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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business

Offering resources to help streamline your home based graphic design and web design business so you can get back to what you do best… Designing!
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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business
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Now displaying: October, 2021
Oct 25, 2021

Are you getting enough activity?

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.

Oct 18, 2021

Which personality do you use most often?

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.

  • Layout artist
  • Typesetter
  • Proofreader
  • Illustrator
  • Colour picker
  • Photo retoucher
  • Coder
  • Art director

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.

Psychologist.

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.

Mediator.

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.

Negotiator.

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.

Salesperson.

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.

Babysitter.

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.

Researcher.

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.

Educator.

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.

Many more personalities.

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.

Oct 11, 2021

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.

Recurring revenue is as it sounds. It's revenue (or income) that recurs regularly.

Retainer agreements.

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.

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