Professional Design Practice :: Lesson 1 :: Self-Promotion & Winning Work

Look out for the following in the new series; Freelance Fee Structures & How to Quote, Project Planning (Breaking Jobs Into Milestones), Dealing with Clients, Charging & Invoicing, Law in Design Practice, The Portfolio, A Conclusion of Sorts. Being Freelance. Benefits & Pitfalls.

Self-promotion & Winning Work

In this climate of Olympian-sized competition, compounded, undoubtedly, by the worldwide recession, it’s imperative for us to do all we can to stand out from our peers, to make an impact on those we meet, to conduct ourselves with integrity when meeting new people and to start to cultivate a reputation, in order that we might be remembered by those commissioning design, and chosen over the competition.

The Lesser Bird of Paradise knows a thing or two about standing out. Image courtesy of Bluepeak Travel Photography bluepeakt

Great Expectations

Many children across Great Britain grow up hearing the oft-quoted phrase “from little acorns, large oak trees grow”. This is a worthwhile phrase to remember when starting out on the path to a career in graphic design. Many undergraduates, having spent years reading about star-designers and surfing the websites of their favourite studios, become stuffed to the gills on great work, and may face a rude awakening when, on graduating, they find that Nike aren’t banging at their door to insist on giving them their next international campaign to work on, or that Pentagram haven’t created a job position especially for them.

Starting out rarely involves working with clients of Nike’s calibre. More realistically, your first break might come through a small charity, a local acupuncturist or an acquaintance in need of an identity. These are the kinds of “little acorns” which, though not as glamourous as Nike and its ilk, offer young graphic designers an opportunity to cut their teeth, do some great work and begin to cultivate a reputation. In his best-selling book “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be” Paul Arden writes “We are always waiting for the perfect brief from the perfect client. It almost never happens. You’re probably working on a job or project right now and saying ‘This is boring, let’s just deal with it and get it over with. We’ll make the next one good.’ Whatever is on your desk right now, that’s the one. Make it the best you possibly can.” Paul is right. By conducting yourself with integrity and doing your best on each job you’re commissioned you will be making moves toward building a good professional reputation.

Rather than pursue the big beasts…

…adjust your sights and go after those that need you most! Lioness picture used with permission of Laurent Geslin, photographer Laurent-Geslin Moggie picture supplied by Herbi Ditl

A recent branding project for a newly-formed free church by Hotson Studio Hotson Studio

In any event, it’s a sure bet that the “dream clients” (Nike and, in Britain, perhaps Selfridges) will already have access to award-winning, highly reputable design studios. The evidence for this is there in the quality of their campaigns. Far better to look in the less exposed, more pedestrian corners of the High Street and business world, and to seek out those who could really do with your help. Adrian Shaughnessy in “How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul” puts it nicely when he says “There is more personal satisfaction in taking a client with no apparent potential and producing effective and resonant work for them than there is in working for so-called ‘cool brands’.”

With realistic expectations, and a personal business ethic in place, you can deploy the techniques explored below to help make things happen.

Word of Mouth

It occasionally frustrates me how many potential clients are going about their work unaware of just how much good graphic design could enhance the value of their business. These potential clients are everywhere. One of our jobs is to tap into this rich seam and pull some aboard, just as the brown bear scoops the salmon from the fast-flowing stream in the wilds of Canada.

There are various methods of finding clients at our disposal, and to maximise our chances of building a solid client base we need to exploit each of them as best we can.

As a freelance graphic designer you’re your own shop front. Image courtesy of Colin Turner.

Even in this digital age one of the surest ways of making contacts and finding work remains plain old-fashioned word of mouth. Make sure family members and friends all know what you do and have at least some idea of what the profession entails. They will then be in a position to mention your name (and perhaps pass on a well-designed business card of yours that you’ll have supplied them with) should they hear of anything going. Between you and everybody you know, you probably know more people who commission design than you’d think.

There’s no reason why the same rule cannot apply to clients. If you have an existing client then ask him to keep his ear to the ground for you and recommend you to his associates. By ruthlessly exploiting every contact you can think of things can (at the best of times) develop for you in an exponential manner.

Your Online Presence

Some graphic designers still pride themselves on running a thriving business without the need for a website, but they are now a minority breed. In the digital age it pays to work at your online presence, through your own site and the larger, networking-based ones. At the bare minimum, a well-designed single webpage can act as a message board through which potential clients might email, telephone or write you. You can also supply a link to a website like Flickr, where you can keep an up-to-date online portfolio of your work. If you use Twitter, or run a blog, then leave the links on your webpage. If you’re a web-savvy designer then I won’t need to stress how beneficial and impacting a well-designed and planned website can be.

Letterpress printers Typoretum work hard at their online presence and have an integrated approach, each page giving links to the others, forming an intuitive whole

I have found Twitter to be a useful tool for making contacts. Twitter seems to be like Marmite in that people either love it or hate it (or don’t “get” it), but through persevering with Twitter, winning followers and following the interesting Tweeters, advertising your work and leaving links to useful online stuff, you can gain a valuable network of online contacts, some of whom may contact you when they need creative services. With a copy & paste you can publish the same information you tweet through Facebook, LinkedIn and Bebo, your own blog or website. Once you get going this can take seconds, and it pays to disseminate your information as widely as possible.

There are dedicated businesses such as View Creatives in Britain where you can upload a cv and selection of work, which prospective clients can then download for a small fee and view respectively. Some of these sites, for a small monthly standing order, give the option of being a premium user which guarantees a place near the top of the list and offers more space to upload images of work. This too, parallel to a networking-based online presence, may be worth considering.

Link each account, blog and website back to the others. The more relentless you are at publicising yourself, informing your followers and friends of recent work and advertising your wares online the better your chances of making a successful go at gaining a substantial pool of contacts.

Self-promotional Material

Back in the real, tangible world of print and paper, you will also need to engage in the production of printed promotional literature. This too, when starting out, can be a useful tool in generating leads and contacts. Be prepared to work hard to make whatever you do visually arresting and distinctive. The world is awash with printed, moribund detritus and amongst all this you’ll want to get noticed. You might start with a postcard, displaying an image of a favourite piece of work on one side and your contact details on the reverse. The more ambitious-minded might want to experiment with an intricately folding piece displaying a choice selection of work. This adds a tactile element for the end user to experience.

Graphic design studio Turnbull Grey letterpress print their own greetings cards and frequently use them for self-promotional purposes Turnbull Grey

Your promotional piece should be used to leave behind at interviews and meetings, and to send out to people. Direct mail should be considered, and the same rules about making your piece visually compelling apply. Just as I’m advising you all to do here, I myself recently designed and had printed a 16pp A3 poster, which folds down to postcard size. One side contained a selection of imagery from my portfolio with explanatory text, and the reverse some typography and contact details. I sent this piece out, combined with a handwritten letter on my own letterhead, to existing and prospective clients and London-based studios whose businesses I admired. In two months I’ve been invited along to several portfolio reviews with design studios (advice and criticism given at these are invaluable) and pulled a new client on board who I am now working for. My database of contacts received a considerable boost through the endeavour.

I learned that details with this sort of thing matter. Be sure to have a well-designed, cohesive suite of stationery with which to use when writing to people. Find out your contact’s name and record it accurately to avoid the dreaded “Dear Sir/Madam” at the top of your letterhead. Another tip from Adrian Shaugnessy “…when you write a letter, especially a letter promoting you or your company, always write the address on the envelope by hand. It is so fare to get a letter with a handwritten address that most people instinctively open these first.”

Your stationery needn’t be gorgeously foil-blocked like Build’s is, but put as much effort into its design as they did

The Self-initiated Brief

“Self-initiated projects are often necessary for the individual’s … psychic health, and the urge to experiment and explore is perfectly reasonable”. So says Adrian Shaughnessy, who then goes on to make clear that we should be under no illusion that self-initiated projects impress in the same way that a real, commercial project will. He has a valid point, although there are no hard and fast rules to what works in graphic design. I have met people in studios who have politely leafed through my commercial work unconcernedly and only really displayed any interest when coming across my letterpress work, which is largely self-initiated. One past client even took me on for a summer on the strength of a student sketchbook.

Though rare, if good enough (and out there online) your work may be spotted by the editor of a design journal and images requested for inclusion, and this can happen for personal projects just as easily as commercial ones (see the record sleeves by Hector Pottie below). My own feelings on the matter are that self-initiated projects allow the designer to give full reign to his creative impulses, allowing any potential client a better insight into who the person he may commission really is.

These fictional, silk-screen printed record sleeves by Hector Pottie were deemed fit for inclusion in an issue of British-based Grafik magazine


By pouring sweat, blood and tears over the various means and methods described above, you will be laying the sound foundations of a healthy freelance life. Maintain realistic goals, be aware of the zeitgeist, of all that goes on around you, and try to act with originality and precision when working on self-promotional and -initiated work, and your online presence. Treat self-promotion as an ongoing process rather than a sequence of one-offs. By maintaining a critical, striving attitude to your own work and acting with integrity and professionalism in your dealings with people you’ll soon be on the front foot and cracking open the champagne!

“Pop!” “Whey!” “Splash” “Fizz” “Pour, pour, pour” “Clink” “Cheers!” “Glug, glug, glug…”–Image supplied by Alessandro Termignone

Next week in our series of Professional Design Practice…

Freelance Fee Structures & How to Quote

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