I remember wondering what wireframes were the first time I heard someone use that term. It wasn’t until I understood what a wireframe was that the word became part of my vocabulary.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use these jargon terms in your communication. But if you do, you should add some clarity for anyone unfamiliar with them.
“We start by building a wireframe, a mockup layout of your website for you to approve before we start building the real thing in WordPress, a popular website platform, powering over 60% of the world’s websites.”
“Our web hosting includes a CDN, a content delivery network that improves the efficiency and speed of your website and helps you rank higher in search engines.”
Even if a client doesn’t recognize the jargon, they can still understand what you’re saying because of the descriptions.
As designers, people think our job is to make things look good. And in part, it is. But more importantly, a designer’s job is to ensure a message is told clearly and understandably.
Design is about communication. And if the communicated message is confusing, then the person, company or organization behind that message will appear less competent.
The first suggestion I have is simple. Spell and grammar check your work. A spell and grammar checker can help eliminate most problems, but only to an extent. They can identify misspelled words but are not as good at finding incorrect or better words. For that, I use a tool called Grammarly.
I’ve been using Grammarly for years. Not only does it find spelling and grammar errors, but it helps improve my writing by suggesting alternatives. It helps me be a better writer by making me sound better. It’s well worth the small price.
I read a report that said there were more errors per capita in newspaper headlines than in the body copy. It said that, on average, there was one error for every 1000 words of body copy compared to four errors for every 1000 words of headline copy.
Most people don’t read headlines; they skim them—even the proofreaders whose job it is to find errors.
The other thing about spell checkers is they won’t help you identify jargon. For that, you need to have someone else read over your text and tell you if there are problem areas.
We do this all the time in the Resourceful Designer Community. People share their work, and others point out any problem areas they detect. Then the designer can choose whether or not to make a change.
Having someone else read your work is especially important for anyone where English isn’t their first language. This is probably the case with the website I looked at this week. The person wrote the copy themself to the best of their ability, but the fact that they are not native English speakers is evident. And this may turn away potential clients.
The more precise and accurate your writing, the more professional you’ll sound, and the more willing clients will be to work with you.
And it goes beyond just language. Regional dialects also come into play. For example, if you’re targetting clients in North America, you may say something such as. “I design custom logos.” However, if you’re targetting clients in Europe, you may want to write “I design bespoke logos.” Both words mean the same thing, but “Custom” is more common in North America, whereas “Bespoke” is used more often in European countries.
Colour is another example. You’re going to spell it c-o-l-o-r if you're talking to Americans and c-o-l-o-u-r for most other parts of the world.
I’m in Canada. And any time I’m looking for a printer or supplier, I’ll take note of the spelling on their website. If I see "color," I’ll know it’s an American company, and I may continue my search to find someone in Canada.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. And if you fail at that first chance because of poor writing, there’s not much you can do to regain someone’s trust. So I suggest you take some time and closely go over your website and other marketing material. Or have someone else do it for you. Identify any problem areas or areas that could be improved and make changes.
The better you sound, the more professional you’ll appear, and the better the chances are that a potential client will hire you. Don’t lose out because of poor writing.
The local tourism board where I live, a client of mine, in partnership with one of the local newspapers, produces a 72-page visitor guide every year for people visiting the area. The tourism director hired me to design a countertop display stand for these guides that they will place in various stores and businesses in the region.
These visitor guides are an odd size. So I started researching companies that produce custom cardboard countertop display stands. And let me tell you, I was super impressed with one company I contacted.
While browsing their website to see if they offer what I need, a chat bubble popped up saying, “Hi, I’m Frank. I’m available right now if you need to chat about anything.” I took Frank up on his offer and asked what my best option was for the display stand I needed. He replied by requesting my phone number and asking if it was ok for him to call me, as it would be easier to discuss my needs over the phone. I agreed, and I was on the phone with him a minute later.
Frank listened to what I needed, made a few suggestions and said he would email me a price by the end of the day. In my opinion, Frank and his company went above and beyond to impress me, a potential new client.
But it didn’t end there. Within a couple of minutes of hanging up the phone, I received a welcome email from Frank thanking me for agreeing to talk to him. In the email, he briefly outlined what we had discussed. And he attached an intro packet outlining the company for me to read. This intro packet upped my impression of the company tenfold.
A couple of hours later, I received another phone call from Frank. He tells me he just emailed me the quote and asked if I have time to go over it with him.
At this point, I felt like royalty. I was so impressed with the way they were treating me. I had never heard of this company before, and now I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about them.
Frank walked me through the various charges involved with my project, such as the price for a custom die, among other things. But when we finally reached the cost per unit, it was higher than I had hoped. Not overly so, but still more than I wanted to pay for them.
When he asked me what I thought, I hesitated for a moment. And that’s when Frank goofed up.
Before I get to what Frank said, I want to emphasize the importance of excellent customer service and how it affects you and your design business.
You may think of yourself as a designer, but designing is a small portion of what you do if you’re running your own design business. And it might not even be the most critical portion.
If you’re working for yourself, your most important skill is the ability to sell yourself.
Running your own design business requires you to be a good salesperson. Every client who agrees to work with you does so because you successfully sold them on you and your ability to do the job. They agreed to your price, had confidence in your skills, and trusted you to complete their project because you sold them on these things.
This ability to sell goes way beyond the monetary aspect and is part of every interaction you have. It’s what makes people like and what to work with you. Sometimes, even despite the price. If you lack this ability to sell yourself, you will be hard-pressed to find clients.
I’ve said it many times before. Clients would prefer to work with a good designer they like, then work with an amazing designer they don’t like. And it all comes down to your ability to sell yourself.
Anyway, back to Frank. So as I said, the price per unit he quoted me was a bit higher than I hoped. And Frank sensed my hesitancy. And what he said next changed my impression of this company.
When Frank sensed my hesitation, he told me, “Don’t worry. All prices are negotiable.” And at that point, the pedestal I had placed this company on crumbled.
Frank had presented me with a reasonable price for what I needed, although higher than expected. But now he was telling me that price was negotiable. In other words, he was admitting that his company could do the job for less.
So I asked him about it. My response was something like, “Are you telling me that the price you’re showing me is not the best price you could have given me for this job? That you inflated your quote hoping that I would be gullible enough to agree to it?”
Frank quickly went on the defensive, saying no, this is how much the job costs. However, if I wanted to negotiate, he would hear me out.
I replied, “You’re telling me that you would consider lowering the cost if I negotiated with you. That tells me that this price isn’t really what this job costs and that you could easily do it for less. Otherwise, why tell me the price is negotiable? And even if you agree to take 5, 10 or 15 percent off the price, I will still wonder if you’re conning me, and I could have gotten it for even less.”
At this point, I thanked Frank for the quote, told him I would get back to him if I had any questions and then ended the call. All the fantastic work this company did to win me over as a client went down the drain.
You may be wondering, what’s the big deal? People negotiate prices all the time. This is true. In fact, I love haggling over prices. It’s a skill I learned from my mother, and it drives my wife crazy when I ask for a discount or rebate from anyone.
The way I see it is there’s no harm in asking for a lower price. If they say no, I can still purchase whatever it is at the displayed price. And if they agree, I feel good about my actions because I got a better deal.
But this situation is different. I wouldn’t be upset if I were the one who had asked if the prices were negotiable and Frank had said yes. But the fact that he presented me with the price and immediately told me they were negotiable means he didn’t have my best interest in mind. Frank was trying to get the most out of me he could. And when I showed hesitation on the price, he tried to save the sale by offering to negotiate. This company that I thought was so amazing now makes me wonder if I should consider working with them.
But what does all of this have to do with you and your design business?
You don’t want people to think you’re taking advantage of them. But any time you offer a discount or agree to lower a price, that’s precisely what you are doing.
If you lower your price just one time, that client will forever question any future price you give them. They’ll always wonder if you’re trying to take advantage of them. And even if you provide them with another discount in the future, they’ll wonder if it’s the best discount, or could you have offered more?
Think about anything you’ve ever bought on sale. In your mind, if you purchase a $399 item on sale for $249, is it worth the sale price you paid for it or is it worth the original price? Most people feel the sale price is its actual value.
You never want your clients to think your services are not worth as much as you charge because you offered a discount.
Let’s use hourly rates, for example. If you usually charge $100/hr and offer a client a discount of $70 per hour. They’ll feel resentful should you ever charge them your standard rate in the future because they’ll know you can do it for less.
This is not to say that you should never offer discounts. There are times when lowering your prices is in your best interest.
Pro-bono work is an obvious example. Offering free or discounted work for a charity or non-profit you believe in doesn’t diminish your perceived value. I highly suggest you invoice the charity for your services showing the total price with an applied 100% discount.
Or better yet, and this is what I do, I charge the charity the total price for the project. And agree to donate the entire amount back to them after they’ve paid. This way, they get to claim the project as a business expense since they’re paying for the work, and you get a tax receipt for the donation you make back to them.
An added benefit of invoicing for your charity work is that should staff at the charity change; any future person will know the value of what you provided them because of the invoice.
Friends and family are also acceptable recipients of discounts. Doing something for a friend at a discounted rate or even for free shows them you care. Again, let them know the total price and that you’re discounting it.
My rule of thumb for family and friends is to offer more significant discounts for personal work. Offer smaller discounts for businesses they own. And no discount for companies they work for or if they own it with a partner. I don’t mind cutting a deal for someone I care about, but there’s no reason for collateral people to get a discount because of them.
And, of course, discounts are a significant selling factor with retainer agreements, where you presell your time or deliverables at a discounted rate in exchange for guaranteed monthly income.
Other than these three scenarios, charity work, friends and family and retainers. There’s no reason for you to offer a discount.
What do you do in a situation where a client questions your prices or asks if they can get a discount? This scenario is bound to happen to you at some point. You give a client a fee, and they ask if there’s any way you can do the job for less?
First things first, your price is never wrong. You chose whatever price you presented because you believe that’s how much the project is worth. If you thought to yourself, “there’s no way anyone would pay this much.” you would never present that price. So stick to it. Tell the client you’re sorry they feel that way, but that’s the price for what they’re asking of you.
However, if you think you may lose the client, offer to negotiate. Never on price. Instead, negotiate the scope of the project.
Offer to cut out parts of the project to lower their cost. On a website, for example, Instead of every offered service having a landing page, offer to create one “Services” page that lists everything they do. This makes less work for you and can shave off a bit of the price.
If it’s a printed booklet you’re designing, You could suggest they reduce the number of pages to bring the price down on both design and printing. Or suggest they have it saddle-stitched instead of perfect bound.
Anything you can do to reduce the scope of a project will, in turn, lower the price, which may help the client with their decision. And, it doesn’t compromise the value you bring to them.
By showing clients how much they can save by eliminating options, they learn the value of those options and feel less conflicted about paying for them.
My personal experience is that most of the time, the client will appreciate the effort but decide to stick to the full scope at the price you originally quoted.
Think of it in terms of buying a new car. How would you feel if the dealer said they could offer you the same make and model vehicle at a lower price, but it won’t have air conditioning? The original price won’t seem as bad anymore if you want air conditioning.
So allow your client to lower the price by reducing options on their project. If they accept the lower price, you’re still getting paid for your work at the price you deserve. And if you’re lucky, they’ll decide they don’t want to lose those options and choose to pay your original cost to keep them.
For projects such as logo design, where you can’t reduce the project’s scope, I suggest using the three-tiered pricing system. Offering three different price options, each with an expanded scope gives clients a choice and minimizes their chances of going elsewhere.
I must point out that you have to be prepared to lose clients. There’s always the possibility that the client doesn’t like your price, and instead of asking for ways to lower it, they decide to go elsewhere. And you know what, that’s ok. Any client that doesn’t see the value in what you do isn’t worth having as a client.
Again, think of cars. Many people buy Toyota Corollas, while others prefer to drive a Mercedes-Benz. Some design clients can afford your services, while many can’t. It’s up to you to focus your energy on those who can.
If a client ever tells you your price is too expensive, you may want to respond like this.
“I’m sorry you feel that way. I understand that for some people my prices may seem high. But I assure you, I charge what I’m worth, and I have many repeat clients who are very happy paying for the services I provide them.
I know, that hiring a designer is a big investment. And not everyone can afford my prices. No hard feelings if you would prefer to find a less expensive designer.”
You’d be surprised when you answer in this manner how many people will decide to work with you anyway.
All of this to say, your prices are non-negotiable. You deserve every cent you charge and more. So never compromise your principles or values just because a client is hesitant about the price you present them. It’s your business, after all, and you know what you’re worth much more than they do.
I had a conversation recently with fellow designers over how we refer to ourselves. This conversation started when one designer asked another why they referred to themselves as a freelancer? We then talked about the impression and stereotypes associated with the word freelancer. In the end, the designer acknowledged that it was in their best interest not to use the term freelancer anymore when referring to themself. And it would be best if you did the same. Stop calling yourself a freelancer.
There’s a stigma associated with the term Freelance or Freelancer. In episode 17 of the Resourceful Designer podcast, I discussed how calling yourself a freelance graphic designer could hurt your business. I shared a story of when a company approached me for an in-house position. I turned them down, but I shared the name of a designer I knew would be perfect for the job.
The company’s CEO later told me the designer I told them about had all the right qualifications. However, The title she used on her resume was Freelance Graphic Designer, and they were looking for someone more serious than that for the position.
She didn’t get the job because she listed herself as a freelancer. I know it’s crazy, but it’s true.
You see, the term freelancer is popular among designers. When I was in school, my classmates and I talked about how great it would be to be a freelancer. But outside of our sphere of peers in the design industry, the term freelancer is not as familiar. Or maybe I should say it’s not as “prestigious” as we like to think it is.
The term freelancer is akin to being quick and cheap, which reminds me of episode 71 of the podcast Good Design, Quick Design, Cheap Design. Pick Two. For many business people, freelancers are people you hire if you want something done fast and for a reasonable price, not necessarily if you want something designed well.
For this reason, I tell designers who work for themselves to stop calling themselves freelance designers and instead say they run a design business. Even if you only do it as a side gig.
In an article titled Stop Calling Yourself A Freelancer, author Andrew Holliday says that a company commands more respect than freelancers. And that freelancers are perceived as commodities. Meaning they’re interchangeable.
If you need a quick design job, hire a freelancer. In the future should you require more design work, you could hire the same freelancer, or you can hire someone else. It doesn’t matter because freelancers are interchangeable. Anyone will do. And usually, the cheaper, the better.
Hiring a freelancer is kind of like purchasing fuel for your vehicle. You know that all gas or petrol stations are basically the same, so you pick and choose where to fill up based on price. That’s how many business owners perceive freelancers–as commodities.
However, if you want a partner to help you develop your brand and marketing assets, someone you can work with long-term, then hire a design company, even if that design company is just one person.
Holliday made another interesting point in his article that freelancers often fight for hourly work. Whereas companies typically get paid by the project. And therefore, your earning potential is much higher if you refer to yourself as a business owner and not a freelancer.
But don’t take his or my word on it. Earlier this week, I posted a poll in a large entrepreneur community where I’m a member. It’s a community made up mostly of solopreneurs to mid-size business owners. In other words, the type of people you want as design clients.
Here’s what I asked.
I know. It’s a trick question since both answers are the same, but I wanted to see what people would say.
Two hundred four people responded. 176 (86%) chose A: A graphic designer who runs their own design business. Compared to only 28 (14%) who chose B: A freelance graphic designer.
What’s even more interesting are the comments on my poll.
Aren’t they the same thing? But if I had to choose I would pick A. It sounds more professional.
I would hire a freelance graphic designer. I’m just starting out and don’t have a large budget and option A sounds more expensive to me.
If I knew exactly what I wanted and just needed someone to implement it for me I would choose B. If I needed someone to help me develop new ideas I would choose A.
Isn’t hiring a freelancer kind of like hiring an employee who doesn’t actually work for you, so it’s less paperwork?
I think the difference between the two is confidence and trust. I could trust that a design business owner is competent and knows what they are doing because they took the time to start a business. I know they’ll be around for a long time should I need them again in the future. I wouldn’t feel the same way about hiring a freelance graphic designer.
I have a background in design, and I choose A. Most freelancers I know are only doing it until they can find a full-time job.
And there were many other comments just like these. And they all came to a similar conclusion. If you want someone cheap, someone you can tell what to do, and you’re not interested in building a working relationship with them, then hire a freelancer.
However, if you want someone knowledgeable, someone who can help you solve the problems you’re facing, and someone reliable who will be around for a long time, hire a designer who runs a design business.
I think these people make my point for me. Stop calling yourself a freelancer.
Let me simplify it by creating another distinction between a design business owner and a freelancer.
If the projects you work on are for someone other than the person or company paying you, you are freelancing.
For example, if an agency contracts you to work on projects for the agency’s clients, you are working as a freelancer. They may or may not have in-house designers, but they need to hire you to fulfill their commitment to their clients.
It doesn’t matter if you work directly with the client or deal with someone at the agency as a go-between. If the end client is not the one paying you, then there’s a good chance you’re freelancing.
However, if a client hires you to do work for them and pays you directly for your services, you are not freelancing. You are running a design business.
Take my Podcast Branding business, for example. Podcasters hire me to design their artwork and websites. That’s not freelancing since the client is paying me. But I’m also the designer for a large podcast agency. This agency sends their clients to me for their podcast artwork. In this case, I’m working as a freelancer for the agency since they pay me to create artwork for their clients.
Another thing to consider is if you charge fixed, project-based or value-based pricing, then you are running a design business. Since freelancers typically charge by the hour.
And finally, If you don’t plan on ever being employed or working for a boss. Then you are running a design business.
In the end, you can call yourself whatever you want. It’s your career, after all. But I hope I’ve given you something to ponder.
I know I was surprised by the response I got from the poll. I figured Design Business Owner would prevail over Freelance Designer, but I didn’t know by how much. And if those who responded are the people who represent our ideal design clients, then why not heed what they are saying.
Call yourself a freelancer if you want. But if you take yourself seriously and, more importantly, if you want others to take you seriously, then why not drop that moniker. Stop calling yourself a freelancer.
On Monday, when I sat down to start my week, I had an email in my inbox from a client giving me their approval to launch their new website. I anticipated this, and the site was live within an hour and a half.
Satisfied with another completed project, I opened Plutio, my project management software of choice, to see what I was to work on next. And what I found was nothing. I had no website projects. I had no podcast cover artwork to design. My to-do list of client work was blank.
I can’t remember the last time this happened. I didn’t even have proofs out with clients that may come back. I had nothing, nil, nada, zip, zilch and whatever other ways I could say it. I had no client work.
It’s now Friday afternoon as I write this, and not a single new project came in this week.
For the first time in over a year, an entire week went by without a single order from my Podcast Branding website. For the first time in an even longer period, I didn’t have a client website on the go.
Maybe it’s how the planets have aligned, or Lady Luck decided to take a vacation. I don’t know, but it happens. It just happened to me. And it can happen to you.
But experiencing a lull like this shouldn’t make you worry. I’ve been in this line of work for a long time, and I can tell you, lulls never last. Give it a little time, and once again, you’ll feel overwhelmed from having too much on your plate.
The best way to face lulls is by embracing them. Please take advantage of the time they provide you because it won’t last.
This past week was one of the most productive for me in a while. I had no client work to hold me back, allowing me to accomplish many things.
On Tuesday, my daughter asked if I could build her a website. She has an Etsy store but wants to move off that platform to one of her own. What she wanted was very simple. And there was no rush. She told me I could get to it whenever I had the time.
Well, guess what? I had the time. So I got right to it, and in a matter of hours, I had completed her new eCommerce website. I did say what she wanted was very simple. So it didn’t take long.
And the look on my daughter’s face when I showed it to her that same day was priceless. You got to win those parenting points whenever you can. Am I right?
But that wasn’t all.
I met with a client the week before this. They’re looking for a website redesign and expect a proposal from me.
I have a multi-page website proposal template, which makes submitting proposals very easy. I open the template, update the information about whatever project I’m proposing, save it as a PDF file and send it to the client. Easy peasy. I’ve been using this template for a few years now, and it was getting a bit dated. But I never had the time to update it until now.
It would typically take me 20 to 30 minutes to complete a proposal like this one. Instead, I devoted a couple of hours to redesigning my proposal template before sending it to the client. I’ve been thinking of redesigning it for a long time, and because of this lull, I was able to scratch it off my to-do list.
I also had the opportunity to look at my Podcast Branding website and make many minor changes. I changed some wording here and there and updated a few of the images on the site. I also decided to eliminate one service I wasn’t keen on doing anymore. And I added some clarification to the other services to increase conversion.
I closed many of the browser tabs I had opened by reading articles I was “saving for later” or watching tutorial videos for various things. And I didn’t feel guilty about any of it because I wasn’t taking time away from client work. After all, I didn’t have any.
And of course, I did take the time to reach out to several old clients that I haven’t heard from in a while, to get in touch and let them know I’m still here should they need me.
Every day this week, I worked from 9-5, and I wasted none of that time even though I had no client work. I didn’t feel self-pity or down in the dumps. Because I knew this lull wouldn’t last, and I wanted to take advantage of every minute of it.
We often put off working on our own business. And then we forget about it when we have a bit of time we could devote.
I usually say you should treat your own business as a client and block off time to work on it. But a lull is the perfect opportunity to get as much of it done as possible.
I would feel much worse if I didn’t have recurring revenue streams in this situation. In episode 216 of the podcast, I talked about offering website maintenance to earn extra income. This service provides peace of mind for my clients since they don’t have to worry about the security or maintenance of their websites. If they have a blog or podcast, all they have to do is publish new posts or episodes, and I do everything else.
I have a virtual assistant who handles the weekly maintenance for me, so other than checking in once per month; I only need to get involved when there’s an issue. And to be honest, that rarely happens, thanks to the many preventative measures I have in place. But this also means that even though I had no client work this week, money was still flowing into my bank account.
Retainers are another form of recurring revenue that could help you get through lulls. I don’t currently have any retainer clients, but it will help you get through slow times if you do. Check out episode 32 and episode 255 to learn more about retainer agreements.
Lulls will happen. In your early years, you may experience them more often. As your reputation grows and you gain more and more clients, you’ll experience fewer lulls. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never experience any. I hope you don’t. But that’s the reality of our industry–There’s no guarantee of steady work or income.
But in my opinion, that trade-off is worth it so that you and I can do what it is we love doing, designing.
So the next time things slow down, remember these five things.
Just because there’s no client work doesn’t mean you should stop working.
Don’t you hate that feeling when you can’t find what you’re looking for? It could be anything. You can’t find your wallet or your car keys. Have you misplaced your phone? Maybe it’s that scrap of paper you scribbled that critical information on that you can’t find.
Regardless of whatever it is you can’t locate, you’re left with an empty feeling inside—a feeling of unfulfillment.
A similar feeling occurs when you land on a website only to see those three words – No Results Found.
It’s so frustrating. Maybe you clicked a link in an article you were reading, anticipating a solution to a problem you’re facing, only to be disappointed by where it brought you. Perhaps you used the search field on a website hoping to find something only to come up short. Or it could happen while navigating a website, and you have no idea how you got there.
Regardless of the circumstances, you’ve landed on the dreaded 404 page. A page that mocks you with those three words – No Results Found. It might as well say - ha, ha, you lose, we don’t have what you’re looking for. It’s so frustrating.
Then what do you do? Do you go back and click the link again, hoping that you get better results this time around? Do you randomly start clicking around, hoping to stumble upon what you were looking for? Or, do you shrug your shoulders in defeat and close the page, or go looking elsewhere for your answer?
It doesn’t matter when or why. Landing on a No Results Found page is never fun unless the person who designed the website makes it fun for you.
The 404 page is something that every website in the world has, whether the site owner knows it or not. And it’s a page that’s landed on more often than you would think. And yet, very few websites take advantage of this “popular” page. And you should take advantage of it. Whether it’s your website or sites you create for your clients.
You may or may not know this, but you can customize the 404 page on a website. If you’re a Divi user, it’s as easy as creating a new page layout in the Divi theme builder and assigning it to the 404 page. That’s how I do it for the sites I build.
Other WordPress themes and builders, as well as platforms such as Squarespace Wix, Weebly, etc., should allow you to do so as well. If not, you can install plugins that will enable you to edit the 404 page.
But what’s the point, you may ask? The fact is, the default 404 page is a stepping-off point for some visitors. When someone arrives at the No Results Found page, it’s a signal for them to leave the site. And no website owner ever wants visitors to leave their site unsatisfied.
But if you customize the 404 page, you can improve visitor retention by giving them something to do other than leaving the page. And this goes for your website too. Do you want visitors to your site who happen to stumble upon your 404 page to leave? Of course, you don’t. So give them an incentive to stay.
Look at the Resourceful Designer 404 page, for example. I’ve designed the 404 page to capture visitors’ interest in the site.
Upon landing on the 404 page, the first thing they see is a whimsical “Oops” image. Followed by the heading: “Looks like someone forgot to proofread.” The paragraph below says, “The page you are looking for is nowhere to be found. Not to worry, there are plenty of other great pages for you to see. Here are some popular posts that may interest you.”
A list follows, showing three popular podcast episodes and three blog posts that may interest visitors to the site. I also ask them if they want a copy of my Four Week Marketing Boost and provide a way to acquire it.
So even though someone arrived on this page because the content they were looking for isn’t available, they still have something to engage with. And you know what? It works. I track where people sign up for my Four Week Marketing Boost, and many of them came from my 404 page.
I made it a bit simpler on my Podcast Branding website. The page shows an image of a man, seen from behind, scratching his head in confusion. The heading reads, “Uh oh!” followed by “I don’t think this is what you were looking for, was it? No worries, if you’re starting a podcast or you’re looking for help with your show’s visual branding, you’re in the right place, just not the right page. Why don’t you click this button to see how Podcast Branding can help you?” Then, a button labelled “LEARN MORE” takes them to the home page. It’s simple, and it works.
Do you get my point? You can make the 404-page look however you want. The point is to give visitors something to do instead of simply leaving the site.
I like to have fun with these pages by making them whimsical. I put a photo of an older woman holding her hand up to her ear on a hearing aid website as if she couldn’t hear. The heading reads, “Say that again, I didn’t quite catch it.” Followed by a search field.
On a tech and electronics site, I wrote, “It looks like we have a broken circuit.” and provided a few links visitors could click.
Visitors are already frustrated when they land on a 404 page since they’re not finding what they wanted, so why not inject a bit of fun and give them something to do.
If you don’t customize the 404 page on your or your client’s websites, you’re doing the site visitors a disservice. Create something that will engage them, and make them want to stay on the site. After all, isn’t that why you built the site in the first place?
Show it to us by leaving a link in the comments for this episode.
Wants and needs. What an interesting juxtaposition.
I want a new sword for my collection. But I don’t need another sword. I want a cheeseburger and poutine for supper. But I don’t need all that fat or those calories. I want enough money to do whatever I want in life. However, I only need to make enough money to cover my expenses.
Wants and needs. They govern a lot of our decisions, don’t they?
What about you and your design business? How do wants and needs factor into what you do for your clients?
As a design business owner, your goal is to make money. After all, a business that doesn’t make money doesn’t remain a business for very long. Sure, it’s great to do some pro-bono work from time to time, but I don’t know of any designer who cherishes working for free. No, you want to make money so that you can pay your bills, support your family, take vacations, and perhaps indulge yourself from time to time.
To make money, you need to charge your clients for the services you offer. And the more clients you have and the more design work you do, the more money you earn.
As a design business owner, it can be tempting to simply give clients what they want in order to make a sale. Like when a client comes to you with an idea in mind and asks if you can design it for them. You know you can, and it would be easy money. And so many designers across the globe work this way. They do exactly what the client wants.
But the problem is, clients don’t always know what they want, or what they think they want isn’t the best option because they don’t know any alternatives.
Adopting this strategy of doing what your client wants is not conducive to growing a successful design business. You may get work. Maybe even lucrative work. But your business will eventually reach a cap if all you ever do is what your clients ask you to do.
To be successful, you need to figure out how to deliver what your clients need, not just what they want.
Now don’t get me wrong. You’ll have clients whose wants and needs are in line with each other—those who are business savvy and understand what is required for their businesses to grow. You’ll enjoy working with those clients because you’ll be able to communicate with them on an even level.
However, many clients don’t understand that their wants and needs may differ.
I find this especially true with newer entrepreneurs–people who have left corporate life to start their own businesses. They’ll often get their ideas from what others are doing and falsely think they’ll experience the same success if they do the same thing. They see someone else grow their business by sending out postcards, so they believe they should send out postcards as well.
That’s not the proper way to think about or grow a business. Giving clients what they want might make them happy in the short term, but they’ll eventually realize that it doesn’t solve whatever problem they’re trying to fix. And clients always come to you, a designer, to fix a problem, whether they know it or not. That’s what we do as designers. We’re problem solvers.
Just doing what a client wants can lead to unfulfilled expectations and frustration on the client’s part. “I spent good money on these postcards; why aren’t they working?” It’s because postcards weren’t what the client needed.
Your job as a designer is not to fulfill your client’s every desire or cater to their every whim; it’s about understanding their needs and addressing them in a way that meets those needs and exceeds their expectations.
When you give your clients what they need, you are helping them achieve their goals and solve their problems. When you manage that, your clients will view you in a whole new light, and they’ll want to work with you more.
Does this mean you ignore what the client wants? Of course not. The key is to balance what the client wants and what will work best for their business. For example, a client may want you to redesign their website because they’re not getting enough traffic and low sales. They think that getting more traffic to their site will increase sales and solve their problem. When more traffic isn’t the solution, better-qualified traffic is.
Having 1,000 random people visit a website probably won’t increase sales as much as attracting 100 targeted visitors. The client wants more visitors, but what they need is better-targeted visitors. And it’s your job to explain this to them.
One of my clients is a hearing aid clinic. When they first opened and were trying to build up their client list, they wanted to get as much exposure as possible. One of the marketing strategies they wanted to explore was placing ads in local magazines.
The salesperson they contacted at a nearby distributor represented several magazines. He convinced them that they would get the most exposure by placing an ad in a local outdoor life magazine that covered hiking, bicycling, canoe and kayaking, snowshoeing etc. It was a newer magazine with a circulation of over 500,000 copies delivered every month.
He told my client that it was a new magazine, and they were offering special discounted prices on ads. He assured them it was a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime deal to put their name in front of half a million local people. The clinic asked me to design a full-page ad, excited about all the exposure it would give them.
When I received the ad specifications from the distributor, I saw on the sheet that the exact specs were used by other magazines the distributor represented. One of them was a senior living magazine.
For the fun of it, I contacted the distributor, not telling them who I was, and asked for details on placing a full-page ad in the senior living mag. I found out that the distribution for this magazine was 100,000 copies, and the price they quoted me was almost the same price that the hearing aid clinic was paying for their ad in the outdoor life mag.
I then called my client and explained that according to the documentation I received, the outdoor life magazine targeted people ages 18-40 who enjoyed an active outdoor life. The senior living magazine was geared towards people 55 years and older who still want to get the most out of life.
I explained to my client that yes, the senior living mag had a distribution of one-fifth the size of the outdoor magazine, so they wouldn’t be seen by as many people. However, those 100,000 people who received the senior living magazine were probably in or at least approaching the target market of people who require hearing aids. In contrast, most of the outdoor life magazine’s target market won’t be interested in hearing aids for many years to come.
The client wanted me to design an ad for an outdoor life mag, but I convinced them that they needed an ad in the senior living magazine. And they agreed.
And you know what? Within weeks of their ad appearing in that senior living magazine, their phone rang off the hook with new clients saying they saw their ad.
It’s essential to listen to the client and understand what they think they want. This will help you to figure out what they need. Then it’s up to you to explain to them that there’s something else they need that they don’t see.
I had another client who started a subscription box that offered science experiments for kids ages 3-8 years old. It was two moms, and they wanted me to design their marketing material. The sketches and layouts they presented of what they wanted me to create were juvenile. When I asked about them, they said they wanted something that appealed to young children. They had even asked their own kids’ opinions on their sketches.
I asked them how many 3-8 years old could afford to spend their allowance on a monthly subscription box? They looked at me like I was crazy. Then one of the ladies explained that the kids weren’t paying for the subscription box. Their parents are. To which I replied, “Exactly. So why are you marketing to the kids when you should be marketing to the parents?”
Instead of explaining to young children how much fun they’ll have doing these monthly science experiments, they should explain to mothers how their subscription box offers something constructive for kids to do. It’s an educational pastime that doesn’t involve kids looking at a screen. It’s a bonding experience between them and their child. And it will improve the child’s knowledge of science which will help them in school.
You know what? They had never considered marketing to parents and thought it was a brilliant idea. Now imagine if I had simply designed what they originally wanted when they first approached me?
What clients want and what they need are often two different things, especially when it comes to graphic design and website development.
Clients often come to you with an idea of what they want their finished product to look like. They might have images or a style in mind, but that’s usually where their ideas stop. It’s often hard for clients to see the bigger picture.
They may want a flashy website that is all about them, or they see something on another website and want it on theirs, but they may not need all of the bells and whistles.
As designers, we need to interpret what our clients want while still giving them what they need. And often, what clients need is someone like you who can take their vague desires and turn them into a functioning reality.
Sure they want an attractive website, and you can do that, but what they need is a website that functions for their business. This means striking a balance between the two and creating something that meets their wants and needs. It can be a challenge, but it is essential to create a successful final product.
With some clients, this will be easy. With others, it might be more difficult.
Sometimes it’s as simple as suggesting different fonts or colours than they originally had in mind.
I recently designed podcast work for a client and submitted two different ideas. He liked the layout of option one but preferred the font I used in option 2. He asked if I could use the font from option 2 in the first one. I told him no. The font from option two wouldn’t fit the layout of option 1. What he wanted wouldn’t work.
Or you might need to steer a client away from using too many images, making their website too busy or convincing them to eliminate things that don’t help them.
Other times you may need to suggest alternative or innovative ways to accomplish something the client might not have thought about.
A recent website client wanted me to create a page on their site to list all the books they recommend. They wanted a page they could edit whenever they wanted to add a new book. They would add the latest info and format it to look like the rest.
Instead of doing what they wanted, I added custom fields to the website and created a section to enter book information quickly. Now, whenever they want to add a new book, all they have to do is click a “Create Book” button I made for them, fill out a simple form, and the information will automatically show up on the page already formatted.
The client can’t believe how much easier this method is than what they were doing before and has thanked me several times for designing it that way. It wasn’t what they wanted. But I figured it was what they needed. And I was right.
The point is that you need to adapt your designs to fit the client’s needs, not the other way around. That doesn’t mean you never have to do what the client wants, though. It is a compromise. And on some occasions, if you’re lucky, what a client wants and needs turns out to be the same thing.
When you give a client what they need, especially when it’s not something they considered initially, they are more likely to be satisfied with the work you do for them. They’ll appreciate your out-of-the-box thinking. They’ll feel like you took their needs into account and over-delivered.
Remember, good graphic designers and website designers take the time to learn about their clients and what they’re looking for before starting any project. Use your skills and experience to figure out what your client needs and deliver on it. This helps ensure that the client is happy with the final project.
This may be harder for newer designers. Knowing what clients need comes from experience. Often, ideas for new clients come from interaction with past clients. The more you work at this, the easier it will become. At that point, you truly become a problem solver, and not just a “yes person.” meaning someone who simply follows orders. And that opens up a whole new opportunity for your design business.
Remember, your goal as a design business owner is to make money. And when word gets out that you can take what a client wants and turn it into what a client needs, clients will be lining up to work with you, and the money will start flowing in.
NDAs or Non-Disclosure Agreements is a very popular topic here on Resourceful Designer. The previous episode I did on NDAs is one of the most searched posts on this site.
I recently had the privilege of talking NDAs with attorney Gordon Firemark. Gordon practices entertainment law in California, the USA, where he helps artists, writers, producers, and directors achieve their dreams in the fields of theatre, film, television and new media.
But what does that have to do with graphic or web design, you might be thinking?
Well, every theatre production, film and movie, television show and other forms of new media such as YouTube and podcasting, at some point require the expertise of a designer. And many times, those designers are brought into the mix long before the entertainment product is ready to go public. And of course, the person hiring said designer wants to protect their intellectual property.
That’s where Non Disclosure Agreements come into play. They help protect their IP by setting the boundaries of what the designer can say or not say about the projects they’re working on for their clients.
To learn more, be sure to listen to the episode. Here are some topics we covered.
Communication: According to the dictionary, communication is the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs. But that definition doesn’t do it justice. Communication is so much more than that.
Without communication, conflicts could escalate. Governments would collapse. Businesses fail. And loved ones may never get together.
Communication is one of the most crucial reasons for our species survival. I know. I’m getting a bit heavy here. But I want to emphasize the importance of communication.
Your design business will grow or fail based on communication. How you interact with your design clients can drastically impact your success.
But is there a right or wrong way of communicating with your clients? The short answer is no. I don’t believe so. But there may be some ways that are better than others. Better for both you and your client.
Let’s list some ways of communicating with your clients to get started.
I’m sure I’m missing some, but you get the idea. There are many ways of communicating with your design clients.
This past week, I posted several polls in the Resourceful Designer Facebook Group asking various questions about communicating with design clients. I know this isn’t a very scientific study, but I figure you may be interested in the results nonetheless.
Let’s start with phone calls. I bet that most designers have a phone of some sort at their disposal. But there are different types of phones and various phone services you can use.
According to my poll
Personally, my cell phone is for friends and family only. The only clients who have my cell number were people I was acquainted with before they became clients.
I still have a landline for personal family use, but I also have a dedicated business number that rings through my landline. It’s a service called Ident-A-Call offered through Bell Canada.
When someone calls the home number, my phone rings like usual, ring, ring, ring, but if they reach the business number, it rings differently, ring-ring, ring-ring. These distinctive rings let my family know who the call is intended for and whether they should answer it or not.
The service comes with two voice mailboxes. When someone calls, they have the option of pressing 1 to leave a message for the Des Cotes family or pressing 2 to leave a message for my design business.
This system has worked well for me for over 15 years. I like having a separate phone number for my business that I can ignore if I want.
Although if I were setting things up today, I would probably take advantage of my iPhone’s dual SIM option and have two different cell numbers, one for family and one for business.
On the Facebook poll, Dustin said he uses Hubspot to forward his landline to his cell phone, which I think is pretty cool.
And Col said not only does he use a landline for his business, but it goes to his virtual assistant. Then his VA decides if he needs to take the call.
With the invention of smartphones, text messages, or texting as it’s commonly called, surpassed phone calls as a way of communicating. Heck, sometimes I think my kids forget they can make calls on their phones.
But what about clients? Do you text them?
I do not text with my clients. It makes sense. If I don’t share my cell number with them, there’s little chance of them texting me. But according to the Facebook poll, I’m in the minority.
What are those exceptions, you ask?
Suzanna says she tries not to but does have a few clients who use text. However, she never accepts work over text.
Tammi, on the other hand, uses both text and WhatsApp. She likes the quicker responses as compared to waiting for an email.
Greg said absolutely not. It’s too easy for vital communication to get lost or forgotten. Plus, he likes to unplug from work, and if clients can text him, he’s never truly away.
Minja said not for changes, pricing, or other project-related things. But texts are ok for other communications, such as scheduling meetings or sending verification codes.
I feel you, Minja. Verifications codes are the bane of all web designers.
Next, I asked how people accept changes or approvals for design projects from their clients. This time around, I allowed them to select multiple answers.
I’m with the majority for this one. I only accept changes or approvals via email. My clients are welcome to tell me over the phone, video chat or in person, but I always ask them to write down their thoughts and email them.
And like Nick, Rafael and others in the comments pointed out. They like email because it’s easy to find and refer back to in the future.
I also asked about presenting concepts or proofs to clients. This would be for print work such as logos, posters, business cards etc., not websites. Once again, I allowed people to select three options from the list I provided.
My favourite way to present to a client is in person. I like to be in the room with them when they first see the design. This lets me see their reaction and interject should I see any doubt in them.
My next question was in a similar vein except for websites. I asked when do you allow clients to view a web design project.
Troy posted a comment that mirrors my method. I show my clients their site once I’ve completed the home page. Once they sign off on it, and If it’s not that large a project, I finish the entire thing before showing it to them again. If it is a big site, I may show it again once large sections are complete.
The one thing I would never do is allow a client full access throughout the build. That seems like asking for trouble. I know they would keep critiquing stuff I was not done working on, and it would cause more problems than it’s worth.
The final question I asked is whether or not you use a CRM, a Customer Relationship Manager. A platform that lets you communicate with clients. You may be able to send proposals and invoices, and most of them allow you to share files with clients.
I use Plutio as my CRM. I use it to keep track of all the projects I have in progress. Plutio allows me to grant access to my clients, but I don’t use that feature. I use it as a replacement for the old leather-bound notebook I used to use to keep track of projects I’m working on.
Col mentioned that he uses Basecamp.
Minja, who’s in New Zealand, uses Workflow Max, which according to them, is quite popular among New Zealand businesses.
As I said initially, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to how you communicate with your design clients. As you can see, many people do different things.
The one thing I want to point out is consistency and limiting options. If you use text messaging, WhatsApp, or a CRM to communicate with your clients. Be consistent. This way, you will always know where to look if you need to refer to a conversation.
What you don’t want to happen is a client emailing you one day, communicating via your CRM the next, all the while texting you while they’re on the go and later messaging you via social media.
This could get very confusing, very fast. When you finally sit down to work, you’ll be stuck searching through various communication methods to find the one where the client asked you to do a particular thing.
And what happens if they text asking you to change something to blue and then later send you a DM on Instagram telling you to make it green? How are you supposed to keep track of which one to implement?
My suggestion is to set boundaries right from the start. Let them know you would prefer to receive changes or approvals via email. If you don’t want to communicate with a client in a certain way, inform them of your preferred method.
Every time she has a new project for me, I have a client who reaches out to me over Facebook Messenger. That’s fine, but I ask her to take the conversation to email as soon as she does.
This is the whole point. To get you thinking about how you communicate with your design clients. Because the easier it is for both you and your clients to communicate, the easier it will be for you to do your job. And in the end, isn’t that what matters?
I’m not sure if you know this, but Adobe PostScript Type 1 fonts stopped working in Photoshop 2021, and Adobe announced that they will stop working in other Adobe apps in 2023.
This could potentially leave you with dozens, if not hundreds, of fonts you can no longer use in your favourite design apps.
Luckily, there is a solution. TransType 4 from FontLab works on both Mac and Windows to easily convert legacy Postscript Type 1 fonts into rock-solid, high-quality modern Open Type fonts that you can use in any app for years to come.
TransType 4 makes it so easy. I’ve been using it to convert fonts for the past few months. Whenever I discover a font that doesn’t work in Photoshop, I launch TransType 4, drag the Postscript Type 1 font onto it, and voila, I have a new Open Type font I can now use.
TransType 4 does more than just this, but this feature alone is worth the purchase price.
Last week, I talked about how you should view your worth. How you are a one-person team. I gave the example of a website project you might start where you take on the role of salesperson, researcher, UX and UI designer, developer, bookkeeper, etc. and how each one of those "people" should be compensated accordingly.
That episode relayed a precious message that many designers don't understand. That message is that you are worth more than you think you are, and you are probably not charging your clients enough for what you do for them. Because, if you needed to hire each one of those people individually, chances are you would pay them more than what you are charging your client for the same services.
But what if the situation wasn't figurative? What if you did have to hire each one of those people? Would you know how to go about it? That's what I want to talk about today, building your team.
I know that many designers are not comfortable hiring contractors. I know, I used to be one of them. I used to have the mentality that my clients hired me; therefore, I needed to do the work myself. I even turned down projects because I didn't know how to do parts of them.
I've shared before how I turned down a $50,000 website project because I didn't know how to code in PHP. I kick myself now for that decision. But that was my mentality back then. If I couldn't do it, it wasn't a project I could take on.
A couple of years after that, I stumbled upon a line in some self-help book. I wish I could remember which one, but I don't. But I do remember the line that stuck with me.
Client’s don’t hire you to do a job. They hire you to get a job done.
And there's a vast difference between those two statements that many designers don't get. You're job, the reason clients hire you is that they have a problem they can't solve themselves. In many cases, you, with all your skills, can solve it for them.
But there are some situations where your skills alone are not enough. Or your skills are not the most proficient option. Or perhaps you don't have the time to do everything yourself. That's where building a team comes in—a team of people who possess the skills required to complete the job for your client.
Do you think the head chef at a restaurant cooks and prepares every meal all by themself? Of course not. There's no way one person could do that. A Chef has a sous-chef, station chefs, junior chefs, and other people working with them. They all form a team that prepares the meals they serve their guests. And yet, people still visit fancy restaurants because of the reputation of the head chef. They want to experience what it's like to eat one of their meals even though many other people are involved in preparing those meals.
Think of yourself as a head chef. Everyone on your team is there to help you prepare what your clients are served.
But, even with this knowledge, many designers still worry about what their clients might think if they "farm out" work. I have news for you. Your clients won't care. Remember, they didn't hire you to do a job. They hired you to get a job done.
Think of it this way, would you be upset if you brought your car in for repair and the mechanic told you he traced the issue to your transmission, so he brought in a transmission specialist to work on it?
I'm going to hazard a guess and say no, you wouldn't be upset. You wouldn't say, "no, I brought my car to you; therefore, I want you and only you to work on it." You would probably be grateful that your mechanic knows someone who can do the job in the best and most proficient manner. That's how your clients will react when you tell them about your team. They'll think it was an intelligent decision to hire you because you know how to get the job done.
Teams are a powerful thing.
There's an African proverb that says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." That's what having a team can do for you. It can help you go far.
It's one thing to know you should build a team. It's an entirely other matter to put one together.
To be clear. When I say a team, I'm talking about contractors, not employees. Sure, you can hire employees to be on your team, but that's a whole other conversation with additional complexity involved.
I'm talking about contractors or freelancers that you hire on an as-needed basis. Some of them you may repeatedly use, while others may be for a single one-off job.
Simply put, your team is a network of people you can call upon should the need arise.
First, let me break down the type of people you may want on your team before I get into how to find them. Since there's no way I could list or even know all the types of team members you may need, I'll use the ones I've hired myself as examples.
I've used several illustrators over the years. Some I've hired only once, while a couple I work with on a fairly regular basis. Illustrators widely vary in styles, so it's a good idea to have several you can call upon when needed.
Copywriting is one of those services that can set you apart from other designers. While many designers only use the text provided to them by the client, designers that offer copywriting and design are viewed as a premium service and garner more respect, which means you can charge more.
Like illustrators, copywriters range in styles and niches, so it's best to know a few. In some situations, you may need a copywriter who writes in a particular field, such as medical or technology.
Depending on where you live or what clients you work with, you may need to design in multiple languages. On many occasions, your client might only have the text in one.
Where I live, it's prevalent to display things in both English and French. I have a translator that can provide me with a French copy should I need it.
I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes you may want to hand off a project or part of a project to another designer. Either free up your time or because it's something you don't want to do. Having a designer you can trust for this is an invaluable teammate.
I've said it before. Other than HTML and CSS, I don't know how to code. And even with HTML and CSS, I find myself Googling how to do things more often than I used to. So any time I need coding done that I can't manage with a plugin, I hire a developer.
If you're not comfortable doing SEO or want to give a website an extra boost, you may want to consider hiring an SEO specialist. I did this at the request of one client, and we saw great results.
The fact is, just about every specialty I just talked about could be considered a virtual assistant. A virtual assistant is just that, someone who assists you virtually. But a VA can help you with so much more than the skills I mentioned above.
I've hired several VAs over the years. My main VA does repetitive tasks, so I don't have to worry about them. Every Monday, she logs into my iThemes Sync account and makes sure all the themes and plugins of every site I manage are up to date.
This updating is a service I offer my website clients as part of my maintenance agreement. But I have better things to do than click on "update plugin" several dozen times. So I pay someone to do it for me.
I've also hired virtual assistants to do research or data gathering for me.
I hired one recently to go back over every episode of the Resourceful Designer podcast and create a spreadsheet listing the episode number, the episode title and the resource or tip I shared if there was one.
Before the pandemic, I was trying to get more speaking gigs, so I hired a VA to create a list of every graphic or web design program offered by a college or university in the province of Ontario. I asked him to find out who was in charge of each program and include their email address. I then asked him to email them on my behalf, asking if they would like me to come to talk to their graduating class about the realities of working in the real world.
This is just a small list of the type of people you may want on your team.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about networking. Well, that's a great start. Several of my team members are people I happened to meet through casual networking conversations.
One of my copywriters I found through a friend who mentioned he knew a journalism graduate looking for work. I reached out to her and asked if she could do some copywriting for me.
After overhearing him talking with someone about a project he was translating, I discovered my translator at a restaurant. I introduced myself asked for his business card, and we've worked on several projects together since.
I've hired illustrators I discovered at local comic cons. There are always vendors at comic conventions selling their illustrations. I pick up their business card and reach out if their style of artwork is what I need for a particular design project.
Each of these people was added to my list of potential team members to draw upon should the need ever arise. I have many that I've never used. But I know who they are, just in case.
Last week I hired Brian, a member of the Resourceful Designer Community, to help me with a website.
Brian had done a presentation for us a couple of months ago, and one of the things he showed us was something I could use on a site I was starting on for a client. I intended to take the info from Brian's presentation and learn how to do it myself. You know, improving my web skills, making myself more valuable. But, when I got around to working on that part of the website, I didn't have the time to fiddle around with something new. So I asked Brian to do it for me. I explained what I needed, and he completed the work by the next day. As easy as that.
I'm sure if I had tried doing it myself, it would have taken me over a week to complete. Hiring Brian saved me time, which translates to money.
If you need someone with a particular skill, and you don't already know anyone who can fill the role, the first thing I suggest is asking the people in your network.
Like how people find graphic and web designers through referrals, you should do the same when finding your team members. If you need an illustrator with a particular style, ask people in your network if they know anyone. Need a web developer to help you with a web project? Ask around and see if anyone has a suggestion.
A referral from a trusted source can go a long way in finding the right person.
When all else fails, turn to the internet. There is no shortage of people for hire online. Places like Fiverr and Upwork are great resources. I've hired multiple people from both platforms. TopTal is another excellent source to find freelancers. I've never used them myself, but I know of several people who have and were very pleased with the talent they hired.
Virtual Assistant marketplaces contain hundreds of talented people looking for work. Just search "Virtual Assistant" on Google, and you'll find plenty.
What are some of the things you should consider when hiring someone? The top three, in my opinion, are location, language, and price.
A talent marketplace such as Fiverr and Upwork allows you to work with people from around the globe. One of the illustrators I use lives in Indonesia.
But sometimes, you may want to hire someone closer to home. Time differences can potentially cause problems if you need to ask a teammate something and it's the middle of the night where they are. These delays can add up, which doesn't bode well if you're on a deadline.
Language can also be an issue. The language someone uses to communicate with you may not be their first language. This may cause miscommunication issues should they not fully understand the instructions you provide.
In some cultures, people are raised not to question instructions from those who employ them. So if they interpret something a certain way, that's how they'll do it. Even if it doesn't make sense to them or there's a better way. You want to make sure the person you hire can work beyond just the instructions you provide.
So making sure there isn't going to be a language barrier should be a consideration.
Location and Language may dissuade you from hiring someone abroad. However, the price may make you change your mind. There are places in the world where you can hire highly talented people for a fraction of the price you would pay closer to home.
A few years ago, I had a client using an eCommerce platform called PrestaShop. When the client accidentally broke their website, I had no idea how to fix it. So I turned to Upwork and hired a PrestaShop expert. They lived in a country with a much lower cost of living than here in Canada and quoted me $10 per hour for their services.
I knew he would be working while I was asleep. And his English wasn't that good. I had to message him several times before he understood what I needed of him. But the time difference and language constraints were worth it because of the low price. It took him 16 hours to fix the problem. I paid his $160 invoice, and in turn, I charged my client 16 hours at my then hourly rate of $80/hr. I made an $1120 profit, and I never touched the site.
It's entirely up to you who you hire. In some cases, finding an inexpensive option is your best choice. Other times, spending a bit more is the right move.
The trick with this whole team-building thing is to find people you can trust to do the job right. There may come times when someone you hire doesn't work out. Either they don't perform to your liking, or you find some other reason things are not working.
The downside of building a team is that you may find yourself in a situation where you have to let someone go. Luckily these are not employees. So sometimes, letting go is as simple as never hiring them again.
But other times, you may have to fire them if they're not performing to your satisfaction and find someone else. It can be tricky, and you may have to eat that cost yourself. That's a chance we take when we hire people. That's one of the reasons I always try to hire from within my network before turning to online sources.
That website I told you about last week that Brian helped me on. I could have easily hired someone on Fiverr or Upwork to do the same thing for me and probably save some money. But I hired Brian because I already have a relationship with him, and I trust what he can do. It wasn't about the cost. It was about making sure the job got done.
Working with a team is a wonderful feeling. It makes you feel special. It makes you feel necessary. It makes you feel more professional.
When you get to this point in your career where you have a team of people working with you, you'll truly understand what it means to be an entrepreneur. And you'll see that the opportunities when you have a team you endless.
If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, to together. After all, your clients didn't hire you to do a job. They hired you to get the job done.
I want to start with a story. A business coach client hired me for a design project about a dozen years ago. He had just finished writing his second book and wanted me to design and format it for him for publication. The project also included an accompanying bookmark and a small website related to the book.
I had given him a quote for the project, which he readily accepted, and we got underway.
Once the project was completed and paid for, this business coach told me how impressed he was working with me. He said everything went so smoothly that he would have paid three times the amount for the great work I provided him.
Now I brushed this statement off as hyperbole from a grateful client. I mean, how many times have you received excellent service somewhere and thought, "I got more than I paid for?"
But then he said he wasn't exaggerating and proceeded to explain why he thought that way. And what he said next changed the way I looked at pricing my projects from that day forward.
I'll get to what that business coach told me in a moment.
One of the most challenging tasks freelance designers or design business owners have is determining what to charge for their services. I mean, how much does a website or a logo cost? It's as arbitrary as asking how long is a piece of string?
It never fails. Whatever number you come up with for a design project, you will always wonder if it's too little or too much. Let me put your mind at ease on one of those fronts. "Too much." is never the correct answer to that question. And I'll explain why in a bit.
Coming up with applicable fees is difficult because many factors are to consider.
With everything to consider, no wonder pricing is such a debated topic among designers. One designer may think $2000 is a lot for a website, while another won't consider a web project for less than $10,000. I'm saying that there are no right or wrong answers regarding how much you should charge for your design services. You charge what you think you're worth.
But that's what I want to talk about, what you're worth. Because there's a good chance, you're undervaluing that number.
Let me ask you a question. How much do you think it would cost if you had to pay someone else to do your job?
If you think it would cost more than what you charge, then there's your answer. You're not charging enough. However, you might think that it would cost a very similar or maybe even a lower amount to what you charge your clients. And that may be true. It's hard to tell.
But let me rephrase my question. How much do you think it would cost if you had to pay individual people to do everything you do for your clients? Now it gets more complicated.
Let's take a website project, for example. We tend to group all our services into one easy-to-explain package called a "website design" and slap a price on it. But what exactly goes into a website design? Let's break it down. Of course, everyone will have their way of working on a website, so this is just a simplified example.
For a website project,
Whoa, good job. You worked your butt off, and everything worked out great. The client got the site they wanted and paid the fee you quoted for this website project.
But back to my question. How much do you think it would cost if you had to pay individual people to do everything you just did?
Let's see; you would have had to hire a salesperson for the initial contact, proposal and contract signing.
Next, you'd need a researcher for the discovery and other investigating you did.
Then there are the UX and UI Designers you would have to hire. One to design the feel of the website, how it flows and how easy it is to navigate. The other to develop the aesthetics of the site. How natural and attractive it is.
After that, you'll need a developer to put everything together. Someone who knows how to take what came out of the UX and UI Designers' minds and put it into action.
Along the way, you'll need an SEO person to make sure all the "T" s are crossed and "I" s dotted to give the website the best chance to be discovered by those searching the web.
And then, you would need a bookkeeper or accounts person to handle the invoicing and payment processing.
And on top of all of these people, you would also need a project manager to oversee them all and keep things on track.
Wow, that's a good group of people. Eight if my math is correct.
So how much do you think it would cost if you had to hire eight individual people to work on this job instead of you doing it yourself?
Chances are it would cost way more than what you charged your client for their website project. And hold on, I haven't even considered the profit for your design business. After all, you took on this project to make money, didn't you? So after paying all these people, there needs to be some leftover for you to make a profit.
Do you see where I'm going with this?
When your client hired you to design a website, they, in effect, hired all these people. You acted as a project manager, a researcher, a UX and a UI designer, a developer, and an SEO person. Plus, you took on the roles of sales and account person. So why should your client get such a good deal just because all of these people encompass one body, yours?
The answer is they shouldn't.
And that's the big mistake so many freelancers and design business owners make. When determining their prices, they fail to consider every specialty they are bringing to the table.
Think of yourself as a team of individuals, each with their unique skills, and you can see why you should be charging much more for your services.
And that's what that business coach client told me all those years ago.
For his first book, he had hired a page layout person to format the pages of his book. He also hired a graphic designer to design the cover for the book and the bookmark. And he hired a web designer to create the website.
Each of these people did their part and got paid separately. And the total for the three of them came up to almost three times what I charged him to do everything myself. So when he saw my quote, he knew he was getting a steal of a deal.
He told me that by lumping everything I do under one umbrella of "it's all part of designing." I was doing myself a disservice. I was undervaluing all the individual skills I brought to the table. Only when I started thinking about what, or perhaps who is required for each part of a design project, will I start realizing how much value I bring and start charging accordingly. Because every small part of a project you do, there's an individual out there that specializes in doing that one thing. And they're billing for it.
From that day forward, I started charging more for what I do.
Before I go, I'd like to ask you to do something for me. Think of the last design project you did for a client and how much you charged them. Now take out a pad and pencil and break down that price into the individual roles you performed to complete their project. How much did each "person" get paid? And don't forget to leave enough for your profit.
I have a feeling that if you do this small exercise, you'll realize that you are not charging enough for what you bring to the table. And I'm hoping this is incentive enough for you to stop undervaluing yourself and start charging what you're worth.
Networking can take place anywhere and everywhere. You don't need to be at a conference, trade show or special networking event. Nor does it have to be with a particular sort of person or even a potential client. Every person you talk to, including family, friends and strangers alike, is a form of networking. And the more you do it, the better at it you'll become and the more successful you'll be.
It's no secret that the number one way a graphic design business grows is through word-of-mouth referrals. And for word-of-mouth referrals to happen, people have to know four things about you.
1. Who you are.
2. What you do.
3. Your reliability.
4. Your likeability.
When someone knows these four things about you, there's an excellent chance they will share your name with others.
Now you'll notice how I didn't mention how good a designer you are. Believe it or not, your skills as a designer have little impact on the referrals you get. Some fantastic designers rarely get referred. Like some questionable designers are referred all the time.
Why? It all boils down to those four elements. So let's break them down.
1. Do they know who you are?
This one is self-explanatory. If someone doesn't know you, There's zero chance they'll share your name with others.
Now luckily, you have two avenues to remedy this: yourself and your business. As long as one of these two is known, there's a possibility someone shares it. A person may not know who you are, but they may know your business. Or vice versa, they don't know your business, but they know you. In either of these situations, they have the opportunity to spread the word based on what they know.
If they don't know you or your business, the chances of referring you are zero.
2 Do they know what you do?
Someone may know who you are, but they won't recommend you to others if they don't know what you do.
And don't confuse "what you do" with "the career you have" someone may know you're a graphic designer, but graphic design is an extensive term, so it doesn't tell them what you do.
It's like saying someone is a mechanical engineer. That tells you their career, but it doesn't explain what they do. Two mechanical engineers can have two completely different skillsets and work in different industries. They are mechanical engineers with the same degree, but neither does the same work as the other one does.
Graphic design is the same thing. For example, some graphic designers work with video. Other graphic designers don't know anything about video. Some are illustrators; others aren't. Some designers design for the web, and some design only for print. Titles such as UX Designer, Multimedia Designer, Production Designer, etc., are great for people in the industry. But for the general client, titles like this don't explain what a designer does.
The idea here is to know what you do; people need to know more than what career you have.
3. Are you reliable?
To pass your name on to someone else, people need to know if you are reliable. Or maybe more accurately, that they know that you are not unreliable.
If someone asks you for a recommendation and you know of someone suitable for the task, you'll probably share their name even if you know very little about them.
However, if the person you're thinking of is unreliable, you probably won't share their name because it will reflect poorly on you.
A few episodes ago, I shared a story about my roof needing new shingles and my problems with the person I hired. Well, to give you an update. That was November, and he promised he would do my roof before winter. It's now the end of January, there are several feet of snow outside, and my roof still isn't done.
Now, if someone asks me if I know anyone who does roof repair, you know I won't be sharing this guy's name because he's shown himself to be unreliable. So even though I know who he is, and I know what he does. The fact that I think he's unreliable stops me from referring him.
The same applies to you. If you do something that makes people think you are unreliable, they will not refer you.
4 Are you likeable?
I've said it many times on this podcast before. Clients would prefer to work with a good designer they like than with an amazing designer they don't like.
Think about it. When was the last time you wanted to work with someone you didn't like, regardless of how good they were at what they do?
The more someone likes you, the more they'll want to work with you and the more they like you, the more they'll be willing to share your name with others.
So these four things:
1. Knowing who you are.
2. Knowing what you do.
3. Knowing that you're reliable.
4. Knowing that you're likeable.
These are the four key ingredients to getting referrals.
How do they work?
Now that we have a clear idea of the four ingredients, how do you ensure people know these four things about you?
Well... by communicating with them. And that's where networking comes in. As I said at the start, networking occurs any time you communicate with someone. Every conversation you have, be it in person, over the phone or video, or in writing, brings that person closer to knowing these four key ingredients about you.
Whenever possible, talk to everyone you meet. I know this can be hard for a lot of people. Designers tend to be introverted, and to an introvert, the thought of striking up a conversation with a total stranger is like asking them to stick their hand in a bee's nest.
But it doesn't have to be that hard.
You're not trying to relay each one of the four key ingredients with every conversation you have. This isn't a pitch for work. You're making progress if you show someone just one of the four points. Let it build up over time.
Letting people know who you are is the first and easiest of the four key ingredients. All you need to do is introduce yourself. After all, they can't refer you if they don't know you. So make sure you tell them your name. And if the conversation merits it, tell them your business name. They only need to remember one of the two to refer you.
Next, Tell them what you do. An elevator pitch is great for this. I talked about crafting your elevator pitch back in episode 116 of Resourceful Designer. But in a nutshell, your elevator pitch should briefly and concisely explain who you are, what you do, who you do it for and what results you produce.
In other words.
Hi, I'm (your name). I'm a (your title) who does (insert what you do). I help (type of people) to achieve (the outcome you provide).
For example: Hi, I'm John Smith. I'm a web designer, and I build fast and functional websites that turn visitors into paying customers. I help small businesses grow their revenue by increasing their online sales.
Do you see? Short and precise. It tells people who you are and what you do. If this interests them, they'll ask you to explain more. And if it doesn't engage them, that's ok. They've learned enough information to pass your name along should they have the chance.
In my case, my elevator pitch might go something like this.
Hi, I'm Mark Des Cotes. I'm a Brand Consultant who develops visual branding for podcasts. I help podcasters look more legitimate and gain more traction by offering them professionally designed band assets, including cover artwork, social media graphics, websites and more. All of which leads to better exposure and more downloads for their show.
A simple elevator pitch can go a long way to explain what you do to someone.
As I said earlier, just saying you're a graphic designer doesn't explain what you do. It would be best if you lay it out for them.
And don't take it for granted that someone you know is familiar with all the services you offer. Never presume a client, a friend, a family member, or anyone else knows what you do.
I talked about this way back in episode 2 of the podcast, where I shared a story about my brother-in-law. Who knew me before I even became a graphic designer and someone who I've designed many things for over the years. He asked if I knew anyone who could create a rack card for him one day. I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. It had never come up, so he didn't know that I could also design rack cards on top of everything else I do.
So whenever possible, share specifics of what you do with others.
FYI, a newsletter is a great way to do this. Once per month or once per quarter, send something out to your clients and all your contacts, letting them know what sort of work you've been doing. I guarantee you that someone will reach out saying they had no idea that you did that sort of thing.
And then there are the final two ingredients.
Reliability is something that takes time. Showing up on time for a scheduled meeting or promptly returning an email or phone call shows that you are reliable. Completing a job or project on time and to a client's satisfaction shows that you are reliable. Offering helpful advice or suggestions shows that you are reliable.
Everything you do that creates a positive impression helps build that notion that you are a reliable person.
And that brings us to likability.
Once again, time is your friend here. Is it possible to instantly like someone? Sure. But if you're looking for referrals, and that's what we're talking about today, you need that impression of you to grow over time.
Getting people to like you shouldn't be that difficult. I mean, you're a great person, aren't you? What's not to like?
But seriously, simple things such as greeting everyone you meet, regardless of who they are, help solidify your likability.
For example. Whenever I have a meeting at a corporate office, not only do I try to get there 10 to 15 minutes early (which shows my reliability). I make a point to talk to as many people there as possible. The doorman, the receptionist, the assistant, everyone. Not just about why I'm there. But simply to talk.
I'll ask the receptionist how his or her day is going. I'll ask if they're looking forward to the weekend. If I know anything about their family life, possibly from a previous conversation, I'll ask about their spouse or children.
These short 1-minute conversations add up over time and help someone form a good impression of you.
When our local shopping mall was one of my clients, every time I went there to meet with the marketing manager, I made a point to stick my head in the Managing director's office to say hi. Sometimes it was a quick wave. But other times, we would have a short conversation. Not about design or why I was there, but about life. We were both fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, which gave us common ground to talk about. When he decided to run for political office, he hired me to design his campaign material. That might not have happened if I had not made a point of connecting with him.
I would also talk to the receptionist during each visit. A shopping mall receptionist is used to dealing with upset mall shoppers over everything from the lack of baby strollers to lost and found items to taking complaints about one store or another. They welcome a conversation with someone who doesn't have an agenda with them.
Over many small conversations with that receptionist, including some, where I shared what I was working on for the mall. She knew who I was. Through our discussions, she learned what I did. My punctuality showed her I was reliable. And my taking the time to talk with her led her to like me. 1, 2, 3, 4. All four key ingredients checked off.
And you know what? When that receptionist left her job at the mall to work at a financial firm and heard her new employer was looking for a designer, she recommended me. I had never worked with her directly, but she had learned the four key ingredients about me during her time working at the mall, and that was enough for her to mention my name. And for me to get a new client.
You see how it works. Referrals can come from anywhere and anyone. Some even come from the least likely people. But they all have one thing in common. The person who refers you knows who you are; they know what you do, think you are reliable, and to some extent, like you. Or, at the very least, have no reason not to like you.
The title of this episode says it all. When it comes to networking, it's not who you know; it's who knows you.
And networking happens with every interaction you have. From interactions at a business conference to talking with the cashier at the grocery store. From attending trade shows to having a conversation with the person who cuts or styles your hair. From talking with your doctor to email correspondence with your clients. Every interaction plays a part.
The more someone knows about you, the better the chances of referring you.
And when they know who you are and what you do. And they know you're reliable and like you. That's when the magic happens.
And that magic turns into new opportunities for you and your design business to grow.
Networking: It's not who you know. It's who knows you.
Thank you for your continued interest in Resourceful Designer. You have no idea how much I appreciate you. There are so many great resources available for learning and growing as a designer, and I’m humbled that you chose to spend a bit of your valuable time with me.
I am continuing my annual tradition. This last podcast episode of 2021 is my Look Back, Look Ahead edition. It’s where I reflect, and of course, share, what my year was like as a design business owner. Then I’ll look ahead at what I want to accomplish in 2022.
At the end of 2020, I set these goals for myself.
FAIL: Talk at more conferences. For obvious reasons (hint, there was a pandemic), I failed at this one. I talked at two virtual conferences at the beginning of the year, but I didn’t enjoy the experience and opted not to apply anymore.
FAIL: Grow the Resourceful Designer podcast audience. When the pandemic hit in 2020, my podcast listenership took a big hit like many other podcasts. A lot of people listen to podcasts on their commute. And with the elimination commutes, people didn’t have time to listen as much.
I was hoping that the numbers would tick back up this year. But I’m still way below what I used to get before the pandemic hit.
ACCOMPLISHED: Grow the Resourceful Designer Community. The Community is my pride and joy. One day, when I’m no longer doing the podcast, I’ll look back at everything I did with Resourceful Designer, and I’m sure the Community will be my proudest accomplishment. The friendships formed and all the freely given help is more than I could have ever hoped.
If you’re not a member of the Community and you’re looking for camaraderie with fellow designers, I highly suggest you check it out. Registration will open up again in February 2022.
ACCOMPLISHED: Grow Podcast Branding. I think I made the pivot this year from Podcast Branding being a side business to my main business. I know financially, it’s much more lucrative than my long-standing design business.
COVID-19 continued to affect my business in 2021. I lost several clients due to closure. And many who remained were affected financially and didn’t ask me for anything.
NOTE: I didn’t actively promote my design business in 2021. Instead, I concentrated on growing my other business, Podcast Branding.
My Podcast Branding business was my moneymaker this year.
My previous goals will continue to carry over in the new year. Continue to grow the Resourceful Designer Community. Concentrate more on Podcast Branding and so forth.
Did you accomplish your goals for 2021, and What are your goals for the new year?
Wherever you are in the world, whatever your level of skill, whatever your situation is, I want you to take some time to look back at 2021 and think about your accomplishments AND your shortcomings.
Did you stop after your accomplishments? Or did you plow right through them, happy with yourself but reaching even further? What about your shortcomings? Did they discourage you or create a sense of want even higher than before? Think about what prevented you from reaching those goals.
As 2021 comes to an end. I encourage you to reflect. Think about everything you’ve learned. Your struggles, the things you fell short on (be it your fault or just the state of the world) and your accomplishments. And come up with a plan to make 2022 your year of success. To help with your planning, perhaps you should listen to episode 55 of the podcast, Setting Goals For Your Design Business.
These past two years have been tough on all of us. I hope that we never have to endure something like this ever again. But you know that old saying, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Remember the lessons from these past two years, and use everything you’ve learned to make 2022 and future years even better.
I’ll be back in 2022 with more advice for starting and growing your design business. Until then I want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season. And of course, no matter what goals you set for yourself in the new year, always remember to Stay Creative.
Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.
In episode 49 of the Resourceful Designer podcast, I talked about offering print brokering as a means to supplement your design business. If you do print design and do not offer print brokering, you’re losing out on a lot of potential income. I made over $1,000 from three different print jobs this past week alone. And that’s not counting how much I charged for creating the designs themselves.
One of those three jobs was reprinting an existing flyer for a client. It took me less than 3 minutes to find the print file, send it to the printer along with specifications for the order, including instructions to deliver the finished job to my client. Then I sent an invoice to my client. That 3 minutes of work earned me over $300 in print brokering commission.
If you are unfamiliar with print brokering, it’s when you act as the middleman between your client and the printer. In some cases, you mark up the printing price to invoice your client, and in other cases, you get a discount from the printer and charge your client the non-discounted cost, keeping the difference for yourself.
Clients like it when you offer this service because they don’t have to deal with the printer directly. Printers like this setup because they get to deal with someone who understands how things work. Listen to episode 49 of the podcast to learn more about print brokering.
Today I’m sharing ways to augment the money you make by print brokering. And not simply by increasing your markup. However, that is a way to do it. No, I’m talking about ways to improve your revenue, and at the same time, your client feels like they’re getting a better deal.
Let’s start with upselling and cross-selling. What are they, and what’s the difference between the two?
Upselling is when you offer more of the same thing. Think of McDonald’s when they offer to upgrade your medium drink to a large for only $0.25 more. That’s an upsell. You get a larger drink, and they get more money.
Cross-selling is when you offer an additional thing. When you order a burger and drink, McDonald’s will always ask you if you want to make a combo? That’s a cross-sell. In this case, you get something else, fires, and they collect more money.
How do you use these two concepts in print brokering?
You can upsell a print job in many different ways. But the easiest is through the paper stock and printing options. Printing on a specialty paper stock will improve the look and appeal of a printed job, which may interest your client. It will also increase the cost, which in turn increases your profit.
Printing using spot colours is a great way to improve the look of some printed pieces.
I have a client who is a lawyer. She insists on using spot colours for her business card. We could accomplish a similar result using CMYK, but she likes the flat look of the spot colours and is willing to accept the higher printing costs to get the look she wants. And in turn, I make more money on every print run.
Novelty stocks are a great upsell. Do you have a client who’s a window washer? Suggest clear business cards. How about a client in the construction or industrial industry? Suggest laser engraved metal cards. A client in the outdoor space may be willing to spend more on wooden business cards.
These are all printing options you can upsell to your clients.
Another way to upsell is to suggest larger quantities. Most of the operating costs in a print run occur in the setup stage–pre-press, printing plates, press set up, ink, etc. After that, all that’s left is paper and time. That’s why in most cases, the more you order, the less per unit the printing costs. Five hundred business cards may cost $50. Doubling the order to 1000 cards may only be $65. That’s an easy thing to sell a client on. They get more for their money spent. And you get more as your commission.
Like the McDonald’s combo, cross-selling a print order involves additional items.
When a client comes to you for business cards, you may want to suggest additional items such as thank you cards. If you’re asked to design invitations for an event, you could offer table cards or place cards. If it’s for a wedding, you could also suggest thank you cards and perhaps gift tags the couple can attach to whatever gifts they’re handing out to their guests.
Many designers offer stationery packs or bundles that include business cards, letterheads and envelopes. The bundle is less expensive than ordering each individually, which is great for your client. But it’s also usually more than what they initially thought to order. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve convinced a client to order envelopes to go with letterhead or maybe an invoice or other form. And it all means more revenue for me.
Another way to cross-sell is to suggest multiple print runs for various languages. I did this just recently. A client hired me to design coasters for a local campaign. When they gave the information for the coasters, I noticed it was all in English. Our local area is bilingual in English and French, so I asked if they would like me to design a French coaster simultaneously, which they agreed to. This doubled the print run and doubled my profit.
So far, I’ve been talking about increasing your revenue by printing more at a time–either larger quantities or more items. But another way to earn more money from print brokering is by designing something that has an “expiry date” which will require them to be printed more often.
I have a client that attends trade shows throughout the year. He includes his prices on his flyers. Every year as he increases his pricing, he asks me to update his flyer and have more printed.
Some products change appearance over time. If you include a photo of the product on the printed piece your client may be more inclined to update the photos as newer models come out, requiring new printed pieces.
I talked earlier about how larger print runs can save a client money in the long run. But sometimes they just don’t have the budget for a larger run. Smaller print runs will allow them to get by until they can afford to have more printed. And you make money each time.
Include dates on recurring events. A yearly festival could get away with using the same flyer and poster year after year. But if you include the date or any information specific to this particular year, they are forced to print new ones each time.
Another great way to increase your print brokering income is by keeping track of your client’s anniversaries. Designing an anniversary logo for a client is always a fun project. Suggesting they include the anniversary logo on all their print material is even better.
One of my clients is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2022. We’re in the process of adding the anniversary logo to the many print pieces they have. That means a huge printing order. All to showcase their special occasion. The following year they can continue using their current stock of printed material that doesn’t include the anniversary logo.
If you know when an anniversary is coming up, you can make the suggestion ahead of time and get the ball rolling. Your client will appreciate your thoughtfulness, and your business will appreciate the added income.
I want to share two more “tricks” with you that have helped me earn more money with print brokering.
I always tell every client who orders business cards through me, to never hand out just one card. Business cards are a networking tool. When you hand them out you should always give two or three at a time. You tell the recipient to keep one and hand the others out to anyone they know who could use your service. Clients love this idea. But it also means they run out of cards faster and need to reorder.
And finally, whenever possible, convince your client to include their photo on their business card. Again, it makes a great networking tool. A card with a photo makes it much easier to remember the person. It also creates a subconscious connection. When you see a photo of someone, seeds of trust start to germinate immediately. Knowing what a person looks like makes it easier to connect with them. Why do you think so many real estate agents put their photos on their For Sale signs? Because if you know who the person is, you’ll trust them more, regardless if you’ve met them or not.
But how does a photo on a business card help you as a print broker?
People change. Maybe it’s their hairstyle. Maybe they shaved their facial hair or grew some. Maybe they never liked their old photo. Whatever the reason, they may want to update their photo. And they won’t care if they have half a box of cards left. They’ll gladly discard them for new ones.
A couple of weeks ago one of my clients contacted me for business cards for a new employee. I replied back asking if any of their current employees wanted to update their cards with a new photo. That one order turned into four orders, which in turn, means more money for me.
If you’re smart about it. There are always ways to increase your print brokering sales. And not in a slimy salesperson way.
Make sure you follow up with your client after the fact. Following up lets you know if your client liked their print purchase. Hearing their comments is a great opportunity to learn what worked and what didn’t. And you can use those lessons when dealing with other clients.
How do you increase your profits from a print brokering job? Leave a comment below.
I’d like you to imagine this scenario.
There’s a neighbourhood in your city that you love. It has beautiful homes with big yards and lots of green space around. It’s close to amenities like schools and shopping. And the internet infrastructure is state of the art, which we know is a must for what we do as designers.
It’s the type of neighbourhood that you occasionally drive through and think to yourself; I would love to live here.
The problem is, home prices in this neighbourhood are way out of your budget. You figure you can afford maybe $350k. Perhaps you can push it to $400k. But unfortunately, homes in this neighbourhood typically sell for over $700k. But you can dream, can’t you?
Then one day, while driving through the neighbourhood, you see a FOR SALE sign in front of what could be your dream home.
You’ve admired the homes in this neighbourhood for a long time, but always from the outside. But here’s your chance to get a peek on the inside because there are sure to be photos on the realtor’s website.
When you get home, you fire up your browser to take a peek. As you’re navigating to the page, you play the guessing game in your head. You guess its listing price at $795K. But when the page loads, that beautiful house, the one you’ve been admiring for years, is listed at $295k.
What do you think your first thought would be in this situation? Or maybe second thought after you realize you can afford it. You would probably start wondering, what’s wrong with it? Why is it listed so low? What mess would you be getting yourself into if you were to make an offer?
I’m sure you’ve experienced this feeling before. Maybe not with a house. But perhaps with a car, or something else. Especially when the item in question is something previously owned, what’s wrong with it that’s making the seller offer it for such a low price?
Something similar happened to a designer friend of mine just a couple of weeks ago.
He was at a business conference, and on one of the days, they divided people up into small groups—kind of a Mastermind format where each person in the group had time to present their business.
Being prepared as only designers can be, my designer friend had a presentation ready and walked everyone through his business. He showed them what he does, how he does it, his processes, and his annual billing and 3-year financial snapshot. It was a business conference, and he was very transparent in everything he shared.
After his presentation, One of the attendees, a woman he had met earlier at the conference, approached him to talk. She told him that after the 5-minute conversation they had when they first met, she thought, “this guy knows what he’s doing, but there’s no way I can afford him.” But after seeing his numbers on paper, she told him she could easily afford him. And that’s not good a good thing because his prices conflict with the brand image he’s putting out.
You’re a designer, you’re proud of what you can do, and I’m sure you like to showcase the best of it in how you present yourself. After all, you know that if you only put in a half-baked effort, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
But what happens if the brand image you present to the world conflicts with the prices you charge for your services?
Just like the house in my opening story, people may wonder, what’s wrong with you. They may be hesitant to hire you because the prices you charge seem too good to be true compared to the skills you showcase. And you know that when something looks too good to be true, it usually is.
Could this be happening to you? Could it be that you’re not getting enough work because you’re not charging enough for the talents you possess?
About a year or two after I started working from home, I was working for a department of the Canadian government located in town. They were pleased with my work, so they passed my name up the chain. It wasn’t long before I had the chance to bid on a big federal government project.
I received the RFP (Request For Proposal) and read it over several times to ensure I understood what was involved. I then calculated every aspect of the job. I figured out how long it should take me, what assets I may need to purchase, and what contractors I may need to hire. I then added in time for revisions, and, like all good designers, I added in some padding for anything unexpected that may come up.
The price I came up with was $8,000. It was going to be my biggest project to date. Satisfied with my quote, I submitted the proposal, already designing the project in my head. But a week later, I found out I didn’t win the project.
Reaching out to my contact at the local government office, I asked if she knew how much I was outbid by. But to my surprise, she found out that I hadn’t been outbid. I was, in fact, the lowest quote. The issue was my price was too low.
The government agency had received four bids in total for the project. The other three ranged in price between $12,000 and $14,000. When they saw my $8,000 proposal, they thought it was way too low, which meant I must have misunderstood what was involved with the project. Not willing to take a chance, they discarded my proposal and chose the lowest of the remaining three.
Was my bid too low? Had I misunderstood the RFP? No, my price was accurate. Accurate for me, that is. You see, the other three bids came from design agencies in Toronto. And Toronto is a much more expensive city than where I live. Where my hourly rate at the time was $50, theirs were closer to $200/hr. They also carried way more overhead than me, a solo designer who works from home, and they needed to compensate for it in their bids.
But none of this was transparent to the person or people who reviewed the four submitted bids. All they had to go by was the price. And my much lower price did not give them confidence in my ability to complete the project.
Since a young age, the world has conditioned us to associate excellent quality with a higher price. It’s the “you get what you pay for” way of thinking. The more you spend, the better the quality. The less you spend, and you’re taking chances.
I know someone who has several eBooks for sale on Amazon. She originally listed her books for $1.99 each. And every month, she sold roughly half a dozen books.
Then she read a report saying that $9.99 eBooks consistently outsell $1.99 ebooks on Amazon. The study determined that pricing it at $1.99 diminished the book’s perceived value no matter how good the content was. People didn’t believe that a $1.99 eBook could help them or was worth their time.
So she decided to raise the price of her books to $9.99. And you know what? Sales immediately went up. Instead of selling only a handful of books per month, he started selling several copies of each book per week.
Let’s look at it another way.
You have many options if you are hungry for a hamburger. You can get one at McDonald’s for $2, or you can choose to go to a fancy restaurant and order an $18 hamburger. I guarantee the $18 hamburger will taste better and be more satisfying. Because if that $18 burger tastes like a Mcdonald’s hamburger, you’re going to be mighty upset with your purchase.
That’s what clients think about you if you’re presenting yourself as the “Fancy Restaurant” of the design world.
When they hear you talk or visit your website or see your other marketing material, they will imagine a price range based on the quality of what you present them. That “$18 Hamberger,” if you will.
But if you then present your prices and they’re more in the “$2 hamburger” range, something will not feel right to them, and clients will second guess their decision to work with you. You’re lower prices may be impeding your business.
If you’ve been following Resourceful Designer for a while, you know that I started a side business designing for the podcast niche a couple of years ago.
There are many options available for people looking for podcast cover artwork. My site podcastbranding.co is one of the more expensive ones. And yet, I receive new orders every week. And when I ask why they chose me over any other option, they tell me it’s because of the professional look I put forward and how they thought it was worth the higher price.
Does that mean that everybody wants to work with me? Of course not. I know that many people see my prices and immediately leave my site. But it’s not because my prices are too high.
A business coach once told me there’s no such thing as being too expensive. Just that you may be unaffordable to some people. And that’s OK. But to those who can afford you, your prices will be just right.
Don’t fall into that rut where the brand image you’re putting out there says one thing about your business, but your prices say another. All you’ll be doing is confusing your potential clients. And when you confuse, you lose.
Take this time, and review your rates. Are they in line with your brand image? If not, then you should consider raising them. And you know what? I’m releasing this at the end of November, which means that the new year is just around the corner. And the new year gives you the perfect opportunity to introduce your new pricing.
Make sure your rates don’t conflict with your brand.
I first talked about checklists way back in episode 89 of Resourceful Designer. In it, I shared various types of checklists you can use for your business. I even shared my now outdated checklist for starting a new WordPress website.
Today, I’m not going to share checklist ideas with you. Instead, I want to talk about the importance of using checklists. To emphasize their importance, I want to start by telling you a story.
I heard this story while listening to an audiobook called My Best Mistake, Epic Fails and Silver Linings written by Terry O’Reilly. It’s a great book of stories about failures that led to amazing things. Check it out if you have the chance. One of the stories O’Reilly tells in the book inspired is what inspired what you’re reading here.
It’s estimated that the average American undergoes seven surgeries in a lifetime, and surgeons perform over 50 million surgeries annually. That’s a lot of operations.
In 2009, roughly 150,000 patients died immediately after surgery—3 times the number of fatalities from road accidents. What’s scary about that number is that half of those deaths were completely avoidable. That number caught the attention of Doctor Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School.
It’s the 21st century. How can all these complications happen despite the accumulated knowledge of professionals? Gawande wondered if there was a way to reduce the number of operating room errors that resulted in these deaths. To find an answer, Gawande looked at other fields for ideas.
Back in 1935, The U.S. Army was looking for the next generation of long-range bombers. They held a competition between top airplane manufacturers to come up with a new design. Although the issued tender was fair for all involved. It was a known fact that Boeing’s technology was miles ahead of their rivals Martin and Douglas.
Boeing’s new Model 299 could fly faster than any previous bomber, travel twice as far, and carry five times as many bombs as the Army requested. The Army was prepared to order sixty-five of the aircraft before the competition was even over.
The big brass of the Army Air Corps gathered for the first test flight of the Model 299. The impressive machine took to the sky with its 103-foot wingspan and four gleaming engines (instead of the usual two found on most planes.) It was quite a sight to see.
As the plane took flight, it climbed to three hundred feet, stalled, and crashed in a fiery ball of flames. Two of the crew died that day, including the pilot who was the Army Air Corps’ chief of flight testing.
The Army decided to award the contract to Douglas instead. And Boeing almost went bankrupt.
However, The follow-up investigation revealed that there was nothing mechanically wrong with the plane. And it was determined that the crash was due to pilot error. But how could that be? How could the chief of flight testing, one of their most experienced pilots, make a mistake that would lead to the crash of such a sophisticated plane?
As the investigation showed, the Model 299 required the pilot to monitor the four engines. Each one requiring its own oil-fuel mixture. He also had to attend to the landing gear and wing flaps, adjust the electric trim to maintain stability at different airspeeds and regulate the constant-speed propellers with hydraulic controls. And that was only a few of the things on which the pilot needed to concentrate.
It turns out that while attending to all of these things, the pilot forgot to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. It was a simple oversight that led to the crash.
Boeing was ready to scrap the plane, but a group of pilots believed the Model 299 was flyable. So they got together to find a solution. When they later approached Boeing, they didn’t request any mechanical changes to the plane. Nor did they think pilots needed to undergo extended training on how to fly it. Instead, they came up with a simple and ingenious solution. They created a pilot’s checklist.
They made a list that was short enough to fit on an index card. It covered all the mundane step-by-step tasks required for takeoff, flight, landing and taxiing. In other words, the checklist covered all the dumb stuff.
With the new checklist, pilots flew the Model 299 over 1.8 million miles without one single accident.
To distance themselves from the previous failure during the test flight, Boeing changed the name of their new plane to the B-17. The Army ordered 13,000 of them, which gave the Air Corps a decisive advantage in WWII. All because of a checklist.
Since the 1960s, nurses have relied on charts, a form of a checklist, to know when to dispense medicine, dress wounds, check pulse, blood pressure, respiration, pain level, etc. And although doctors would look at these charts when visiting a patient, they viewed these checklists as “nurse stuff.”
In the late 90s, a study determined the average hospital patient required 178 individual actions by medical staff per day. Any one of which could pose a risk. The researchers noted that doctors and nurses made errors in only 1% of these actions. But that still adds up to almost two errors per day, per patient.
When you multiply that by every hospital worldwide, it means millions of people around the globe are potentially harmed by the very medical staff assigned to help them.
In 2001, a doctor at Johns Hopkins designed a doctor’s checklist for putting in a central line; a tube inserted in a large vein used to administer medication. It’s a standard procedure that just about every doctor is familiar with. It was also a widespread cause of infection in patients.
So this doctor devised a simple checklist listing the five steps involved in carrying out the procedure. He then asked the nurses to observe the doctors for one month and record how often they carried out each step. They found that in over 1/3 of all patients, doctors omitted at least one of the five steps.
The following month, hospital administration instructed the nurses to insist doctors follow each of the steps. The doctors didn’t like being told what to do by the nurses, but the nurses had the backing of hospital administration, so they grudgingly complied. When the new data was later tabulated, they thought maybe a mistake had been made. The infection rate for central lines dropped from 11 percent to zero.
They continued the study for longer, to be sure, but the results were the same. It was estimated that a simple checklist had prevented 43 severe infections and possibly eight deaths in that one hospital, saving $2 million in costs.
And yet, even with this evidence, many doctors refused to grasp the importance of this precaution. They were offended by the very suggestion that they needed a checklist. They already had so much to do that they didn’t want one more sheet of paper to worry about.
To prove his point, the doctor who wrote the checklist introduced it to other hospitals in Michigan. There was pushback, but in just three months, the rate of bloodstream infections dropped by 66 percent. Many of the test hospitals cut their quarterly infection rate to zero. A cost savings of nearly $200 million. All because of a simple little checklist.
All checklists have an essential function. They act as a “mental net” to catch stupid mistakes.
In 2005, the director of surgical administrator in a Columbus, Ohio hospital created a checklist for operating rooms. It contained simple things such as verifying they had the correct patient on the table and the right body area prepared for the surgery. This little addition improved surgical success rates by 89%.
There’s a lot more to this story. In his book, O’Reilly shares stories of how more and more hospitals started implementing checklists for various things, but I’m not going to bore you with them.
Back to the original story. In 2008, after conducting his research, Atul Gawande devised a checklist to be tested by a group of pilot hospitals worldwide. Some operating rooms embraced it, while others protested it as a waste of time.
During a knee replacement surgery to be performed by one of the checklist’s most vocal critics, it was discovered while checking the boxes that the prosthesis on hand was the wrong size. If they had started the surgery, the patient might have lost his leg. That surgeon became an instant checklist evangelist.
In all the hospitals using the checklists, surgical teams began working better together, and the surgical success rates soared. Complications fell by 36 percent, deaths by 47 percent and infections by 50 percent. And patients needing return visits to the operating room fell by 25 percent.
What’s amazing about using checklists is that they dramatically improved an outcome without increasing skill or expenditure. Instead of adding rigidity to their lives, checklists free people by getting the dumb stuff out of the way.
Today, 90 percent of hospitals in North America and 70 percent worldwide use a checklist.
And you want to hear something funny. When Gawande’s original pilot project was completed, doctors were asked to fill out an anonymous survey. Seventy-eight percent said the checklist had prevented errors. But there was still 20 percent who didn’t like the checklist saying it took too long to implement and didn’t think it was worth it. However, when those 20 percents were asked if they had to undergo surgery, would they want the checklist to be used? Ninety-three percent of those who opposed the checklist said yes.
I hope you found these facts as interesting as I did.
Now you may be saying, sure, a checklist in a plane or an operating room makes sense. It can save lives, after all. But I run a graphic design business, so I’m good. I don’t need checklists.
I used to think that way as well. But remember, checklists are freeing because they help get the dumb stuff out of the way, which frees you up for the more important things you do.
I remember a couple of years ago. I was doing routine maintenance on one of my websites I had launched a couple of years prior. While verifying and updating things, I noticed something that almost made my heart stop. The little checkbox next to “Discourage search engines from indexing this site.” was still checked. Meaning, for close to two years, my website was telling search engines, “I’m good. Don’t pay any attention to me. Go look somewhere else.” That’s a stupid mistake that I could have avoided with the use of a pre-launch checklist.
Today, I have several checklists I use regularly. I now have a website pre-launch checklist. A WordPress install checklist. A first client contact checklist. A podcast client checklist. A Resourceful Designer podcast checklist. And many more.
As I said earlier, these checklists help ensure the dumb stuff gets done so that you can concentrate on the more important things without worrying.
If you are not already using checklists in your business, I suggest you start now. And if you think that your checklists are in your head, remember the story about doctors putting in a central line. There are only five steps involved, steps that every doctor knows. And yet, when observed, nurses noted that over 1/3 of all patients, doctors missed at least one of the five steps.
Your memory is failable. A checklist is not.
Let me tell you a story. It is a story that has nothing to do with graphic or web design, but it is relevant to running a business, and I'll tie that into running a design business if you stick around to the end.
We built our house in 2005. Or, more accurately, we had someone build our home in 2005.
If you've ever built your own home or know of someone who has, you know that it's a long and gruelling process. When you buy a pre-built house, you get what's there. Sure, you can renovate it. But until then, what you buy is what you get.
But when you build a home, you're starting with a blank slate. Think of it as opening a new document in Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign, or starting with a fresh installation of WordPress. What you do with it is entirely up to you. Building a home is like that.
When you build a home, you get to choose how many rooms it has and the size of each room. You get to select floorings such as tile, wood, or carpet. You get to choose the light fixtures, the plumbing fixtures, the windows, the door, etc. You decide everything that goes into your house.
My wife and I did that when we started the process for ours. One of the aspects we had to choose was the shingles for the roof. It sounds simple, but there are thousands of varieties and colours of shingles to select from.
My wife and I took many drives around different neighbourhoods, looking at roofs then trying to match those we liked with samples our contractor supplied us. In the end, we chose a nice brown multi-hued asphalt shingle that gave our home character. We loved it.
A couple of years ago, we started to notice these little grain-like substances appearing on our back deck. At first, we thought it was dirt. But we soon realized that it was debris falling from our shingles. There wasn't a lot of it, so we shrugged it off as peculiar.
Then last summer, the debris pieces started getting bigger and fell more often. And when we looked at our roof, we noticed the shingles were starting to turn up at the corners. We weren't happy about this but didn't know what we could do about it. So we let it go as a nuisance.
Well, this spring, when the snow melted, we were shocked to see a layer of dark brown debris on our deck, and our shingles curved and cracked much more than last summer. So I finally decided to take action.
I started by calling the contractor who built our house. When I explained the situation, he immediately knew what I meant. He had dealt with several other people facing the same problem. It turns out the singles on our roof had a defect. A big enough one that there was a class-action lawsuit filed and won against the manufacturer.
Our shingles have a 25-year warranty. According to the settlement, we're entitled to compensation for the unused portion of that warranty. The only specification is we have to replace them with a newer shingle by the same manufacturer.
I'm upset that I hadn't looked into the issue when we first discovered it. I could have received a more considerable compensation. But I'm glad there's something we can do.
Not knowing how to proceed, I asked my contractor for advice. He retired several years ago, but he gave me a name of a contractor he recommended who is familiar with the process. He suggested I contact him for a quote on redoing my roof, which I need for the claim process.
He also recommended I talk to his old foreman, who oversaw most of the homes he built, including mine. I called the foreman for advice. It turns out he's also retired, although more recently. He told me he had handled many of these shingle claims on behalf of other clients. And although he no longer does that, he would help me however he could.
He told me the first step was to get a quote from a qualified professional roofer. And the person he recommended was the same one my contractor had given me. The foreman had worked with him several times and was currently engaging him to build his new house.
Having received the same name from two trusted sources, I called this new contractor and left a message for him to call me back.
While waiting to hear back from him, I looked him up online. I read the Google and other reviews had nothing but good things to say about him, which boosted my confidence. I was eager to get the process started.
But several days passed, and the new contractor didn't return my call. So I called and left another message, and then a few days later another.
Finally, a week later, he called and apologized. He said the pandemic had taken a toll on his business. He lost several employees leaving him to juggle more than he usually did. This is understandable. The news is full of companies suffering due to staff shortages these days.
I explained my situation and what I required, and he agreed to stop by the next day to look at my roof. But he never showed up. Two days later, I called him, and once again, he apologized, saying he would be here the next day.
To his credit, he showed up. He spent almost an hour on my roof measuring and taking photos of all the problem areas for me to submit with the claim. Once done, he said he would send me the images and have a quote ready by the end of the week.
My wife and I are also thinking about adding a screened-off area to our back deck next summer, so while he was there, I asked him for a quote on that as well. He said I would have both quotes by Friday. But the end of the week came, and I didn't hear from him.
I waited until Wednesday the following week before calling. Once again, he apologized for the delay and said, once again, I would have the quotes by Friday.
Do you see a pattern here?
Friday came and went. On Monday, I called him, asking where my quotes were. He told me he couldn't send them because he didn't have my email address, which I had already provided him. I gave it to him again, and the following day I received the photos and the quote for my roof. The second quote for the screened-in porch was nowhere to be seen.
With the roof quote and photos of the damaged areas in hand, I filled out all the information required to submit my claim, including the material list the contractor supplied me.
Upon submission, I learned it could take up to 120 days before I get a response. In the meantime, no work was to be performed on my roof, in case they needed to send someone to inspect it.
I called the contractor, and I told him we couldn't move forward for possibly up to 120 days. But I would still like to book him for the job when the time comes. He told me it was not a problem. He could pencil me onto his schedule for the fall. All I had to do was let him know when we could proceed.
I also reminded him that he owed me another quote, to which he replied I would see it soon.
Now you may be thinking. This guy doesn't seem too reliable. Why not get someone else? Well, during the process, I did get two other quotes from other roofers. One I found online, and the other I remembered seeing when a neighbour had his roof done. Both were more expensive, and their online reviews were not as good as the contractor I was already dealing with. My neighbour even told me he wouldn't hire the same guy again. Plus, given the time frame of a 120-day wait, neither of them would guarantee they could repair my roof before winter.
Now true to form, it took exactly 120 days before I heard back that my claim was approved and I could move forward with the roof repair. I immediately called the contractor and left him a message saying we were good to go. And then I waited. Three days later, I called and left another message and waited some more.
Now I'm starting to get worried. Winter is fast approaching Eastern Ontario, and no roofing will be done once the snow starts falling. And my roof has deteriorated significantly over the summer to the point where I don't think we could last the winter without possible water damage.
Finally, a few days later, I heard from the contractor. He told me not to worry, he still has me on his schedule, and my roof will get done before winter. The next step is to choose what new shingles we want. He said he would drop off samples that afternoon. He never showed up. That was Tuesday.
On Wednesday, I called him. He apologized and said he would drop them off on Thursday morning before heading to his current project. He never showed up.
Today is Friday. I still don't have the shingle samples. And I no idea if or when he'll do my roof, even though he says not to worry, it'll be done before winter.
At this point, there's nobody else I can call. I have no choice but to rely on this person that I've lost all faith in. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my roof gets repaired before snowfall.
So why did I share this with you? A story about my roof that has nothing to do with graphic or web design. It's because I wanted to share with you how NOT to run a business.
I had two people I trust recommend this guy. And his online reviews were great. So I had no reason to suspect the frustrations I would experience dealing with him.
But at this point, he could do the most fantastic job on my roof, and even if he offered me a discount because of the troubles, I would still never recommend him to anyone. His reputation is tarnished beyond repair.
That's the message I want you to take away from this story. It doesn't matter what sort of work you do for your clients. What matters is how you treat them. You may be a great designer, an amazing designer, in fact. But never forget that you're not the only designer around.
When a client calls or emails you, make sure you reply promptly. Even if it's only to say "thank you for the message." so they know you received it. That simple acknowledgement can go a long way in building trust.
If a client asks you to do something or send them something, make sure you follow through. If you're afraid you might forget, set a reminder on your phone or add it to your calendar. You can even stick a Post-It note to your monitor.
You want to build lasting relationships with your clients so they come back to you over and over again in the future. You'll never be able to do that if your reputation is tarnished. Because once you lose their trust. It's almost impossible to gain it back.
You won't believe this. As I was wrapping this up, the contractor showed up at my door with the shingle samples. He didn't even apologize for being late this time. He did, however, assure me that he would do my roof in three weeks. It's on his schedule, and I shouldn't worry. But you know I'll worry anyway, at least until the work is complete.
As for the quote for the screened porch for the deck? I still haven't seen it. But at this point, I don't care anymore. Once he's finished my roof, I never plan on hiring this guy again.
I hope none of your clients ever feel that way about you.
One of my professors made us critique our classmates’ projects at the end of every college assignment. Once we completed a design project, he would place everyone’s design at the front of the class, and one by one, he would select students and ask them to critique one of the projects.
The reason he did this was twofold. He wanted us to develop an eye towards examining other designs to both learn from them, which makes us better designers and seek aspects of the designs we would have done differently.
The other reason he held these critiques was to thicken our skin. As designers, we have to learn to take criticism of the works we create. If you are easily offended or don’t take well to people critically evaluating your creations this way, then maybe being a designer is not for you. Besides, what better way to learn than by hearing our fellow students dissect our works.
I can tell you that I learned a lot from hearing my classmates tear apart my work. But this exercise we conducted at the end of each project had another effect. You see, the professor wasn’t only evaluating our design work. He was also evaluating our critiques. He would point out when our comments were not helpful or ask us to expand on our observations to convey better what we were saying.
Even though every student dreaded these critiquing sessions, looking back, I’m grateful for them. It made me look at design through a different lens. It taught me the difference between giving a critique and offering constructive criticism. And that’s what I want to discuss with you today.
As you may be aware, there’s a Resourceful Designer Facebook group. In this group, or any other design group for that matter, including the Resourceful Designer Community. Designers often post their designs “for review.” Sometimes they are looking for advice. Sometimes it’s for validation. And sometimes, they’re looking for nothing more than an ego grab.
Regardless of their reasoning for posting their work, I can’t help but shake my head at some of the comments they receive. Comments which supposedly come from experienced designers, and yet, they’re of no value to the person posting their design.
So I want to talk to you about my method of critiquing. Is my method the proper right way of offering critiques? Of course not. I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, and you should do it my way. I’m hoping that after hearing what I have to say, you may take an extra moment to contemplate your response the next time someone asks you to critique their work.
Let’s start with when you should be asking for critiques. In my opinion, there are four stages of a design project when you should ask for critiques.
Let’s break those down.
The beginning of a design project is when the work is most fluid. It’s the point when the design could take off in any direction. If you are working on a logo project, you may sketch out dozens or hundreds of concepts before narrowing it down to the ones you want to develop further.
During this stage, it’s not uncommon to show your favourite concepts to someone to get another opinion. You’re not asking for critiques of the actual designs, but more of the overall direction you are taking. It’s a great way to validate that you are starting on the right path before getting too far down the road.
Another set of eyes can help spot the stronger designs and weed out the weaker ones. It is beneficial for someone who has been staring at them for a long time which diminishes your objectivity.
So asking for critiques during the initial concept stage can quickly help you determine what direction the rest of the design project will take.
We’ve all been there, you’re designing away on something you initially thought was great, but all of a sudden, you doubt yourself. Something about the design isn’t sitting right with you, but you can’t figure out what. This is the perfect opportunity to get another set of eyes on it.
Sometimes, another uninvested designer can look at a design and spot the flaws that you’ve become blind to. So any time you hit a roadblock or start to doubt something about your work, ask someone to critique it.
You’ve completed your design. You’ve polished it up and are ready to present it to your client. Now is the perfect time to show it to others first, just in case there’s something you’re not seeing.
It’s not a good feeling to tell a client after presenting something to them that you need to make a change. It tarnishes the mantle of “expert” they’ve placed over you. It’s even worst if the client points out any flaws to you.
To prevent this, it’s a good idea to ask for critiques before presenting your work to the client.
There is potentially a lot of money involved in a print run. You do not want to find out after the fact that there was an issue with your design.
If you’re a solo designer, I highly suggest you find someone or a group of people like in the Resourceful Designer Community that can review your work before you hand it off to the printer.
Digital work isn’t as critical since it can always be corrected after the fact. But it still reflects poorly on you if you published something with errors or flaws. To prevent this from happening, ask for critiques before sending a project to print or launch.
Those are the four times when you should be asking for critiques of your work. That doesn’t mean you should limit it to those times. At any point during a project, you can ask someone to look over what you’ve done. But even if you’re confident in what you are doing, these four critique points should not be ignored.
Let’s look at how to ask for critiques. Posting a design and asking “What do you think?” is not the right way. Without any context, you’re just opening yourself up to a bevy of unhelpful answers.
Not useful answers.
What you want to do is make it easy for the person to critique your work. After all, you are asking them to devote a bit of their precious time to help you. The least you can do is make it easier for them to offer their assistance by giving you the advice you can use. A tiny bit of effort on your part will benefit both you and the person critiquing your work.
The proper way to ask for critiques involves three key elements.
Let’s look at each of those.
If you are asking me to critique a logo, it would be nice to know, at minimum, in what industry the client works. Is “Bluebird” the name of a restaurant? Is it a bus line? A band? A children’s clothing line? Without this context, how am I supposed to give you a proper critique of your design?
You don’t have to provide an in-depth project brief. But a short description of who the client is, their location, what services or products they are offering and who their target market is will help me greatly when offering my opinion on your design.
Was there anything that limited what you can or cannot do with the design you’re creating? Did the client insist you use a sans serif font? Were you limited to specific corporate colours? Was there a particular element you needed to incorporate into the design?
Knowing these things will help people form their critique. If I know you were limited to sans serif fonts, I won’t recommend a serif font. I won’t comment on the colours if I know you had no choice but to use the ones you did. And if I know the client wants a nautical theme; I won’t recommend you use a train in your design.
Knowing what parameters you face will help people give you a better critique.
Finally, if you want an overall opinion of the design, great, say so. But if you want to know about a particular aspect of it, let people know.
If all you’re interested in is whether or not the size of the icon is appropriate to the size of the logotype, then say that’s what you are looking for. There’s no sense in someone dissecting the rest of the design if that’s all you want to know.
Suppose you are designing a poster and want to know if the visual hierarchy is working. Ask people to list in order what they think are the most critical areas of the sign.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a critique of an overall design. But if all you need is for someone to verify one aspect of your project, then save both of us some time by saying so up front.
And now the good part, giving critiques.
Critiques are a learning experience for both you and the person you are critiquing. It helps hone your design skills by spotting ways you think a design can be improved. It may also show you things you may not have considered before. And it helps the person receiving the critique by offering them a different approach to their design.
Design is subjective. No two designers think the same way. Just because it’s not how you would design it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong or doesn’t work. It just means that you would have done it differently.
As the title of this episode states. A good critique should offer constructive criticism: meaning, the suggestions you make. And keep in mind, a critique is just that, suggestions. The suggestions you offer should have a reason behind them.
That’s it. If you can offer these four things when giving a critique, you provide helpful advice to the person asking. Let’s look at each one.
It’s tough to offer a good critique of an overall design. Most likely, whatever you have to say pertains to a particular part of the design. Therefore, the first thing you should do is identify what part of the design you refer to.
Say you think the website header, or logo icon, or newsletter masthead needs something. Pinpointing areas of a design allows you to break up your critique into actionable sections.
Critique individual elements, not the design as a whole.
It’s much easier to convince someone to change something if you can explain what you believe is wrong with the way it is now.
For example: Explaining how the connecting letters in a script font are hard to make out and could be interpreted in the wrong way will go a long way in helping you convince them to change the font in their design.
Or pointing out that the colours of the font and the background it’s on are too similar in hue and may cause legibility issues for visually impaired people. It helps strengthen your argument towards changing the colours in the design.
So whenever possible, please explain why you believe the current way is lacking before you offer suggestions on how to change it.
Remember how I said that no two designers are the same? That means that what you think is the right way may not be what the next designer thinks is right.
Sure there are some things on which most of us agree. But innovative designers have successfully challenged tried and true design principles. It’s how design evolves.
Do you know the saying “Blue and green should never be seen except for inside a washing machine”? There was a time when no designer would use blue and green together. And yet, nowadays, it’s a common combination.
So just because you think something doesn’t look right doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. I’m personally not a fan of the street art grunge style of design. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a viable design choice. Just not something I would choose.
Keeping that in mind, form your opinions as suggestions when critiquing someone’s work. Let them know how you would do it differently. Then let them decide if it’s something they want to pursue.
And don’t be offended if they choose not to listen to you. After all, no two designers...
Finally, state why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.
The best way to win an argument is by offering your opinion and explaining why it’s so. No designer should change their design without a good reason. And “I think it would look better in red” is not a good reason.
Explaining that red is a more passionate colour that encourages people to make spur-of-the-moment decisions is a convincing argument for why they should change the colour.
You don’t have to get philosophical with your answers. Sometimes the “Why” behind your suggestion is simple. Increasing the space between the text and the underline will make it easier to read when reduced. Simple.
So whenever possible, state why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.
Critiques are hard. Both receiving them and giving them. But critiques are also how we improve. If nobody ever critiqued your work, you would never get better at what you do. And if you never take the time to critique another design, you’ll never learn new things.
In fact, I bet you critique other designs all the time. I know I critique every billboard, website, bumper sticker, t-shirt, etc. that I see. I’m always thinking of how I would have done it differently or mentally filing away a good design idea so that I can steal it for a future project. I can’t help it. I’m a designer. You probably do the same.
Critiques. They’re the bane of our existence and the fuel that propels us. We wouldn’t be designers without critiques. But always remember, Critiques are just suggestions.
As I mentioned several times already, no two designers think the same way. So, just because someone says a design element should be changed doesn’t necessarily mean you should change it. You need to weigh what you know about the project, about yourself as a designer, about the client, and what you know about the person whose recommendations you are thinking of following.
The best and most valuable critiques come from people you know and trust. If a stranger says something should be green, however, your trusted design colleague thinks it should be blue. Chances are you’re going to lean towards making it blue. That’s why being a part of a design group like a Facebook group, or even better, the Resourceful Designer Community, can be such a benefit. Listen to and learn from the people you know.
In episode 105 of the podcast Coping With Isolation When Working From Home, I discussed how isolation is a significant concern for anyone running a home-based design business. Spending day after day with minimal contact with other people can take its toll on someone. In that episode, I gave recommendations for overcoming that feeling of isolation. One of those recommendations was having a pet.
Having a pet in the house can be very therapeutic. Petting a dog or is proven to reduce stress and anxiety. Dogs are great listeners. When you talk to them, they give you their undivided attention. And best of all, it’s without judgement.
For the past 17 years, we’ve had at least one dog in the house. For several years we had three, and then two, and for the past three years, just one, Whisper, our Shetland Sheepdog. This past Saturday, we had to put Whisper down. So for the first time in 17 years, we don’t have a dog in the house.
I’m not telling you this to gain your sympathy. However, your thoughts and well wishes are appreciated. I’m telling you this because it’s essential to what I want to talk about today. I’ve been running my design business full-time from home for over 15 years. Meaning this is the first time I’m working without a canine companion by my side.
I’m recording this on Friday. It’s been six days without a dog; five of them have been workdays. And already, I notice how it’s affecting me.
I’m not talking about feeling sad that Whisper is gone. I mean, yes, I’m sad. But that’s not the effect to which I’m referring. I’m talking about my work habits and how things have changed in just a few short days.
For those of you who are not pet owners, let me paint a picture for you of a day in the life of a dog dad. Or at least the way it was for me.
Every morning after my wife left for work; I would feed the Whisper. She would get all excited as I prepared her dish and then gobble up all the kibble once I put it down. Then I would go about my morning routine to get ready for my day. Once done, and enough time had passed, I put the dog out. Sometimes I would go outside with her, and sometimes not.
I would use this time with our previous dogs to take them for a walk around the block. But Whisper had medical issues that prevented her from walking for long distances. She was content to mosey around the backyard at her own pace. When she was ready to come in, she would bark. At that point, it was time for me to get to work.
Sometimes, later in the morning, she would bark to go outside again. I’d get up from my computer, walk to the back door and put her out before returning to work, keeping an ear out for when she barks to come back in.
At lunchtime, after eating my meal, I would often go outside with her to walk around. Shetland Sheepdogs are herding dogs, so I would walk around the backyard or sometimes around the house in random patterns, and Whisper would slowly follow me. I would do this for half an hour or so before coming back inside to work.
Then, sometime around 3 pm, which was doggie snack time, Whisper would let me know she wanted a treat. I’d get up from my computer, go to the kitchen and select one of the many varieties of goodies we had for her. I’d make her do some small trick to earn the reward, give her the treat, and then put her out again. Once she was back inside, I was pretty good for the rest of the day until my wife got home.
That was pretty well my daily routine.
But this past week, without Whisper to take care of, things changed a lot. After my wife left in the morning, I got ready and immediately got to work. I sat at my computer until 12 to 12:30, when I finally got up to eat. I spent maybe 15-20 minutes preparing and consuming my lunch before going straight back to work until my wife came home. This was my new routine every day this week. In fact, except for a quick appointment on Tuesday, where I was back home within the hour. I have not stepped foot outside my house this week.
I know that many designers are introverts, myself included. And you may think the idea of not going out sounds great. But it’s not sustainable. At least not if you want to remain healthy.
On Wednesday, when my wife got home, she commented on what a beautiful day it was. I hadn’t realized it. I don’t even know if I looked out the window throughout the day.
Now I don’t know if this is because of the extra workload I currently have. I’ve taken on several new projects this month, and it’s caused me to fall a bit behind on my design work. And this past week has been exceedingly hectic. I’m hoping that’s all it is because I’m already seeing the effects after just one week.
I’ve been trying to lose weight. My blood pressure is a bit elevated, and I’m hoping that losing some weight will help get it back under control. And yet, when I weighed myself this morning, I was 3.25 KG or just over 7 lbs heavier than I was at this time last week. So not only did I gain weight this week. But I gained more this past week than I have any other week over the past year.
I know my eating habits haven’t changed. If anything, I ate less this past week because I wasn’t grabbing snacks throughout the day whenever I got up from my computer. But my activity level sure has gone down. It wasn’t like I was doing heavy cardio before. But no longer getting up from my computer a few times a day or spending 30 minutes walking around the yard with Whisper shows its effect. And I need to change things and change them fast.
Yes, we will eventually get a new dog. But until then, I’m going to have to consciously make an effort to get up and move throughout the day.
Maybe it’s paying closer attention to my Apple Watch will help. It reminds me every so often to stand up. But I long ago conditioned myself to ignore that prompt. I know I can turn it off in the settings if I don’t want to see it, but that defeats the good intentions even if I don’t follow through.
But I have to do something. If I don’t, I’m afraid the time and effort I’ve put into losing the weight I have so far will have been for naught. This adds one more reason for me to look forward to our next dog.
But this isn’t just about me. You may be in a similar situation.
If you’re lucky, you have a dog to remind you to get up and move from time to time. But if not. What are you doing to motivate yourself to do so?
There are many ways isolation can take a toll on you both physically and mentally. I talked about them back in episode 105. But until this past week, I had never experienced this sedentary lifestyle. At least not to this extent. And there’s a danger in that.
As home-based designers, we need to take responsibility for our health and well-being. And that includes a certain amount of activity during your day.
Seeing that jump on the scale this morning emphasized this problem for me. It’s only been a week. What if I had waited a month before weighing myself? How bad would the damage have been then?
Is it possible that the scale would have gone up even if I was still following my routine of taking care of Whisper? Sure, it’s possible. But I’m not too fond of the coincidence.
You need to sacrifice a lot of yourself if you want to run a successful design business. There’s your time, of course. There are also your relationships with family and friends that may suffer to an extent. Your sanity may take a toll, depending on the clients you work with, and so on. But that investment in your business shouldn’t come at the cost of your health.
I didn’t realize how the little bit of activity I did each day could add up. Or the effects of eliminating that activity would have on me. And I’m glad it only took me a week to realize it. Now that I know. I can remedy it. As soon as I finish this, I plan on going for a walk around the block. It looks like a nice day outside, so I might as well take advantage of it.
But what are you doing to help yourself? How many hours do you spend at your computer or workstation without getting up? What can you do to increase your daily activity level?
It doesn’t take much, you know. So make an effort. Whatever you’re doing now, try to do more tomorrow, the next day and so on. Because the healthier you are, the longer you’ll be around to run your design business. So it will pay off in more ways than one.
I don’t have the one true answer to this question. I wish I did. Every person, including you, has to find their solution to this problem. But it should be searching for something.
And if you do have a solution that works for you, please share it with me. Let me know how do you remind yourself to stay active, especially during the workday. Please send me a message.
Let me ask you a question. Does being a designer, either graphic, web, UX, UI or whatever, qualify you to run your own design business? Some people may say yes. After all, are there any differences between designing something for an employer or an employer's clients and designing something for your own clients? Not really. I'll concede that the design skills you use are the same in both instances.
However, just because the design skills are the same doesn't qualify a designer to run their own design business.
Does education play into it? Is someone who attended design school somehow more qualified to run their own design business than someone who learned their skills on their own? The school-taught designer may have some business credits under their belt. But arguably, educational background or lack thereof doesn't qualify or disqualify a designer from running their own business.
No, in my opinion, and I do understand that my opinion may be wrong, but it's still my opinion. Is that what differentiates a designer who is qualified to run their own design business and one who isn't is their personality. Or, more accurately, personalities.
Last week, I told you there were two roles to running a design business: a designer and a business owner. That's a very simplified approach, and it worked for last week's episode. But the truth of the matter is, there are way more than just two roles to running a successful design business. To do it right, you need to have many personalities. And I'm not just talking about the obvious ones.
and so on and so on.
Being a designer means you should be somewhat proficient or have a working knowledge of some if not all of these skills.
I'm not an illustrator. But that doesn't mean I can't draw. I can; I'm just not that good at it. My drawing skills are marginal at best. But they've gotten me out of several pinches over the years. Skills like these are something every designer needs to be acquainted with, regardless of whether they are working for someone else or self-employed.
When I say that a design business owner has to have many personalities, I'm thinking much deeper. In most situations, a self-employed or freelance designer will develop a much deeper relationship with their clients than someone employed as a designer. That relationship is deeper because it's their client.
When I used to work at the print shop, I worked with many regular clients. Most of them I got along with exceptionally well. But regardless of how well we worked together, they weren't my clients. They were the print shop's clients. When I left the print shop to start my own full-time design business, almost all of the clients I worked with remained there and were assigned a new designer to work with them. Only a handful of clients followed me to my new business. And you know what? The relationship we had formed at the print shop grew exponentially once they were MY CLIENTS.
Why did our relationship grow? It's because I was invested in those clients in a way that I never was at the print shop.
For one thing, when I was at the print shop, if something went wrong with a client's project, I might get some of the blame. But it's the print shop's reputation that took the major hit. And if something went right, for example, if a design won an award which happened on several occasions. The designer would get a mention, but the print shop got most of the recognition and glory.
Once I was on my own, and they became my clients, I was much more invested in them because anything that went wrong reflected directly on me, which could affect my business. And anything that went right meant more recognition for me.
But I'm starting to drift back towards the design part of the job. And once again, that part can be done by any designer. The business side, however, that side requires something special. It requires the designer to put their many personalities to use, building and strengthening the relationships with their clients.
You're probably wondering what the heck I'm talking about. So let me describe some of the many personalities a design business owner must-have.
Just like how a practicing psychologist is trained to assess and diagnose problems in thinking, feeling and behaviour to help people overcome or manage their problems. A freelance designer must do the same with their clients. It's your job to assess and diagnose and find a way to overcome the problems your clients are facing.
In many cases, the problems your clients think they are facing may not be the actual problem. You must use your psychology skills to weed through and decipher everything the client tells you to figure out the root of the real problem. Only then can you offer them the proper solution.
Many designers will give a client what they want. It would be best if you strived to do better by giving the client not what they want but what they need. Your psychologist personality can help you with that.
A mediator's job is to facilitate a conversation between two or more people to help them resolve a dispute. A mediator is trained to establish and maintain a safe, confidential, communicative process and help participants reach an agreement independently.
If you've ever had to present a proposal to a committee, I can almost guarantee that your mediator personality was front and centre.
As a mediator, your job is to ensure that all involved parties agree on how a project proceeds. This may involve getting clients to compromises on specific aspects of a project and convincing them to let go of particular ideas. Without this agreement between all parties, any design project will struggle.
It's your job as the designer to ensure that everyone is satisfied. Your mediator personality can help you with that.
As the mediator, a negotiator's job is to communicate with clients to negotiate and establish sales. All while building positive relationships in the process.
Your negotiator skills will come in especially handy when pitching larger projects. A client may love your ideas, but not so much the price tag associated with those ideas.
As a negotiator, it's your job to show the client why your proposal is worth the investment on their part. And should the price of a project remain a deciding factor, your negotiating skills will allow you to cut back on details of your proposal in a way that still satisfies the client's needs and, more importantly, meet the client's budget.
Your negotiator personality can help you with that.
A salesperson's job is to find prospective clients, identify their challenges and needs, and ultimately find them a solution. Any time you correspond with a potential new client, it's your salesperson personality that's talking. This personality's job is to build trust and ultimately convince a potential client of the benefits of working with you.
This personality is the one that should be front and center any time you are out networking or any time someone asks what you do for a living or inquires about your business and services. The more adept you are with your salesperson personality, the more successful your design business will be.
You usually think of a babysitter as someone in charge of taking care of someone else's child or children. Their responsibilities include making sure the children are safe, getting the care and attention they deserve, and adhering to their parent's standards.
Think of the assets a client bestows you as their children. Because in a way, they are. Their logo, their images, their brand assets and styling, are all entrusted to you. You are responsible for ensuring they are taken care of, kept safe, get the attention they deserver, and adhere to the client's standards.
In some cases, you are the one who developed those standards. But often enough, you will be entrusted with your client's "children" and expected to take care of them. Your babysitter personality better be up to the task.
A researcher's job is to collect, organize, analyze, and interpret data and opinions, explore issues, solve problems and predict trends. Sound familiar?
If you've ever held a discovery meeting with a client or have investigated a client's target market and competition, you were using your researcher personality.
Nurturing this personality is crucial to your growth as a designer and as a business owner. The more you can learn about your clients, their strengths and weaknesses, the markets they're in, the hurdles and challenges they face, the competition they're up against, the benefits they offer and how they can differentiate themselves, the better equipped you will be to do your job.
Not to mention the higher prices you'll be able to charge.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe." Think of research as that first 45 minutes. The better you do it, the easier the rest of your tasks will be. That's where your researcher's personality comes in.
A teacher is someone who instructs. Their job is to ensure someone knows the outcome of whatever it is they are teaching. An educator, on the other hand, is someone who gives intellectual, moral and social instructions.
In other words, an educator not only wants you to know the outcome, but they also want you to understand the reasons for the outcome. It's the difference between telling a client their idea won't work and explaining why a different approach might be a better option.
The more you can educate a client in how design works, the better they will become as clients. Not only that, but the more you educate your clients, the higher they'll regard and trust your opinions.
Don't teach them; educate them if you want to build a deep and lasting relationship with your clients. They'll thank you, or should I say your educator personality, for the knowledge.
I could go on and on. There are so many personalities involved with running a design business. Some days you may have to be a coach and some days a councillor. You regularly need to be a tactician to keep on track of your ever-evolving schedule. And at times, you become an advisor or consultant to your clients. And if you're lucky, a confidant.
Now, of course, you don't actually switch between one personality and another. they should all be present in some capacity in every client dealing you have. They're what make you who you are.
Your goal should be to nurture each one of these personalities to become the best, most rounded design business owner you can be.
With all of these personalities behind you, you become a force to be reckoned with. And clients will be begging to work with you.
I started by saying that what qualifies a designer to run their own business are these many personalities. And I hinted that designers who work for someone else might lack these personalities and therefore not make good design business owners. But that's not true. I believe everyone has these and many more personalities within them. It's only a matter of accessing and nurturing them.
Just like a muscle, if you don't use it, it will atrophy. So will these personalities.
If you work at an agency and someone else deals with the clients while you do the design work, you'll have little chance to practice your selling skills. You'll probably never get an opportunity to negotiate with a client or mediate a committee. I want you to be aware that these are skills you will need should you ever want to become a freelancer. And if you are not used to using these skills, you may have a difficult time at the start.
But just like a muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. And it's the same for running a design business. The more you work at it, the better you'll become.
After all, you have to start somewhere. And that's where your optimist personality comes in.
As a freelance designer, you will face peaks and valleys while running your business.
I've said it before, and I'll repeat it. There's nothing better than working for yourself. From deciding who you want to work with to how much you want to charge for your work. Being your own boss is, well, liberating.
As your own boss, you get to set your own hours. Want to waste time during the day and work at night? That's your prerogative. Feel like getting away for a few days? Go ahead. You don't need permission to take time off.
When you're working for yourself, you get to chose where and how you want to work. If you feel like spending the day at a coffee shop working away on your laptop, you can. If you feel like hunkering down at home to avoid all distractions, go for it. As a self-employed designer, a freelancer if you will, you have the freedom to make your destiny. I don't think there's any better career than that.
However, I will give kudos to one aspect of working as a design employee for someone else—a steady paycheque.
With all the restrictions, limitations and handholding that may come with being an employee, the one bright light is the knowledge that every week or two, on schedule, a predetermined amount of money gets deposited into your bank account. This money shows up regardless of how busy or not busy you were. This steady paycheque may be the only way that being a designer trumps being a freelancer.
It's true. As a self-employed designer, a freelancer, you never know when or where you'll get your next payment. Nor how much it will be. And that can cause a lot of stress in your life, especially if you are the primary breadwinner in your household. Because even though your income may be unpredictable, your monthly expenses are not. They show up right on schedule regardless of the balance in your bank account.
I wish I could tell you there's a simple solution to this dilemma, but there isn't. Ask any self-employed designer, and they'll let you know of their experiences navigating these peaks and valleys. Peaks when work, and of course income is in abundance. And valleys when they become scarce. There is no solution if you want to remain a freelancer.
However, there are ways to mitigate the problem so peaks and valleys even out over time. Here's what's worked for me and some other methods I've heard work for other designers.
Recurring revenue is as it sounds. It's revenue (or income) that recurs regularly.
The best way to acquire recurring revenue is by offering a retainer to your clients. I talked about retainer agreements in episode 32 of the podcast and again in episode 255. The gist of a retainer agreement is offering an ongoing service to your clients that they pay for regularly.
In some cases, you may have to sacrifice some income for the guarantee of this recurring revenue. For example, If your hourly rate is $100, you may want to offer a retainer where, if a client guarantees to pre-purchase 10 hours of your time per month, you'll only charge them $90/hr for them.
Or if a client asks you to design social media posts regularly. You could offer a retainer agreement where they guarantee to pay a fixed fee for a certain number of graphics every month.
Since retainer agreements are guaranteed recurring revenue, they act as a regular paycheck similar to what you'd get as a design employee. Some designers work exclusively on retainer agreements, allowing them to predict how much money they earn each month.
There's a lot more to retainer agreements than just this. I suggest you listen to episodes 32 and 255 of the podcast if you want to learn more about them. But suffice it to say, retainer agreements are a great way to even out the peaks and valleys.
Website maintenance agreements.
Another form of recurring revenue if you're a web designer is to offer a website maintenance agreement. A website maintenance agreement states that you will secure, update and take care of a client's website for a fixed monthly fee. It's kind of an insurance polity for their website.
Website maintenance agreements require very little time and effort on your part and offer peace of mind to your clients.
Selling digital products.
Another form of recurring revenue, although not as steady or predictable as retainer agreements or maintenance agreements, is selling digital goods and products.
You are a designer, a creative visionary. Why not use the design skills you offer your clients and put them to use for yourself? There are many platforms such as Creative Market or Design Cuts where you sell your creative wares. These offerings are available for purchase by other creatives and people who need certain assets but may not have the skills to create them themselves.
I've created dozens of designs that I sell on various print-on-demand platforms. I get paid any time someone buys a t-shirt, coffee mug, phone case or sticker with one of my designs on it. This is another form of a digital product.
For me, it's not enough to make a living. At least not with my few dozen designs I sell. But every month, I receive anywhere between $70 - $120 for my designs. Some of them I created years ago, and I'm still collecting money from them. And I'm sure if I dedicated the time to make more of these designs regularly, I could generate a more considerable recurring income.
To learn more about selling digital products, listen to episode 155 of the podcast, where I talked about this exact topic with Tom Ross, the founder of Design Cuts.
So, all in all, recurring revenue is a great way to even out the peaks and valleys you'll encounter as a freelance designer.
Promote when you're busy.
There are other things you can do to help ease the peaks and valleys situation. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard is "Promote your business when you're busy." It's a case of don't wait until you're thirsty to dig a well.
It sounds crazy. When you're pulling your hair out because you have too many projects on the go and deadlines quickly approaching, the last thing on your mind is drumming up more work. But believe it or not, that's precisely the time you should be promoting your business. Why? Because marketing takes time to germinate.
The more you promote your business while you're busy and experiencing one of those peaks in workload, the less deep the valleys will be that you'll have to navigate once the work rush dies down. If you do this right, you may be able to raise those lulls to the point where instead of peaks and valleys, you'll be cruising across an even plain.
I know what you're thinking. If I'm that busy, how will I find the time to promote my design business? To that, let me say: Promoting your design business doesn't require a massive advertising campaign. All it takes is sending off a few emails to idle clients to ask how they're doing and if there's anything you can do for them. It doesn't take much. And if you do it right, your peaks and valleys won't be that severe.
Draw a salary from your business.
There's another way for you to lessen the impact of peaks and valleys. Remember when I said the one benefit of being a design employee is the regular paycheque? Want to know a little secret? You can make yourself a design employee of your own freelance design business and have the best of both worlds.
What? No way! Yes, way. I know many designers who do just this. They treat themselves as an employee and draw a regular paycheck from their own business. Here is how it works.
All revenue earned from design work, recurring revenue, and selling digital products belongs to your design business. It all goes into a business bank account and gets treated the same way any other company treats its capital assets. From that pool of money, you, the designer, draw a salary.
Running your company this way puts the burden of dealing with the peaks and valleys on your business and not on you, the designer. As far as you're concerned, those peaks and valleys even out because you draw the same salary every week regardless of the business' income. This method spreads out your income evenly over time. Let me give you an example.
Let's use some round numbers here and say you make your salary $500/week. One week you take on a $1200 web project. That $1200 is deposited into your business's bank account, and from it, you withdraw your weekly $500 salary, leaving $700 in the bank.
The following week things are slow, and the only work you get is a $300 poster design. That $300 is deposited into the bank, bringing the balance up to $1000. At the end of the week, you withdraw your $500 salary, which leaves $500 in the business bank account. Enough for your next week's salary should no work come in.
Here's the fun part. At any point, as the funds in the business' bank increase, you can always pay yourself a bonus. The other benefit is since the business has this money, it's available for business purchases such as new equipment or subscriptions and doesn't have to come out of your pocket, which lessens the hurt of spending it.
I know many designers who use this model. In most cases, those designers run their businesses as LLCs or some other form of corporation. I have my business set up as a sole proprietorship, so it's not easy to separate the business from myself.
I even know some designers who use a third-party employee payment service to prevent them from dipping into the business' bank account.
The best thing you can do is check with your accountant to see if this is a good model for you. It may offer tax benefits for you as well, especially if your business is incorporated.
Raise your rates.
The last idea I want to share with you has to do with the rates you charge. Many designers who switch from full-time employment to freelancing use their full-time salary to base their freelance rates. Don't. As a freelancer, you are expected to charge more.
If you were making $25/hr working for someone else, you should be charging your clients double or triple or even more for your services.
As a self-employed designer, you have to pay for your own benefits. Three are no sick days or vacation pay, or parental leave. You have to make sure you are compensated for the risk of lost income due to anything from medical emergencies to vacations in the tropics.
Call the higher rates you charge a form of self-insurance. You should make sure the money you earn today when things are going well will get you through the times when work dries up. You do this by charging enough to make sure your future is covered.
Not sure how to raise your rates? Luckily for you, I wrote a blog post on this exact topic.
It's up to you to deal with the peaks and valleys of freelancing.
These are some ideas for dealing with the peaks and valleys of a freelance income. It may sound daunting and stressful. And knowing about these peaks and valleys may have you thinking that working for someone else is looking more appealing. But if you can learn how to manage the fluctuating income of running your own design business. Chances are you'll not only outearn your employed counterpart. But you'll enjoy greater job security, autonomy and flexibility.
A 2018 study by Upwork shows that nearly three-quarters of full-time freelancers report earning more than when they had a full-time job. And 87% are optimistic about their future careers. In fact, more than half of respondents say no amount of money would get them to switch back to being full-time employees working for someone else. I know that's how I feel.
Remember, running your own design business is two jobs–a designer and a business owner. When you're pursuing your passion, it's easy to get caught up in the former and forget about the latter. If all of your focus is on your design work, you're only doing half your job. It's that business owner side that needs to do whatever you can to ensure those inevitable valleys you'll face are not as deep as they could be. You do that by following the advice I just shared with you.
One last thing.
I've been talking about these valleys as if they are a terrible thing. Something you should try to eliminate if at all possible. But when they do happen, and they will, try to enjoy those slower times. Use them to your advantage. Get out there and network. Contact old clients you haven't heard from in a while. Work on personal projects you've been neglecting. And make sure you use those slow times to work on your business. You know, all the things you told yourself you'd get to one day.
Heck, You can even use some of that slow time to relax and enjoy life. After all, when you're in a valley, it just means there is another peak on the horizon.
Earlier this week, a member of the Resourceful Designer Community was seeking advice. A potential client contacted her asking if she designs book covers, which she does. Before replying to this unknown person, she decided to investigate who they were. She discovered that this potential client is an author. And the subject they write about is something the design is strongly against.
The Community member wanted our advice on how to proceed. Should she turn down the client, or should she wait to hear more about the project before deciding?
As always, when someone asks a question in the Community, she received lots of great advice. The consensus was she should hear them out before deciding what to do. After all, their new book might not have anything to do with the subject of their previous books.
But this posed a bigger question. What reasons are there to turn down a lucrative design project?
In episode 133 of Resourceful Designer, I shared 12 Red Flags For Spotting Bad Design Clients. Most of those Red Flags only become visible after you’ve started working with a client. Stuff such as the client being rude to you or inconsistent communication.
In the episode after that one, episode 134, I shared ways to turn away clients politely. It included sample scripts you can copy and paste for yourself. You may want to refer to that episode after you’ve finished listening to this one. Some of those scripts apply to today’s topic.
It’s one thing to spot the red flags once you’ve started working with a client. But how can you avoid ever working with them in the first place? And why would you want to turn them down? After all, we’re in this business to make money. And when you’re first starting, it may seem like a foreign concept to turn down a paying gig.
What I can tell you is that after 30+ years of working with design clients, knowing when a client isn’t a good fit and how to turn them down becomes a top priority whenever you meet a potential new client. You’re better off putting your time and energy into finding better clients to work with.
If you’re a long-time follower of Resourceful Designer, you’ve heard me many times before say that you don’t work for your clients. You work with them. You need to consider every client relationship as a partnership. At least for the duration of the project. That may be only a couple of days or weeks. But it could also turn into something much longer. So you need to ask yourself every time you meet a potential new client. Is this someone I would like to partner with, yes or no?
There are many reasons why you shouldn't work with a client. Some of them are nefarious reasons.
There could also be legitimate reasons for not working with a client. These reasons have nothing to do with the client persé and more with you.
All good reasons to turn down a client. But, ultimately, the biggest contributing factor to whether or not you should work with a client is your gut. Trust your gut. It’s seldom wrong.
Mike, a founding member of the Resourceful Designer Community, gave the best answer to the original question. Whenever Mike finds himself in a situation where he’s uncertain about a potential client, he asks himself three questions.
Think about that. Any time you say yes to something, it means you’re inadvertently saying no to something else. There’s always something that has to give, even if it’s your personal or family life.
If taking on this new project means neglecting another client’s project, it may not be a good idea, especially if the existing client’s project is more profitable.
Likewise, if taking on this project means you’re going to lose out on time with your spouse or kids, it may not be a good idea. The extra money may be nice, but is it worth it if all your child remembers is mommy or daddy missed their game, their performance, their school outing?
Only you can weigh the options.
You may recall a story I’ve shared on the podcast before. I had a huge client I had worked with for years. They owned many different companies ranging from restaurants to car washes to a telecommunication company.
During my time working with them, they ended up acquiring a tobacco company.
According to a study by an anti-smoking organization, the biggest demographic increase in smokers was among girls between 12 to 18. My client wanted to use that information to their advantage and asked me to design a poster depicting their cigarettes that would appeal to girls in that age range.
I refused. There was no way I was going to be complicit in enticing young girls to start smoking. The client threatened to pull all their work from me and find another designer if I didn’t comply. So I fired them.
If a design project will be harmful to others. Turn down the job.
Think about that. Are you willing to put an existing client relationship at risk to earn some money from a new client? I hope not.
Of course, this one is a bit tricky. There’s a fine line between what could jeopardize a relationship and what wouldn’t. To some, having two clients who are competitors might not be a good idea. To others, it's not an issue.
In my opinion, the best way to interpret this third point is on moral grounds. For example, a designer with ties to the health industry may not want to take on a design project that discourages people from getting vaccinated. It’s not worth jeopardizing that relationship.
I encourage you to copy down and remember Mike’s three rules.
If a project fails any of these three criteria, it’s not worth taking on.
Brian, another member of the Resourceful Designer Community, also had a good suggestion. If a project is something you would be ashamed to have on your monitor if a child walked by, then it’s not worth taking.
I’ll add to Brian's statement by saying if it’s not something you would want to tell your mother you’re working on, then maybe you should take a pass.
Should you ever find yourself having to turn down a client or a project. Remember to look at episode 134 of Resourceful Designer, where I shared different scripts you can use depending on your situation.
We’re lucky that we chose a profession where confidence beats knowledge. Before I dive deeper into that, we first have to look at what confidence is.
According to disctionary.com, Confidence is the belief in oneself and one's powers or abilities.
Without confidence, your goals, your intentions, your ambitions might as well be called dreams. Because that’s all they’ll ever be if you don’t believe in yourself and your abilities.
I fully believe that without confidence, you cannot succeed as a design business owner. I’m not talking about being a designer. Many designers lack confidence in themselves. I know and have worked with designers who fall into that category. I’m talking about running your own design business. Being a freelancer if that’s what you want to call yourself.
But I digress.
Confidence. If you want to succeed in this business, you need confidence.
But what about knowledge? Don’t you need knowledge to succeed? That’s a trick question. The definition of knowledge, according to dictionary.com, is an acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation. Acquaintance. What an interesting word to use. Most of the time, when you think of acquaintances, you think of people you know of but don’t necessarily know.
I consider Betty, the cashier at the grocery store I go to, as an acquaintance. She knows me by name, and we exchange pleasantries whenever I’m in her checkout line. If we run into each other in town, we’ll smile at each other and say hi, but that’s the extent of our interaction. We’re acquaintances.
Merriam-Webster defines knowledge as The fact or condition of being aware of something. Being aware of something? According to this dictionary meaning, that’s all that’s required to have knowledge.
So, according to two reputable sources on the meaning of all things. Knowledge doesn’t mean intimately knowing something. It just means being acquainted or aware of something. When you think of the definition in that way, you realize that you don’t actually need to know something to succeed. What you need is confidence in your ability to seek knowledge. And that's why confidence beats knowledge.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of times when knowledge trumps confidence. If I’m about to have surgery, yes, I want a confident surgeon, but I hope their knowledge of the procedure they’re about to perform supersedes that confidence.
If I’m about to take a trip, I’m less interested in how confident the pilot is and more concerned that they know how to fly a plane.
But when it comes to design or to run a design business, confidence beats knowledge.
You probably don’t remember, but there was a time in your life when you were very young when you didn’t know how to walk. You crawled around on all fours. Or maybe you were one of those butt dragging babies. Regardless, one day, after spending your entire life so far on the ground, you got up and walked.
At one time, you didn’t know how to ride a bike. Then one day, you did. You didn’t know how to swim. Then one day, you did. This applies to hundreds, or should I say thousands of accomplishments in your life. You didn’t know how to do something until you did.
I remember when my kids were young. Any time they would get frustrated and say, “I can’t do it,” I would calmly correct them by saying, “It’s not that you can’t do it. You just don’t know how to do it yet.” And once they learned, I would remind them how they felt before their accomplishment.
But what does Confidence beets Knowledge mean? It means that you don’t need to know how to do something before taking on the task of doing it. You just need to be confident that you’ll figure it out.
I admit I didn’t always feel this way. Back in 2006, I was approached by our local library to design a new website. They had heard good things about me from several people and had decided I was the one they wanted to work with.
This was going to be a huge project. In fact, I was a bit intimidated when I found out their budget for the website was $50,000. That was more than I made in a year back then.
The library wanted their new website to be connected to their catalogue of books. They wanted visitors to the website to tell what books they carry, if they were available for loan or already checked out. And if the latter, when they would be back. They also wanted members to be able to reserve books for pickup and put holds on books. All the typical things you expect of a library’s website today. But in 2006, not many libraries had integrated catalogues on their website.
I knew enough about websites to know that it was way beyond my capabilities. At that time, I was hand-coding websites in HTML and CSS. However, this website would require a database and therefore PHP and MySQL.
The problem was, I didn’t know PHP or MySQL. And even though I tried to learn it in a hurry, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the concept. Where HTML and CSS were so easy for me. PHP left me stumped. No matter how many books I read or courses I took, I just couldn’t grasp it. Maybe it was the pressure I was under to learn it quickly to start on the website. I don’t know. But in the end, I gave up.
Now you may be thinking, you gave it a good shot, Mark, but at least you could hire someone to do the coding for you.
Well… I kick myself to this day for not thinking of that. No, that’s not right. I did think of it. I just didn’t have the confidence back then to follow through. I didn’t know what to do. I realized I didn’t have the skills required for the project, but I didn’t know how to find someone to help me. I knew what I needed to do but not the confidence to follow through.
Upwork’s former halves Elance and oDesk were around back then, but I wasn’t aware of them or any other online platform I could turn to. So, backed into a corner, I did the only thing I thought I could do. I contacted the library and told them I couldn’t take on the project.
I turned down a $50,000 job.
Several months later, their new website was up and running, I talked to my contact at the library, and he told me who they had hired to do the job. I was taken aback. I knew the person they hired. And I also believed their knowledge of web design wasn't much more than mine. So how did they pull it off?
I ran into them shortly after that and asked them. You guessed it, they created the design look for the site but had hired someone to do the actual coding. It cost them $12,000 to hire a developer to complete the site for them.
Presuming they were being paid the same $50,000 I had been offered, that meant they made $38,000 just for designing the look of the website. And I lost out on that money because of my lack of confidence.
That lesson taught me a lot.
1) I was an idiot for not thinking of hiring someone myself.
But most importantly
2) I lacked confidence from the moment I was presented with the website project. I figured I didn’t have the knowledge and, therefore, couldn’t handle the job.
If I wanted to succeed in this business, I would need to rectify that. I would need to be more confident in what I could get done.
Since that fateful day, I have never turned down a job for lack of knowledge. When a client asks me if I can do something that I’m unsure of or flat out don’t know how to do. I answer them with confidence that I can get the job done. And then I figure out either how to do it or who to hire to do it for me.
Confidence beats knowledge.
It’s great to be able to hire a contractor when you need one. We’re lucky that there are so many options with good talented people available to us. But nothing beats learning how to do something yourself.
You know that old saying, give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Providing he likes fish, that is. But the same concept applies to us as designers. I love hiring contractors to help me. But given the opportunity, I would much prefer to learn the skill and do the job myself.
There are ways you can do just that while working on client jobs. Not sure how to do something the client is asking for? Chances are there’s a blog article or YouTube video that will walk you through it.
But sometimes, it’s a good idea to be your own guinea pig.
If you’ve been following Resourceful Designer for a while, you know that I design websites in WordPress. Specifically using the Divi Builder from Elegant Themes. However, I just told you how I was hand-coding websites for clients.
I remember in the early 2010s, fellow web designers telling me I should try WordPress. But I had a strong aversion to WordPress. To me, the fact that WordPress used predesigned themes was an afront to designers. There was no way I would build a website for a client using someone else's design.
But in 2013, I was getting into podcasting and was told that I needed a WordPress website to generate the RSS feed for the show. Very reluctantly, I installed WordPress and bought a theme called Evolution from Elegant Themes. This was before they came out with Divi. In fact, the friend who was helping me get started in podcasting had an affiliate link to Elegant Themes. Hence, as a way to repay him for his kindness, I bought a lifetime deal through his link, even though I only needed one theme and had no plans on building any WordPress websites beyond my own.
That decision to buy the lifetime deal may have changed the course of my life—more on that in a moment.
So I built my WordPress website and had to admit that there was a lot more flexibility in it than I originally believed. The theme did restrain me somewhat, but at least I could control how each part of it looked, even if I had no control over the layout itself.
That was in June of 2013. December of that same year, Elegant Themes released Divi. And it changed my view of WordPress.
Since I had a lifetime deal with Elegant Themes, it cost me nothing to test Divi out. I installed it on a dummy site I didn't care about and really liked how it worked. Divi was a game-changer. Here was a theme that gave me full control over how each element of a website looked and how each element was placed out on the screen. I could make a website look like how I wanted it to look. Not like how some theme designer wanted it to look.
The next time I had a client website project to work on, I used my newfound confidence in my ability to make WordPress work for me and switched to WordPress and Divi. And I haven’t looked back.
If I hadn’t used myself as a guinea pig and tested out WordPress on my own website and then Divi on a dummy site, I probably never would have made the switch to what I do today.
Since then, there have been many times when I used myself as a guinea pig to test things and build my confidence. Be it new software or new features in existing software. Offering services I had previously never offered. Taking on projects I had never done before. Working on stuff for myself gave me the confidence to then use those skills on client work.
Even today. I recently started building a website for a personal project I’m doing. And even though I’ve been a devoted Divi fan since day one, I decided to build my new website using Elementor. Why? Because I know the day will come when a client will ask me to take over a website built using Elementor. So why not get my feet wet on a project of my own choosing. So When the time comes, I’ll have a better understanding of what I’m working with.
So all of this to say, without confidence, I don’t believe you can get very far as a design business owner. It’s nice to have the knowledge, but confidence in yourself and what you do with that knowledge will propel you. Look at any successful freelancer you know, and you’ll see that they exude confidence. That’s the secret to their success.
Confidence always beats Knowledge. Or at least, almost always.
Let me ask you a question, is an email a contract?
Last month, a Mississippi court took up an interesting case looking at what it takes to make a contract by email.
Spoiler Alert: Not Much.
As you know, a contract is just another word to describe an agreement. So when you exchange emails with someone and come to terms on a deal you both agree on, you ARE making a contract.
In the Mississippi court case, the two parties had done just that... agreed on terms for the sale of some equipment in a series of emails.
Now here’s the tricky part.
One of the parties, Jordan, had proposed the initial offer from his computer’s email, which included his name and contact details in the signature. The other party, Parish, then countered the offer. But when responding to the counteroffer, Jordan used his iPhone to seal the deal with a “Let’s do it.” reply. The trouble is that the message had no signature from his iPhone other than “Send from iPhone.”
Jordan later sold the goods to another buyer at a higher price. Parish sued for breach of contract, but Jordan claimed that there was no valid signature to his email and, therefore, the exchange was not enforceable as an agreement.
The trial court agreed, and an appeals court affirmed. But the Mississippi Supreme Court found the state’s Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) permitted contracts to be formed by electronic means such as emails. Then, the Court stated that the determination of whether an email was electronically signed according to the UETA was a question of fact that turned on a party’s intent to adopt or accept the writing and is, therefore, a question for the finder of facts. So, because there exists a genuine factual question about Jordan’s intent, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
Anyway. That’s a lot of legal talks. But the takeaway is. Emails can be the basis for an enforceable contract.
So be careful in wording your messages. Even something as simple as “sounds good” could be deemed sufficient to bind you.
If you consider your emails merely preliminary to a formal, written contract on paper, SAY SO. Add something to the signature of your emails, such as “this email message is preliminary and shall not constitute a binding agreement, which may only be made in a formal, written memorandum executed by all parties.”
Adding a simple line like this can save you a lot of trouble should a client ever try to hold you accountable for something mentioned in an email.
It makes you think.