Your Guide to Getting Started as a Graphic Designer …
This guide I have carefully created and am sharing with you today will help you learn to conceptualize, create and communicate in the world of graphic design! You may be envious of me because I have built a business around doing what I love. While it is quite rewarding, starting a graphic design business—or any business—can be stressful in a lot of ways. I wrote about that recently: Struggles of an Entrepreneur. To succeed, you must be passionate about your design business. That passion must be strong enough to sustain you through the inevitable low points and long days. Trust me, you will have some of those!
Some design entrepreneurs want to work out all of the details in their head before beginning while others dive in and figure out what they need to know as they go along. Taken to extreme, someone who fit the first description may never actually start a business; they just keep mulling it over. The second example could describe a person who is haphazard and unorganized. If you don’t do some research and lay a bit of groundwork before launching a design business, your knowledge gap and mistakes could slow down your progress immensely. The trick is to find that sweet spot where you’ve done sufficient research and planning that you’re willing to take that leap to launch your business without having every last detail worked out.
What do you need to get started in business as a graphic designer? Start with equipment such as a reliable computer, scanner and printer. If you don’t know what computer is favoured by graphic designers, ask around. Take a survey. By doing so, you will also be taking the first step toward building your professional network. (More about that later.)
Next, you need to purchase a variety of software packages. While every business needs accounting and productivity software, graphic designers also work with several specialized programs. Here are the big ones: Adobe Photoshop for working with images, Adobe Illustrator to create vector graphics, Adobe InDesign for jobs where the emphasis is on layout such as posters, flyers and brochures and Adobe Acrobat to create digital forms.
Another essential tool of the trade: you will need to purchase a subscription to a stock photo service for access to thousands of images you can use for any project. Trust me, you need this. Badly!
For the legal angle, you need to have a contract that you can use with each project you agree to work on for a client. There are many contracts available online, but if you have an attorney it is wise to consult her/him. The contract form should include the scope of the project, payment terms, specific deliverables and a timetable for delivering the work, among other details such as the date and the name and address of all parties.
What about education? Formal training in graphic design will help you immensely because it gives you a solid foundation and opens your awareness of the scope of the field. You would also be wise to take the occasional course from year to year to stay up-to-date with design technology because it develops so rapidly. In reality your clients will not ask whether you have a degree or professional certification. They will want to see examples of your work. If you take graphic design courses, you will be able to create work samples during the courses and use them to build your portfolio. You can also create your own design samples outside of formal coursework.
Business plan …
This is where your research starts to pay off. I’ve written recently about a business plan for creatives, so let me just recap here. The business plan should address at least these elements:
- Mission Statement/Artist Statement
- Business Description (your elevator speech)
- Marketing Plan (including brand, website, pricing, social media strategy, etc.)
- Action Plan
As you conceptualize your graphic design business, consider specializing. You can specialize by industry based on your own interests or horizontally based on the types of projects you prefer. Would you rather design logos, identity packages and websites or commercial packaging and corporate annual reports? Of course, those are just some quick examples.
A note about marketing: once you have clients, you may feel like you don’t need to do any more marketing. That is not true. Marketing efforts now lay the groundwork for clients you will need in the future, a/k/a leads. Plant the seeds and have patience because you will be marketing for the long term. Consistent marketing through blogging and social media, for example, can keep you from falling victim to the feast or famine syndrome.
Networking is one of the most significant actions you can take to build your graphic design business. Do not underestimate the power of networking! Ideally you will network with two goals in mind: building professional relationships and connecting with potential clients. Developing relationships with marketing experts, content writers, web developer, printing companies and other designers, for example, can contribute to both goals. With a peer network, you build relationships with people you can go to for advice and those who provide services you may need. At the same time, you are cultivating your referral network for new clients.
Finding clients …
How you plan to find clients should be part of your overall marketing plan. At first you may need to take any clients you can get! But as you create your marketing message, you can refine your target market and over time that will be reflected in your client base. Take time to brainstorm: what would you consider your ideal projects to work on? Who would be your ideal clients? Research those. Where will you find them?
You may benefit from choosing a niche based on your experience and your connections. If you have decided to specialize in an industry, you are likely to find clients through conferences, local networking events, industry publications and trade associations. When you find the point where their needs and your services intersect, you will be in a position to solve problems they have. Use your marketing strategies to make them aware of you. As you build your client base, always ask satisfied clients for referrals.
A long-term strategy for finding clients ties back to marketing and networking. Through referrals and social media—including blogging and perhaps sending an email newsletter—you will build awareness of your services. Many people that you contact will not have an immediate need for your services, but you want to be the one they call when they do!
What will you create? If you don’t already have professional work samples, you will need to create some. You can always make up a business and create an identity package for it. Be prepared to articulate the brand! If doing “real work” feels essential, reach out to nonprofits whose work inspires you. You may need to offer some design work for free while you build your portfolio. The good news is your contacts at any nonprofit you work with should become part of your network. Be sure to ask them for testimonials and referrals!
A lot of graphic designers start out like I did, taking design jobs on the side to build a portfolio while working for someone else full-time. Then, as you develop your website and your logo, these become examples of your work—unless you hire another designer to create these. Yes, some graphic designers feel too close to their own business and prefer to have others create these all-important elements to convey the personality of their business. Are you in that group?
What do graphic designers create? Anything you can imagine! What first comes to mind are logos, websites and other elements defining a brand’s identity. Marketing materials such as brochures, flyers and ads. Illustrations for covers—album covers, magazine covers and corporate annual report covers. At the rate technology is developing, you may soon be designing something that hasn’t even been invented as of now. Today’s mobile device apps are a great example of graphic design work that did not exist until “recently,” depending on how you define “recent.”
While we are talking about creating, we should talk about fear. A graphic designer may be plagued with the fear of not being good enough, creative enough or brilliant enough to pull off a project. This is normal. You will have to dig deep and push through the fear, as much as that sounds like a cliche. Just create. Lose yourself in the act of creating and generating ideas. You have to learn to trust your creative instincts. Not every idea will be a winner.
Creating for a client is an exercise in problem solving. You are working on a solution to resolve a need the client has. Your skill is communicating ideas through visual elements, so you need clear direction about what ideas the client wants to communicate. During this process you should probably research the client’s business to understand their target market and who their competitors are. Information gathered at this stage can inform your choices of typefaces, colors and other important design elements.
As a graphic designer, you will usually have a set of questions to ask the client to define the scope of a project and pin down the client’s requirements. This document is called a creative brief. If you do not have one when you are starting your graphic design business, you can always search online for suggestions. However, this is a great time to reach out to your network—or someone with whom you would like to network—and ask to see their creative brief as an example. It is never too early to start building your network.
Part of our job is to do good work and get the client to accept it. ~ Bob Gill, American Illustrator and Graphic Designer
What does that mean? To be blunt, it means a graphic designer must be a skilled communicator as well as an artist. Once you have designed the requested project, you may need to sell it to the client. Of course, you hope selling will not be required. You hope the client will leap for joy when they see your work. But acceptance of a design is not always immediate. You may need to explain your design choices and how your creation will solve the client’s problem. What steps did you take to navigate the design process for this particular project? How did you arrive at your design decisions?
At least fifty percent of communication is listening, is it not? You will have to allow the client to give you their feedback and you need to be able to take criticism without flinching. The client likely knows nothing about design. They may not agree with your choices and as you listen you may feel they are completely wrong. You may even encounter situations where the end product is not as slick or sophisticated as you would like because your ideas were beyond what the client could absorb. On the other hand, some clients will trust you so completely they may say something like, “I don’t get it, but you’re the designer, so let’s go with it!”
Most of the time, your client will request changes to your work. With each new version, you will repeat the dance of presenting the work and listening for the client’s feedback. Design work requires patience as well as negotiating skills. Does your contract limit the number of iterations you are required to produce?
If you are not a “people person,” you will have extra hurdles to scale because a graphic designer running his/her own design business cannot simply sit in a studio and create. You have to talk to people, sometimes persuasively, at every stage of the process. Did I mention you need to build a professional network, too? If this constant need for communication frightens you, starting a graphic design business is probably not your path.
Conceptualize, create and communicate …
A graphic designer starting their own business needs many attributes beyond artistic talent and creative genius. Those two are just your ticket to the show. With hard work, problem-solving, patience, persistence and persuasiveness, you have a good chance at success. Add curiosity and the desire to always keep learning and your chances increase. Passion for your work is the magic carpet that carries everything else you need to run this graphic design business.
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. ~ Maya Angelou
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