How much should graphic designers or design companies specialize? Should they hone their skills and expertise to a particular niche? Or should they provide a range of services for their clients?
When a graphic designer first starts out as a freelancer or when a new graphic design company has just set up, the temptation is to take any work that is offered. This is only natural, especially in a flat economy.
However, a lot of the designers I have spoken to about this say that pretty soon afterwards they were drawn to an area of design that they enjoyed the most.
If I asked you to think of a designer that does logos and brand identity you may well think of David Airey. David urges caution at first, “I think when you’re learning, it’s important not to limit yourself to a niche. The more you know about design in general, the better equipped you are when it comes to specialising.”
Knowing more about design and the experience of designing helps you to choose your speciality but, as Karen McDade points out, experience teaches you to choose your clients carefully as well:
“When I started freelancing a few years ago I took any work that came my way in an effort to build my business. After a while I had a lot of clients but, because I wasn’t selective, some of them were less than desirable. I ended up working long hours for all these clients who wouldn’t pay me on time (or at all). I was quite naïve and trusted in their word that they would eventually pay up. It came to ahead one night when, at about 3am, I realised I was working way too hard for the level of income I was actually bringing in.”
Having streamlined her clients, Karen now provides a better service to them and her portfolio has improved as a result. I can certainly attest to the importance of keeping good clients and letting the low quality, late paying clients go.
How do I specialize?
How do you choose the area of design to specialize in? Most designers say that this happens naturally as you are drawn to a particular area as it is particularly interesting or enjoyable for you.
Chris Spooner says, “I think it’s important to find a specialism, but it’s up to the designer to figure out how wide or narrow their specialism will be. For instance some designers might only offer design services in a very specific niche, which can establish them as the go-to expert in that field, whereas other designers might offer a wider range of services under the umbrella of a particular aspect of design, which obviously increases their potential client base. It all boils down to the designer’s interests and what kind of work they enjoy creating.”
I think Chris is absolutely right here. Seek out what you enjoy doing.
What do I specialize in?
An example of a particular niche would be WordPress websites and themes.
Mike Smith explains this: “I was someone who did a bit of everything when starting out. Ad Banners, CD covers, Flyers, Website headers (yes, just he headers lol), etc. I stumbled on WordPress and started building sites for myself and just learned the ins and outs of it so much that it only seemed right to offer WordPress themes as a service. Once that took off and started doing well, I started doing less and less of the other stuff. Nowadays I spend 90% of my days working with WordPress: Designing themes, coding my own themes, PSD to WP for other people, etc. I like specializing because it gives me the ability to focus on one thing and do it really well – people like that :)”
Your speciality can be any aspect of design: logos, brand identity, WordPress themes, WordPress and SEO, print collateral, anything!
However, designers tend to specialize in one aspect of design. Not in any particular industry. None of the designers who I spoke to specialized in a specific niche industry like education, retail or pharmaceuticals, for example. This may have happened with larger design companies in the recent past but not, it seems, with smaller design companies and independent designers now.
Taking it to the next level
So, you’ve specialized in your favorite aspect of design, what next? This isn’t the end of the story.
For instance, Adii Rockstar (I’m not sure if that’s his real name), specialized in creating WordPress themes and then hooked up with a couple of other guys and created WooThemes – a hugely successful theme company that have sold over 80,000 themes. Both Chris Pearson, the creator of the Thesis Theme and Brian Gardner, the creator of the Genesis Theme, have taken design to the next level by creating scalable businesses.
Here, Douglas Bonneville describes how he was able to turn his “active” design skills into “passive income”: “I really started to think about a product, and how I could step back from the crowd and say, ‘how can I help graphic designers and not so much clients anymore?’ I focused on treating myself as a client, producing my eBook and a few apps focused on typography. Things have gone extremely well since then, and I’d never go back!”
So, it is also possible to find a speciality that is beyond the client work and focusses on selling products.
I hope this has given you a few ideas about how you can develop, specialize and grow your business – whether it’s to do with design or not. Are you specializing in anything at the moment? Can you think of an area you particular enjoy that you would like to move into? What can you do to make sure you can get more work and specialize in that area?
As always, I would love to hear your opinions in the comments below. And, I would appreciate a tweet or a vote.
Thank you to all the designers who participated in this that weren’t mentioned above, for example Derek Kirk from Web Designers London, Randa Clay from Randa Clay WordPress Design, Lynne Venart from The Art Monkey, Kyle Richardson and Craig Wilson.