We have many dreams when we were young. Some want to be rich. Some want to create great things. Some want to make a difference and do work that they enjoy.
However, many of us find ourselves disillusioned by corporate structures when we start to work. If this has happened to you then, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s happened to many designers. And more and more of them are starting their own companies.
Advice for Running a Graphic Design Business from the Experts
I sent off a quick questionnaire to a few freelance or independent graphic designers to see if there were any “rules” or common practices involved in running a graphic design business from home. The answers were fascinating, we found out, for example, that most of us charge 50% up front, only 50% of us always use contracts and that we spend on average 1.6 hours a day indulging in personal social media unrelated to work. More results here:
- Graphic Designers’ Hardware, Software and Back-up
- Survey Results: How Graphic Designers Get Paid
- What Designers Do, How They Make Money and Where They Find Clients
At the end of the questionnaire there was space for the designers to write a few more words of advice to up-and-coming designers who want to “go it alone”. When I put these all together I thought they comprised a great “how-to” for mastering the design industry. I agree with all of them 100%. Follow these words closely and you can’t go wrong.
David Airey is a brand identity designer or the “go-to logo guy” who’s clients include the Yellow Pages (Canada), Giacom (England) and Berthier Associates (Japan). His graphic design blogs Logo Design Love, DavidAirey.com and brand identity showcase Identity Designed attract more than one million monthly page views. His successful book Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities has been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, Czech, German, Polish, Korean, and Russian.
I’ve been reading’s David’s blogs for years, in fact, I almost use David as a “yardstick” to judge my site against as he is that much of a shining example of a graphic designer in business. Interesting that David, a man who doesn’t seem to make mistakes, chose this quote as one to advise designers with:
“Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Everyone makes them. The important part is accepting responsibility and learning from your errors.”
Douglas Bonneville runs a “small and nimble” graphic design firm in Rhode Island and has serviced Providence, Boston and the world since 1992. Doug began his blog and moved his site over to WordPress two years ago and quickly became established as a typography expert. He has been published on Smashing Magazine and other industry blogs on the subject of font combinations and now offers The Big Book Of Font Combinations eBook as well as the Font Combinations iPhone app on his site.
This strategy of finding what you’re good at and sticking at it is reflected in this piece of advice:
“Find a niche and fill it. You may have to start broad but narrow your skill set and master some specialty niches. If you don’t, you will join the nameless ranks of generalists who were also afraid to specialize, and now pay the price of flipping burgers with most of their time. Generalists have little definable expertise and thus little definable value.”
Randa Clay is an awesome designer and WordPress expert. She seeks to help her clients become successful, utilising a complete package of services that includes custom logo design, print design and production, custom web site and blog design and customization. So like me she considers herself a marketing consultant as well as a graphic designer.
Randa came up with a couple of things. The first was a link to this rather fantastic image created by Ben Crick:
“Do not work for free under the guise of good exposure. It is bad exposure. If you don’t value your own work, neither will anyone else.”
I’m not going to disagree with that! As soon as a potential client asks for free work from me, they’re 5 seconds away from the end of the conversation! Her second piece of advice is just as good. This goes along with something I’ve been saying here for years: start your own blog and forge partnerships with others in your field. Read every word of it:
“If you want to get business you must have an awesome website, showing your best work and a nice, friendly picture of yourself. People prefer to hire someone who looks friendly rather than a faceless internet presence. Include a blog on the site (for the SEO value if nothing else). Find successful designers in the same niche and get to know them by commenting on their blogs, Twitter, etc. Once you’ve established a relationship, send them a nice note, complementing their work, and let them know you do similar work.Tell them if they ever have pass-along work they don’t have time for, you’d appreciate a referral.”
Chris Spooner doesn’t just sit in front of his shiny Apple computer all day long creating snazzy designs for cool folks from around the world, he blogs about it as well. His first blog contains beautiful tutorials for designers on Photoshop, Illustrator and the like as well as fantastic video advice for designers. And in March 2009 he launched Line25, an equally excellent blog covering all aspects of web design. He also has a labrador called Jake and goes on a lot about Black Ops which I believe is some sort of computer game.
Chris’s advice is pure Chris. Read it carefully as it basically summarises his success in the last few years in only a few words:
“I always advise up-and-coming designers to just keep practicing and experimenting. Use things that capture your interest in everyday life as material for personal projects, then share your thoughts, processes and the things you learn with others. This is essentially what I do on a daily basis and has seemed to land me some great opportunities so far!”
Ryan Scherf is an designer, developer, author, teacher and entrepreneur from Minneapolis, MN, USA. You just have to look at some of the work featured on his homepage to see that Ryan produces some of the most beautiful and creative websites you will ever see. When he’s not slaving away at night for his clients, he’s working on his healthcare startup Bloom Health. Although Ryan has only had 5 hours sleep in the last 3 weeks due to a new addition to his family, he still found time to contribute to this project. Thanks and congratulations, Ryan.
Ryan sent two, equally useful pieces of advice. The first one I agree with wholeheartedly. I’ve said many times on my blog it’s far easier to get clients to come to you rather than the other way round.
“Always be promoting yourself. The best way to find new leads is let them come to you.”
And secondly, he echoes the advice we found from our survey results about how designers get paid:
“Require 50% upfront, and don’t accept payment on monthly plans. It never works out how you intended.”
Mike Smith runs Made By Guerrilla a WordPress design studio from Knoxville, Tennessee, USA as well as a hugely interesting freelance design blog. Since he started working online in 2007, he has worked with over 200 clients, built hundreds of websites and wrote and published over 200 articles on various blogs, with topics ranging from freelance tips, design resources, showcase, tutorials and to “Guerrilla Marketing”. Mike describes guerilla marketing as “any of a number of unconventional methods of marketing with minimal resources for maximum results; any marketing campaign that uses non-mainstream tactics and locations”.
“Advice for other designers looking to start a freelance business – it’s not always going to be fun (invoicing, accounting, etc) but at the end of the day, it beats the hell out of going to someone else’s building and working to make someone else rich while we receive a small pay check :)”
Karen McDade is a South African freelance graphic designer currently working in Ireland. She has a blog where she writes about graphic design, mac stuff, software, games, books, etc., and displays her portfolio at OmegaRed.
Karen’s advice is right on the money for me where she stresses the importance of distinguishing between clients and time wasters:
“I would advise people to not take on just any client – if they hassle you about your price, or give you a lot of uphill then don’t bother with them. Nurture the relationships you have with your good clients, they are hard to find. Be prompt when corresponding with them and always give them your best work.”
John o’Nolan is a designer, entrepreneur, speaker, author, photographer but has taken to using the phrase “creative professional” to describe himself. He is the Deputy Head of the UI group for WordPress, founder and owner of Lyrical Media and avid twitterer.
It’s a little surprise then that this man of many words chose comparatively few to advise people in the business of graphic design:
“Under-promise, over-deliver, over-charge. If you fail to do any of these, you will make a loss.”
Now it’s your turn
Did we leave anything out? Is there anything you’d like to add to these words of wisdom? Which was your favorite?
I’ll leave you with this limerick from Douglas Bonneville:
There once was a graphic designer
Who could not draw a straight liner
Fresh out of school
She thought she was cool
And soon was a cook in a diner!
Download my e-book on how to run your own design business!