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.
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?