For some reason, the design industry really pushes the idea of paying your dues. There’s this sense that you’re going to have to do your time at the school of hard knocks before you can make it to the big leagues - that you have to start small. I think this is a cop out. I always hear designers say that they want to cut their teeth at a big company before they start one of their own; then, years later, they finally leave feeling drained and have to start from square one. The more fortunate ones decide to freelance, but far too many get stuck doing local work or fail to attract bigger clients.
Want to avoid this fate? The answer is simple: start where you want to end up. If you want to be a big design agency, start building on that idea from day one.
Do One Thing Well
Too many designers convince themselves that they need to work locally, bill out at a low hourly rate, and sell a range of services (“We do catalogues, websites, wedding photography, copywriting and more!”). This is a bullet train to nowhere. Do exactly the type of work that you want to be doing from day one.
This isn’t to say that you should be a prima donna, but rather that you should take on projects that will enable you to cultivate a unique style. The best restaurants focus on a specific type of cuisine - you need to do the same with your work. Clients want experts, and experts get that way by focusing on doing one thing very well.
London, New York, Tokyo…Wichita?
Your ability to land clients is based squarely on your website. We no longer deal handshakes and oyster luncheons - Don Draper’s glory days are long gone. While our parents might have had to climb the ropes at a large company in order to gain a reputation before going it alone, a college dropout with some Photoshop skills can learn CSS and bill himself as a design agency overnight.
Design your website for your ideal client. What would they want to see in a design firm? Remember, potential clients have no prior knowledge of who you are, where you live, or where you’ve worked. And frankly, it doesn’t matter. You need to provide 3 key pieces of information:
- What you do: One to two sentences, maximum. What you do. Who you do it for.
- Your Work: Only show off your best stuff. If you only have three good pieces, show three pieces.
- Contact Us: A way to get in touch.
Let your clients fill in the blanks. They don’t have to know that you’re some guy working out of a duplex in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. They don’t need to know that you’re a certified member of the Michigan Graphic Design Association. They don’t need to know where you went to school or that you have a dog named Mocha. They like your work, that’s what matters. Sure, you want to tell people what you’re about to some degree, but your work should be front and center. Selling yourself too hard is unattractive. If your work is good, let it speak for itself.
Showcasing a wide variety of work doesn’t show that you’re flexible - it shows that you’re unfocused. Take on projects that will tell potential clients what you’re about at a glance. Whether you like it or not, the projects in your portfolio will become your company’s DNA. Your portfolio should be reserved for the absolute best work you have. If a project doesn’t turn out well or isn’t inline with the type of work you’d like to be doing, it’s better to leave it out altogether than use it to fill space.
If you have to take a less than ideal project, give it your all. If you can’t find paying clients, do projects for free - your own creations or otherwise - and ruthlessly publicize them. See a Fortune 500 company in need of a facelift? A celebrity with an ugly blog? There’s your chance to shine. Pro bono jobs may not put money in the bank, but they’ll look great in your portfolio, get your name out there, and become an invaluable source of income in the future. More importantly, they’ll prove that you’re capable of doing great work - even if you weren’t paid to do it (and most clients won’t know that anyway).
I’m not saying this stuff happens overnight. It’s going to take a while before you start landing some big fish clients, but if you keep the course, it will happen eventually. In the words of the ethereal voice in ‘Field of Dreams’, “If you build it, they will come…” The man’s right. Jump in head first, regardless of your level of experience, location, or client base, and start building the company that you want today.