Work for Money, Design for Love
Find what motivates you and remind yourself how fortunate you are.
It’s called the design profession because it’s full of design professionals. So you’d assume that acting in a professional manner was the obvious path. However, time and time again, I see fellow professionals failing to act professionally; for instance, masking their portfolio work with all the latest Web bells and whistles, or showing artwork without any context or description.
Look at how the most well-known, well-respected design studios present themselves. Chermayeff & Geismar, Moving Brands, Pentagram, Wolff Olins, Landor, Turner Duckworth, venturethree, SomeOne, johnson banks. Their websites are easy to navigate, they make it easy to contact them, and the focus is strongly on their client work, shown in context.
The copy on your website, the way you answer the phone, the time it takes you to reply to emails, the way you dress—even if you work from home, alone—these and a hundred other little details all added together are what make all the difference. Think of it like a healthy marriage—you fill the years with endless little loving gestures, rather than a single, big, dramatic event surrounded by years of disappointments.
Don’t blindly trust your experience
Experience dominates our thought process. That’s why children have such vivid imaginations—they’re inexperienced. If you can free yourself from what you’ve done before, you open up a world of possibility.
When I accept a fresh project, I treat it like a new learning experience by first researching the basics of my client’s business. I look at the simplest ways in which a profit is made and the simplest goals of the business. What I don’t do is consider implementing unused designs from previous client projects. There are an increasing number of websites springing up that aim to make a profit off of designers selling their unused ideas.
Don’t forget to smile.
Smiling works and it costs nothing; I’ve won thousands of dollars worth of business after talking on the phone, wearing a smile that the client can’t see, but can hear.
The never-ending lesson
We can’t be expected to become experts overnight, regardless of the client or how much the particular business stokes our passion to learn. So we must also soak up all we can along the way, from project to project, from documentary to documentary, from news article to news article. And we take on lots of additional research beyond that.
The willingness to continually accumulate knowledge has benefits over time: The most highly remunerated design professionals are generally those who have amassed the most experience, because they have the most knowledge to draw upon for every new project, and because the more they know about life, the stronger their capacity to produce stunning work.
Other ways to keep learning
• Set aside 15 minutes each day to catch up on design-related blogs. It’s as easy as opening Google Reader (or a feed reader of your choice), which in seconds has you learning from the experiences of seasoned design practitioners.
• Once a month, arrange a short tour of a local design studio. Not only will you build your network of design contacts, but you’ll also learn how similar businesses operate. When contacting studio owners, always remember the question they’ll be asking themselves: “What’s in it for me?” That’s where your own blog comes into play. Offer free promotion of the studio to your website readers. Perhaps you could prepare a few business-related questions and make an interview out of your blog feature—you pick up business tips and build your contact list, and the studio gets free promotion.
• Organize a regular coffee morning or beer evening with designers and business owners in your area. It’s very likely you can work together or trade services for mutual benefit. At the same time, you can share war stories and learn from the mistakes of others, hopefully before making those mistakes yourself.
• Approach an experienced and respected designer in the hope that he or she will become your mentor. This is a huge responsibility for the person you contact, so be sure to state how many hours you expect to be devoted to you, over what period of time, and what you can do in return, such as the publishing of what you learn from your mentor on your blog (don’t make this sound like a huge benefit for your mentor, because it won’t be, especially as there’s an added benefit for you—it’ll help build your blog’s readership).
• Give a design presentation or hold a workshop in a nearby college. Some people say you can learn more from your students than they can from you. I disagree. But you can become inspired by their energy, enthusiasm, imagination, and the occasional fresh idea. You can be sure your own energy and passion will sometimes wane on your journey. That’s normal. Knowing how to pick them back up is what will make you great.
There are millions of designers, all competing for design clients. By placing yourself inside a specific design niche, you decrease the number of competitors and give yourself a greater chance of being the go-to name for the service you provide.
So by specializing, you increase the conversion rate when it comes to recommendations from your best salespeople—previous clients.
When you’re micro-focused, the content on your website is also micro-focused. How does this help? Search engines will come to treat your online presence as a source of expert advice around the topic you specialize in.
The late French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” In order to succeed in your new business, you need a plan, something that outlines your route, the resources you will need, and everything you hope to experience along the way. You need a business plan.
A business plan is both a touchstone and an aspirational document.
Your business plan is a comprehensive document that contains information about your marketplace; what your definition of success is (what personal income you would like to earn, for instance, or the date by which you can hire an employee); what to do when Plan A fails; your financial projections; and anything else relevant to your business. It’s a fluid document you can update when situations change, but do keep the original intact so in the future you can look back to see how far you’ve come. Obviously, if you’re using the document for outside investment in your business, it’ll need to look the part, but you’re a designer—that should come easy. However, do have at least one other person check it for typos.
Marketing guru and blogger Seth Godin offers particularly good advice. In one of his posts, from May 2010, he recommends five distinct sections in your business plan: truth, assertions, money, alternatives, and people. I’d suggest keeping the sections in this order.
Here’s some basic advice:
• Put the focus on what you’re selling. For visitors to turn into clients, they need to know what you can do for them, so add a short intro in a high-visibility area.
• Use dark text on a light/white background. It’s easier to read than white text on a dark/black background.
• Avoid trying to control typography by setting text within images. If your potential clients have poor eyesight they won’t be able to scale the text to a comfortable size without the text becoming pixelated, and search engines won’t be able to read the words you display (unhelpful for searchability).
• Don’t fall into the designer trap of using tiny text sizes. It’s not easy to read, and if a visitor can’t read what you’re offering, you won’t get hired.
• Show some cohesiveness between your website design and the rest of your brand identity. For instance, if the logo on your website is in the top left corner, put it at the top left of your business card and letterhead. Use the same typefaces, similar margins, and so on. It’s all a part of brand consistency.
• If you show third-party advertising (one of the additional income sources we’ll look at in chapter 20), keep it low-key. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a website filled with animated banners and unexpected pop-ups. Have respect for your self-image.