January 10, 2023No Comments

Using goal-setting to get the right work

I don’t want to sound like a cliché here, but as we start a new year, it’s hard not to think about goal-setting. Of course, it’s important to set and review our business goals at various points in the year, but it feels kind of fitting to align new goals with the start of a new year, doesn’t it? So, cliché or not, I’d like to put some thoughts on paper about how I’m setting new goals to focus my marketing efforts as a graphic designer. Sharing some ideas on how and why I think it’s important to set goals so we can get more of the work we really want to do and less of the work we don’t necessarily enjoy.

I’m sure you can relate to this, particularly if you’ve been in graphic design for as many years as I have – feeling like you’re at a crossroads. A point where you’ve spent so many years taking any viable project that comes your way and being convinced that you have to do that because you need it to build a well-rounded portfolio and get enough money rolling in.

Is that the point of this gig, though? I know from my experience I had something else in mind. I want to win projects that excite me. Yet it never quite ends up that way. I’ve been here long enough to know which projects I’ve done that have really got under my skin. I can so easily tell you about the designs that have been so perfect that I’ve enjoyed doing above all others. So why am I not chasing more of those perfect projects? And why aren’t you?

Why bother with goals?

I know – creativity is mainly about spontaneity and creative inspiration. It seems to go against what we do to; make plans and goals. And yes, in the creative sense, it does, but I’m talking about setting future goals to get the work that allows us to tap into our natural creativity.

We’ve all had those jobs, haven’t we? The ones where it feels as though we’re wading through treacle. The inspiration is hard to cling to because we’re, in all honesty, not that passionate about it. And that’s not what we signed up for, right?

By setting goals, we can pinpoint those ideal jobs and find ways to seek them out.

Steps to finding the right projects

  1. The first goal to consider is the type of projects we want to work on. I think the simplest way to do that is to look back at your current portfolio and reflect on what’s in there. Which projects stand out? What was it about those projects that made them enjoyable? Was it the style? The client? The niche industry?

This will give you clues about who you want to target to get more of those jobs.

  1. Secondly, go back and find out where those clients came from. Did they find you through your website or social media? Did you contact them? See if there are any patterns to where those people came from.
  2. Now you’ll have an idea of the kinds of projects you’d like to do more of and the type of clients you’re most happy working with. 
  3. Now, you’ll want to think about exactly where you need to focus, given the information you gathered in points 1 and 2. If most of those ‘perfect’ clients seemed to come from LinkedIn, double your efforts there. If they seem to trickle through from your email newsletters, then that’s where you need to put most of your energy. On the other side, if you’ve been doing loads of work on one of those or on something else with no return – stop doing it!

Relationship building 

One of the things I’ve become aware of is that I need to focus on looking for people rather than projects. Because although I have a good idea of the types of projects I want, I know from past experience that it’s most often a particular type of client that makes my work most interesting.

Although I do a fair bit of cold marketing, I often get good results from online sources, such as my website, blog, social media, and LinkedIn. From my perspective, putting more effort into those going forward makes more sense. It might be different for you, so it’s a good idea to dig into it.

But throwing out social media posts and blogs, while important, is only part of the whole picture. Because what we really need to be doing is building relationships on our chosen mediums. For me, that means actually seeking out and talking to the kinds of people I want to work with via LinkedIn etc. I’m now starting to spend more time reading people’s posts and taking the time to reply and comment – striking up conversations. Sometimes, that’s potential clients, and sometimes, design and marketing agencies that could potentially outsource or collaborate.

The point is if we don’t think about our goals, who we want to work with, and the direction of our business, we can so quickly end up just…plodding.

How about you? Have you set any new goals recently? Are you using those goals to grow your business, find more niche projects, or maybe change direction altogether?

November 12, 2022No Comments

Pitching; yes, no, maybe sometimes…

Pitching for work, when/how/should you do it?

I recently saw an interesting ad on Facebook asking spot of pitching to be made for a rebranding project. It was for a cultural organisation currently undergoing a refurb and seeking designers to help them rebrand once they re-open to the public.

The organisation asked designers to ‘pitch’ for the project, providing a written response to the brief, along with some background and budget. It got me thinking about how often designers seek out pitching opportunities rather than firing shots in the dark – which is what cold pitching feels like sometimes.

My questions then, I suppose, are: when should designers pitch for projects, should we be seeking the opportunities out, and when should we say no?

What is pitching?

Pitching has always been around in design, and if we’re not careful, it can mean getting ripped off if designs need to be submitted from the off. I always avoid those like the plague, especially if they expect it for free.

What I’m talking about here, though, is when designers are asked to submit an outline for the project, as was requested in the ad I mentioned above.

From the organisation’s point of view, they’re seeking several ideas as to what a designer might be able to bring to their rebranding. They ask for ideas that represent the direction they want – thinking about structure, tone, and overall voice of the place – as well as the type of demographic of their audience.

By having many designers submit their ideas, they get a taste of what those designers can bring to the project and can select the one that they feel will be the best match for their brand going forward.

When pitching goes wrong

The ad that inspired this post (for which, by the way, I am (a little in two minds) putting my own pitch together…) is, I believe, a strong and responsible one. But I’ve experienced situations, both from myself and others I’ve spoken to, where sending that pitch has not gone well.

I’m well aware that some unscrupulous businesses will be more than happy to take advantage of the pitching process. Here’s something that I witnessed during my time at an agency years ago – it’s stuck with me, and I’ve heard that it’s happened to other people, too.

They had been asked to pitch for a job by a business that wanted ideas for a branding project. The pitch was sent, and after several weeks, nothing had come back. Assuming that we’d been unsuccessful, we kind of forgot about it. That was until we discovered that another agency they’d employed had, in fact, a scarily large proportion of the same ideas – too many to be purely coincidental.

This scenario isn’t uncommon. A business will ask another, cheaper agency to follow the structure and ideas of someone else. It’s not the designer’s fault – they have no idea. They’re simply being given a brief to follow.

It can be off-putting, and to be honest, I don’t really know how this situation could have been avoided. I’d like to say, look for warning signs, but they’re not always there. How can you possibly prove it after the fact? It can be complicated.

The only advice I can give is to do your research. If it’s a local business, ask around. If something feels off, trust your instincts. Should you avoid pitching? That’s a hard one to answer. Would you be missing out on some fantastic opportunities? Maybe. Is there a chance you’d take a loss? Sure – but if you don’t play, you can’t win, right?

Is there a right way to pitch?

You really have to dig down into what the job is asking for. How much information do they want? Do they want samples of actual designs? Or, like in this case, is it just a written outline or initial thoughts?

Remember – if you’re doing actual designs to show them, you’re essentially working for free. If they were to go ahead and use them, then you’re the one who loses out. They might be asking for samples of past work, which is better, but never give up your time and talents for nothing.

I like the sound of the ‘written response’. It lets me think about the ‘how’ without revealing anything in an obvious way. It allows me to tell the client where I’d like to take the project, why, and how I’d go about it. It kind of inspires and forces me to think beyond the design work in a visual sense.

What are your thoughts on pitching? Have you any experiences or advice? Any horror stories – or big wins? I’d be really interested to hear them.

October 14, 2022No Comments

The winner is…🤫

Are graphic design awards good for business?

I mentioned here and here that I have been nominated for and won awards for a few projects I have undertaken, and I confess that those awards have given me a lot of pride and pleasure in what I do. But I wanted to talk a little bit about the business side of awards – are they worth it? Do they help to get recognition and, therefore, more/better-paying clients? Or should we just put our focus on other things instead?

Perhaps you’ll be surprised by my insights on design awards, or maybe you’ll agree with me. But my reasons for even considering awards as part of my business are more personal.

My views on the awards I’ve won

Even though I’ve entered work and won a few things. It still feels a bit of a grey area to me. I suppose it always feels awkward because it’s a bit like showing off, something I’ve always felt uncomfortable with.

With that in mind, I’m always very nervous about posting about my accolades on social media, so I tend to push out a quick mention and a link and then try to forget about it! Yeah, I realise that isn’t going to get me noticed beyond a cheeky ‘congrats’ from a few close friends and peers, but that’s just my nature. And to be honest, I’m not convinced that my awards should be what people notice me for…

As I said before – I am (privately) proud of the awards and nominations I’ve managed to get, and it provides a huge confidence boost during those times when the client projects have waned, and I’m feeling that imposter syndrome creep in. I can look back at those achievements and know that I’m not shooting in the dark here – other people have recognised my efforts and have rewarded me for them.

Let’s be honest, though; I think all of us in the design space feel that our work should stand on its own merit. Our ultimate goal is for our projects, whether for clients or ourselves, to be recognised and appreciated. Because (and I’m sure every other designer will agree!) there have been times in my past when I’ve been less than proud of the work I’ve produced. There have been projects in my past that I’ve felt were not up to the standard I was capable of – rightly or wrongly. Sometimes through that ‘imposter syndrome’ that we all get from time to time, sometimes through having to scrape through projects that just didn’t sit right with us from the get-go.

It can be a real drag when you are forced into taking on projects just to get work in. Thankfully, I’ve found that I’ve been much happier with the work I’ve been getting recently, and therefore I feel more confident in showing it off. I guess that’s largely down to me being better at seeing what types of projects get me fired up, and I’m enjoying the process so much more.

Do graphic design awards help your business?

If the question is, do awards impress potential clients, then my answer would be no, they don’t. At least not in my experience. I’ve built a strong portfolio for that reason – and that’s what people want to see to get an idea of the kind of work I can offer.

What I think awards CAN do is:

  • Build self-confidence
  • Give that little bit of extra kudos
  • Get recognition from other designers
  • Allow focusing on elements of design you might not have considered before

They are nice to have, though. And if you have any accolades like that, you should absolutely display them online and share them on your social channels. Even if it is just a little confidence boost for you or because they make your mother proud.

The final word

I seem to have come to the conclusion during the writing of this article that, in answer to the headline, awards are not necessarily ‘good’ for business (as in, not a requirement). But I do feel that they serve a more personal purpose. I’d say that if you get the opportunity – or, like me, get pushed into it by a colleague!) – then definitely go for it. You have nothing at all to lose.

Awards shouldn’t define you as a graphic designer…but they do look pretty hung on a studio wall.

Let me know your thoughts. Have you ever won an award? What did it mean for you?

July 22, 2022No Comments

Collaboration and Community

Firstly, I don’t know about you, but this summer feels like the first one in a long time where people – both creators and businesses – have begun to emerge from the fog of lockdown and are thinking more positively about moving forward. I think we’re all pretty exhausted by the isolation that covid brought and are beginning to seek out new connections. To me, the idea of fresh collaborations and community events feels pretty exciting.

And on that note, I and some others who I completed my recent MA with have come together to exhibit at the London Design Festival, which is taking place in September. Our group, in itself, has become a ‘hub’ where we have spent time bringing ideas and experiences together. They are one of the reasons why I have come to recognise the importance and huge benefits that having like-minded people around you can have.

I’ve always maintained that outside of cities, the opportunities to attend design events are very few and far between. In my area of Shrewsbury, there are many creative businesses – not just designers, but photographers, writers, filmmakers, and so on – but very little in the way of community. If you walk around my town, you can find several design agencies, but none of us knows much about the other. We never seek each other out, which is a real shame. Rather than see how we can collaborate or help each other out, we tend to close our doors for fear of ‘the competition’ getting in and finding out our secrets.

Perhaps that’s what sets big agencies in big cities like London or Manchester apart – they don’t think of each other as competition, in that sense. Instead, they are willing to not only come together to celebrate great design but invite other people in to celebrate with them, too.

It’s prominent on the web page for the London Design Festival: “(London Design Festival serves) to create an annual event that would promote the city’s creativity, drawing in the country’s greatest thinkers, practitioners, retailers and educators to deliver an unmissable celebration of design.”

I think these events shouldn’t just be left to the cities; there is no reason why small towns can’t create their own, smaller-scale hubs and events all around the country. Why shouldn’t designers in smaller communities celebrate their talent and dedication?

An idea that I’ve begun to resurrect, The Shrewsbury Design Festival, is a project I had been working on before covid stopped us all in our tracks. It started as a way to bring together creativity in and around Shrewsbury so that we can be found more easily within the community, form collaborations, share ideas, and bring local networks into the spotlight.

I don’t want this to sound too much like a promotional piece – it would be nice if what I’m doing here might inspire other design agencies to consider creating their own hubs and communities. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have small pockets of designers who felt comfortable collaborating on work projects, meeting with each other to share ideas and experiences, building each other up and offering support? Imagine that…

July 7, 2022No Comments

How little or how much?

A little story: My son is at art school here in Shrewsbury, where they’ve recently had their end-of-year exhibition. During the event, he managed to get a commission and a sale. When asked for a price, he froze for a few seconds and then blurted, wide-eyed and breathless, “I don’t know!”. 

Should art schools at least touch on how to charge for work? Would an early introduction to the value of work help avoid those ‘oh sh*t’ moments?

So how should you set your fees?

For most of us right now, the subject of money is at the forefront of our minds. The cost of living, particularly things like food and fuel, has increased dramatically and continues to do so, and I’m sure, like me, this has brought up the subject of how much we earn as designers and whether or not we’re setting it right!

You might be just starting your career or be years into it – in my experience, it makes no difference. I sometimes still feel awkward whenever I’m asked about my fees. We’re not really taught this stuff, are we? There are no set-in-stone guidelines, no magic formula to tell us what to charge for X or Y. We’re left to work all that out for ourselves.

These days though, I have found a way to work out the rate that suits me. It took a while, in the beginning, to settle into a rate that I was both comfortable telling people and happy that it was enough for me to live on.

In case you are still in panic mode about what fees you should be charging for your work, I thought it might be useful to share some of my insights and thoughts around it.

The great money taboo

We’ve been conditioned not to talk about some subjects, and money is one of the big ones. The trouble is, by keeping hush-hush about what we earn, how we earn it, and how we treat it, we’ve created a world where we’re afraid of it – it’s something we feel that is out of our control. But it really shouldn’t be like that.

Even now, I’m sometimes guilty of brushing the subject of money aside when I’m asked about costs for projects when I’m talking to clients – it’s so easy to brush it aside when you’re asked ‘how much?’, by saying something like, ‘we’ll work that out later’. It feels shameful, embarrassing, to talk about money – especially when someone is sitting right in front of you.

Money, and how we earn it, is something that we can all relate to – it’s not something we should be embarrassed about. But perhaps if we can get over that and become more confident around our handling of money, we can change that. To do that, we need to start communicating. And that starts with knowing your rate and having the confidence to stick to it.

What’s the ‘going rate’?

Out of interest, I searched around the internet for advice on what a graphic designer should charge. The thing that stood out was how much the advice varied – if someone just starting out was to search for information on what to charge, they’d surely come away more confused than ever. It was pretty eye-opening.

My advice would be to talk to other established designers doing similar work to you. Most of them are more than willing to help with their advice and experience and won’t mind sharing their knowledge. Ask them if they think you’re undercharging and what they believe would be a decent rate for the type of work you want to offer or the amount of experience you have.

If you can get a ballpoint figure, you can use this to work out what YOU feel comfortable charging.

What do you want to earn?

Notice I didn’t say ‘need’. There’s a difference between what a person needs to earn and what he wants to earn. Let me give you an example.

Perhaps you have a mortgage of, say, £1,200 per month. And your bills/expenses equate to £1,500. So you could say that what you NEED to earn is £2,700. Yeah, that’ll cover your bills – but what about the other stuff? You didn’t start this career to just manage, did you? You want to have the ability to afford a holiday, a decent car, and perhaps indulge in your hobbies.

Again, research what other designers in your demographic and area are charging and work out if that meets your desired annual salary.

There’s a formula out there that has popped up in a few places that may be useful as a starting point, and that is roughly as follows:

  1. Work out what your ideal yearly salary should be.
  2. Add 30% to account for sick days and holidays.
  3. Divide it by the number of days you’ll work in a year.
  4. The number you get equates to your ideal day rate (you can work out your hourly rate from that).

End note

I suppose my main point through this article is that getting the foundations of your fees right and being confident in telling people what they are, is one of the most important decisions you will make for your business.

Setting fees is never easy, but it’s definitely worth getting it right early on.

April 30, 2022No Comments

What’s in a name – and how does it affect your image?

I have a confession. I'd never really, truly, been happy with my original company name. I’m not saying it was a terrible name, it just didn't fit very well.

I lived with it, but there was always that little niggle in the back of my mind.

I won’t dwell on my personal thought process here – I’m all sorted now. But what I wanted to talk about today was how important it is to get it right – the correlation between your company name and your image.

As a graphic designer, I spend a lot of time thinking about company images and branding. And my plight has made me think a little deeper about the process. Where do I start when faced with a rebrand, or a web design, for a client? I think that actually, the name probably plays a more significant part than I previously thought.

Subconsciously, I’m often led at first by the name. It sets the tone for everything that follows. Colours, fonts, and the tone of voice are all hinged on the business name, even if it’s not that obvious.

A reflection of you and your market

A good business name reflects who you are and who your clients are. It’s usually the first item on the agenda when we create our business, but how much do we really consider the name when we start the design process for our websites and branding?

Perhaps, then, we should start by going back to basics. Who do you want to attract? By getting a clear profile of your perfect client, you can get into their heads and explore what attracts them. If your ideal client base is, for example, the CEO of a high-profile marketing agency, you don’t want to approach them with a name and image that more reflects a small business or e-commerce company.

Different demographics have different needs – by tapping into those needs, we can better design our business branding to attract them.

It’s good to visualise what your business name will look like under your brand. Does the name make you think of something modern and vibrant, or does it lend itself to something traditional or more subdued? We can do this in both our business name and our image – both should fit seamlessly together.

Of course, the type of industry will also come into play. Still, it stands to reason that if your company name includes something soft and feminine, you’ll want to consider soft colours and perhaps a more rounded font. In contrast, if you’re in an industry where your audience and product are universal, you’ll want to appeal by using stronger, bolder themes.

Imagine, for example, a classic motorbike restoration business using a pastel-coloured handwritten script in its logo. It doesn’t quite fit, does it?

On choosing a name

Your name is probably the most recognisable aspect of your business, so it’s actually pretty important to get it right. It should reflect your personality, what your company does, and most of all, be memorable.

It needs to be, first and foremost, a name that you’re comfortable with. Think of this – would you be happy to answer the phone and announce your company name, or would it make you cringe a little? There’s a good test right there.

It’s OK to have a quirky name if that’s your vibe but make sure it’s relatable and tells your customers who you are.

Something else to consider is the spelling. Is your name a play on words? Is it a long name, or does it include numbers or symbols? Replacing letters with numbers can look cute – but make sure it’s evident in your web address! Most of your customers will want to search for you online, so if there’s something a little different in your name, make sure it can easily be searched for online.

Simplicity is key

It can be easy to overcomplicate things in both the name and the design. There’s no real need to – often, the most straightforward ideas are the most memorable.

Make your business name easy to pronounce and communicate (“Severn… with an ‘r’… yes, like the river…”) and easy to translate into your branding, and you won’t go far wrong.

There are plenty of sources of inspiration if you’re stuck for ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with testing out a few ideas with people you know – perhaps set up a few mock-ups and see which your friends, family, and peers prefer. You might get feedback that hadn’t occurred to you, which can be invaluable.

February 2, 2022No Comments

Step outside the obvious

Go local for your next design project

I feel this. I live in a small market town in the centre of the country, where design agencies and studios are very much ‘hidden away’, despite there being a real hub of creative talent here.

Local designers with hidden talents

As a small design agency, it’s so easy for businesses to overlook us, when we’re competing with large, often well-known agencies who have the budgets to make themselves heard. It’s a shame, really, because the little guys like us have so much to offer. Not to blow my own trumpet here, but in talking to other small designers both locally and in other towns, we truly believe that we can offer something unique that city-agencies can’t. That personal service, care and attention to detail, which big agencies simply don’t have the time for.

In truth, local designers know the local market inside out – because we work with our own communities every day. We know the type of people that live around us, and we get to talk with local business owners, who tell us what works and what doesn’t. And more importantly, we have the time to listen.

Small agencies and freelancers

In my experience, businesses are often wary of micro-agencies and freelancers, there’s an underlying negativity around them that they are less qualified, less experienced, and won’t have the proper resources to complete complex projects. That’s simply not the case. Though they might not have the financial clout, they are often more specialist in what they do, and so rather than being ‘all-rounders’ (though some are, and are great), they are able to focus on their specialism without all of the other stuff. For example, there are agencies within your town who will just do web design, print design, or branding, and excel at doing that and that alone.

Look at what your community can offer first

There’s definitely something to be said about ‘shopping local’ when it comes to hiring creative talent. You’d be surprised at the hidden gems that can be found right on your doorstep – and can offer a bespoke, personal service that big agencies can’t.

Perhaps you think that going the local, small agency route isn’t right for you – but then again, in hiring out locally, you could find that avenues are opened that you hadn’t even thought of. It could be the opportunity to completely freshen up your branding, or look at the design of your online presence with fresh eyes.

Take a look at some of your local designers for your next project, and see what they can offer.

©2017–2023 Tony Clarkson/&Something Studio