Land Your Dream Clients: Prove You’re Capable Of Greatness Through Self-Initiated Projects

Nubby Twiglet | Land Your Dream Clients: Prove You're Capable Of Greatness Through Self-Initiated Projects

When you look around at other designers who are working on high-caliber projects for their dream clients, do you wonder how you can step up your game and land a few of your own?

When we’re starting out as creatives, it’s usually a constant case of feast or famine. In our eyes, every small lead that comes through the door has the potential for greatness and income generation. But in those early days, a lot of that work might not be the perfect fit. No matter, doing real work for real world clients post-graduation is not only a great feeling but necessary to drum up more work. After all, if you do a fantastic job for one client, chances are that they’ll tell all their friends — even in the digital age, word of mouth can grow your business by leaps and bounds.

While generating a lot of leads and building your portfolio is great, a few years in, the time comes to hit the brakes and ask yourself what you really want to be doing. Who are your dream clients? What types of work do you want more of? What would you rather do without, whether or not the pay is good? At this point, once you have some answers you’ll need to refresh and refine your portfolio to gear it towards what you want more of.

The thing is, maybe you haven’t actually worked with any of your so-called dream clients yet. Or, maybe they got in touch but only had the budget for one small piece of collateral. Don’t let that stop you from showing what you’re made of! For my first five years of freelancing, this was almost always the case and I built my relationships with the clients I loved very slowly, one tiny project at a time.

When it comes to design, the competition is fierce and the only way to truly get what you want is to take the initiative. Don’t get deterred by a lack of dream clients — instead, create your own self-initiated projects. Go all out. A lot of designers shy away from this because they’re afraid that if the brief isn’t real, it doesn’t count. But, as long as you clearly state that a project is self-initiated in your portfolio the sky’s the limit as to what you can do.

I’ve seen this work with beautiful results. A few years out of college, my brother wanted to get his foot in the door at Nike but didn’t have a lot of professional design experience. He spent the week before his interview building out a shoe design he’d dreamt up from scratch. He designed the shoe style, the pattern and the tagging and ended his portfolio with that piece. It worked and he got a contract.

For many of my early clients, the only thing they could afford was a logo, even with my very low prices back then. Often, I’d email them when we were finished and ask if I could build out a full suite of assets free of charge. Nobody in their right mind would turn down an awesome deal like that and by showing the application of their branding across a variety of mediums in my portfolio, I gained tons of new clients. I put in the extra time and effort, shared that extra work on my blog and the inquiries rolled in.


Nubby Twiglet | Land Your Dream Clients: Prove You're Capable Of Greatness Through Self-Initiated Projects

Above is an example of how I took a project to the next level. In 2010, Semiospectacle booked me for an identity and flyer design for their performance art event in New York City. Once that was finished, I knew the work would have more impact if I created more assets — these not only gave them ideas for how they could play up their event but they also helped me fill out my portfolio.

Just showing a logo and flyer felt a little dry so I thought of ways they could promote their event and in an ideal situation, use banners and second-surface graphics on the windows of their space. These graphics took me a few extra hours to create but shortly after that, I noticed them getting shared on inspiration sites (this was before Pinterest came along). Just taking that extra time really helped me get the word out to a whole new audience and in turn, bring in more work.


If you’re stuck on self-initiated project ideas, here are some ways you can get started:

1. Rebrand yourself / your business. When it comes to design, everyone loves a great before and after. Do it all and show your breadth as a designer — mock up print collateral, build your website (if you’re not code savvy, check out Squarespace or Cargo) and customize your social media profiles. A lot of potential clients will hire you because they love your personal style and want in on that magic. As a designer, your personal brand is your biggest calling card. If you need some good blank assets to show off the finished designs, Creative Market is a fantastic resource.

2. Offer to help out a family friend. There are so many small businesses that need a helping hand but just don’t have the resources to spruce up their collateral. Whether it’s a hair salon, an accountant or a tire shop, use the opportunity to shine. As a side note, treat them as you would treat a regular client — set up a contract outlining the parameters and deadlines. If you don’t set professional boundaries, these relationships can go south rather quickly!

3. Create a seasonal campaign for your dream client. While a lot of large companies have a set style guide and their branding rarely changes, the door for creativity opens up for seasonal campaigns (Anthropologie and Kate Spade do a great job of this). Get inspired by their current assets and create a campaign with a great story line. And when you’re finished, if you’re feeling gutsy, share it with them!


I’d love to hear from you — have you ever done self-initiated projects?
Did they help you land even more of the kinds of clients you were seeking?

29 Responses to Land Your Dream Clients: Prove You’re Capable Of Greatness Through Self-Initiated Projects

  1. Sarah says:

    This is a really interesting post. I’ve been working as a designer/art director for 6ish years, but most of that time was spent at ad agencies. When I turned full-time freelance almost 2 years ago, non of that work really felt right for this boutique design studio I want to establish. I’ve since taken on a lot of work that doesn’t really further the aesthetic I want to highlight in my portfolio (think real estate stationary systems and legal websites). I’ve tried to arrange design work-for-trade with some “dream” clients. I feel like to offer up my services completely for free is in some way doing my company a disservice (not that a potential client looking at my site would know that). I’m debating on creating some work that would be completely from my imagination. I had a cool idea for a gastropub identity. Do you think something completely made-up hold less weight? And if you think it’s okay to completely fabricate a company for my portfolio, how would you talk about it? Thanks!

    • Shauna says:

      Sarah: I had the same issue with my agency work — at about 6 years at agencies, I think maybe 2 projects from that entire time are still in my portfolio. We all have to take work at certain points that isn’t our ideal aesthetic that’s okay. You don’t need to show that work….unless you want more of it!

      In your situation, it may be better to dream up some self-initiated projects for yourself. And as long as you clearly state that the project is self-created, it’s okay. If anything, it shows that you’re proactive and able to think creatively on your own without outside direction. I should clarify that I’ve only ever done self-initiated work for clients who had already hired me for a job (like the Semiospectacle example in this post) in an effort to build out my portfolio. Use self-initiated projects to get your foot in the door and then charge your worth!

  2. Rach says:

    Whenever I have a lull in between jobs for different clients I work on self initiated projects. When I am busy with client work, I keep a notebook full of cut outs from magazines, and ideas and “dream clients” for the times where I don’t have much to do. I find that these projects add a new dimension to my portfolio and show what kind of work I could do for those clients if they were to hire me.

    • Shauna says:

      Rach: You are one smart cookie — I love that you’re so proactive with going after what you want and it’s inspiring to hear how organized you are about the whole process! It’s very much the “if you build it, they will come” mindset and with that focus, the clients you seek will come calling in no time. ;)

  3. Emma says:

    My mom owns a florist in my hometown and recently she revealed that she’s been struggling a little bit, so I want to surprise her with a complete rebranding (she actually doesn’t have any right now) and a website so she can have more of a presence online to bring in new customers from out of town. I was like… duh! Such a great way to add something personal and amazing to my portfolio while giving her the help she needs! I love self initiated projects- sometimes they’ve turned out to be my best work.

    • Shauna says:

      Emma: That is such a sweet thing to do. I love that you’re helping your mom freshen up her business presence while adding a really awesome project to your book — mutually beneficial! When you’re done, if you share it online I’d love to see what you come up with!

  4. Justin Neely says:

    Thank you for this article. I have been going back and forth with myself with where I want to go in my career and this is just another bit of confirmation as well as this being a day before my 27th birthday!

  5. Angel Y. says:

    Love this Shauna! Self-initiated projects are the hardest for me to complete because I’m my worst client. I want to do more of these to challenge myself to see beyond my strict artistic preferences.

    • Shauna says:

      Angel Y: Self-initiated project with no outside guidelines fuel our creative spirits. I’m trying to do projects that are both fun and help get the word out about my businesses. Doing the Branch Snail Mail one is an example — I get to design something fun every quarter and our subscribers get a surprise in their mailbox. Sometimes I’ll put together themed mood boards too — it takes maybe an hour and getting to be ceative with absolutely no pressure of any kind is a great feeling.

  6. Shawni Hogan says:

    This post came at the right time for me. I’m fresh out of design school, and was lucky enough to land a job 2 months after graduation. Although I am grateful for my job, its not what I ultimately want to do. Until I can build up my client base for freelancing, I keep pondering what I can do in my spare time to build upon my portfolio. I have so many ideas and am just not sure where to begin.

    Love this post! It definitely came at the right time.

    • Shauna says:

      Shawni Hogan: That is no easy feat — congrats for landing a job right away! You’re in a perfect position to dream up projects suited to what you want to do and crafting a killer portfolio. Good luck!

  7. Lilly says:

    You always seem to write about stuff I am thinking about, right at the same time I am thinking about it! As a professional photographer, it’s easy to get lazy about doing personal or portfolio work. In my industry, we call self-initaited projects “tests”. I plan on doing way more testing this year, because I want more opportunities within my field and I need to be able to show what I can do. So it’s cool to hear it from a designer’s perspective. A lot of this applies to photographers as well and is good advice!

    • Shauna says:

      Lilly: I am glad to hear that the advice applies directly to your field, too. It makes perfect sense — if you want a certain type of photography client, it really comes down to showing them examples of what you can do in that style. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Jacob Marsh says:

    Thanks for the post Shauna. I have been trying to establish myself as a Graphic Designer by doing work for friends, and so far I have managed to bring in a few clients. My struggle is my lack of formal design education. I went to school for animation so I have the technical background in terms of program knowledge, however I feel like I may not know enough to really be selling myself as a designer. I suppose I am just unsure of the business side of it all, pricing, packaging, and maybe even my portfolio. Anyway, thanks again for the inspiring article.

    • Shauna says:

      Jacob Marsh: Have you checked out any of the design classes on Skillshare? There are some great ones when it comes to building out a brand guide and some of the other basics.

  9. Ali says:

    this is a great post! it’s what I try to do but I needed this to remind me that it’s the right thing to be doing. I design and make bridal wear and I want to be known for awesome, slightly retro, short wedding dresses (yours was EXACTLY the kind of thing I love!) but of course everyone wants a long lace gown. I figure if I just keep making samples in the style I like, the fun short dress loving brides will eventually find me!

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  11. Aliza says:

    Wow, this is a fantastic post! While I’m not in the design field (I do business strategy + marketing- so the industries tend to overlap) I’m going to see how I can apply your suggestions to my business. I love the idea of self-initiated project ideas! Such a great post. So, glad I stumbled up on it. :)

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  13. Alex says:

    Thanks for the advice! I’ve become increasingly interested in learning web design, but to date I haven’t had any clients. This has really kept me from applying to jobs since most jobs require a portfolio. I’m wondering, would a “personal” project be ok to include in a portfolio (i.e. wedding website)? It’s something I was obviously doing for myself. I’m liking the progress I’ve made, but I’m unsure whether it would be considered professional.

  14. Naomi says:

    Thanks Shauna. I’m about to start studying graphic design and really appreciate you sharing this post. It’s full of wonderful tips and things to consider. I look forward to completing some self-initated projects to get the ball rolling in attracting my ideal clients.

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  16. Eliza says:

    I travel between San Francisco and Columbus and see this design on shop signs and letterheads and whatnot to the point that I want to ask if they all take dirigibles to work. The typefaces and arrangement all look the same to me now. When your (collective you) vision blurs into a greater trend, what is needed to preserve the distinction of long-term projects?

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