A Reminder For Designers: Search Out And Define Your Niche

Nubby Twiglet | A Reminder For Designers: Search Out And Define Your Niche

Most of the early professional design work I did revolved around sports. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not a person interested in sports. At all.

I really enjoy working with creative small businesses, especially those with a focus on lifestyle and beauty. These niches have long been my passions but when I was first starting out, like most designers, I had to take whatever jobs I could get. I needed a steady paycheck and there’s a lot of consistent, well paying work to be found connected to sports. So, that’s what I did. I did a lot of work for sports-focused brands and campaigns for the NBA and the NFL.

While the work I did professionally wasn’t a perfect fit for me personally, it got me out of my little, perfectly styled bubble. I learned how to design based on specific style guidelines. I learned how to quickly knock out massive production files. I learned that design wasn’t all about me or my personal vision. I learned how to work successfully in a team environment. Overall, these assignments made me a better designer.

But still, my dreams were rooted in those other worlds. Those brands felt very far aways as I worked late nights on sports-focused projects. What I quickly realized though is that when I left these freelance gigs for the night, they didn’t define me. I had a design & lifestyle blog I was obsessed with posting on, I had stacks of fashion magazines sitting in my home office and beyond that, I didn’t have to share the projects I did to make a decent living in my personal portfolio.

My portfolio could be comprised of whatever I chose to share.

I started really narrowing down what I showcased in my portfolio, knowing that what I shared would draw in more of the same. While I didn’t share the NBA All-Star campaign I worked on for three months straight, I did share the branding and magazine I did for Rock n Roll Bride. While I didn’t share the NFL campaign that I spent two months on, I did share the media kit for Veronica Varlow. Slowly but surely, I was able to cultivate an image and a focus. And, the work I wanted did follow.

Spending your days on projects you’re not completely into on a personal level might seem grueling but the thing to remember is that the “cool” brands you want to work with don’t always have the biggest budgets. Still, these are the projects that can really define your portfolio. For me, working on the big-name sports projects allowed me to take on those smaller budget dream projects and get my portfolio more focused.

It took me about five years of slowly building my portfolio with the right mix of projects. I now run Branch full time working with the types of clients I focused on courting early on. A lot of them have been long-term relationships we’ve slowly built as their budgets increased. We’ve grown up and evolved together.

From the outside, it can seem like everyone else has it together, working with a roster of exclusive, dream clients but that’s not always the case. This post is a reminder that the path to finding your niche, then courting the people you want to work with and then getting to a point where you can charge enough to make a living isn’t easy. There is no magic bullet. The new catch-phrase I hear everywhere is “work smarter, not harder” and while that’s a great mindset, in the beginning, you’re going to have to work extra hard to build the portfolio and relationships you need to draw in those dream clients. There are no shortcuts.

Carve out your niche, that place in the industry that makes you really happy. Build relationships that matter. Only share your best work. Over time, the pieces will fall into place.

P.S. If you need a little help landing those dream clients, my post about creating self-initiated projects may be helpful.

Designers: How long did it take you to find your niche? What was the turning point for you in your career? And, do you now focus on that niche full-time?

Photo: Made U Look.

16 Responses to A Reminder For Designers: Search Out And Define Your Niche

  1. Now I really want to see that NBA All-Star Campaign.

    This is advice that really resonates with me. There have been some projects I’ve worked on that probably get me more clout in my local design community, but ultimately I have to represent myself the best way I can, even if it’s a poster series I do by myself for basically no money. It’s just more “me.”

    • Shauna says:

      Caroline Royce: The really funny part is that it was one of the most intense projects of my life and I really needed a break as soon as it wrapped up. Immediately after, I went to Iceland with my friend, thinking I’d escaped that world for a bit. I turn on the TV in my hotel room in Iceland and it’s the NBA All-star game with all the graphics I worked on in the background. A few days following that, I landed in New York at my friend’s apartment and walk in…and her husband was watching re-runs of the All-Star game. I never quite got away from it. 😉

      I agree with you, you have to figure out what represents you and the work you want more of the best.

  2. jaci says:

    weirdly enough, i have a strong background in sports [as well as pharmaceuticals. ew.] and unfortunately they dominate my portfolio. thankfully, i am just wrapping up a full identity re-brand that i am really happy with, and i’m hoping that when i post it to my site i’ll draw some more work in that vein.

    it’s inspiring to read about your career path, and it helps give me a kick in the ass to get my work pointed in that direction as well.

    • Shauna says:

      jaci: Oh, I feel you! It sounds like some self-initiated projects might also be really helpful for taking your portfolio in a new direction. In my business media kit, I list all those big name clients because I am super proud of working with them but leave the actual work out since my focus has shifted. Good luck with the transition!

  3. Nikki says:

    Awesome post!

    I’m currently designing at a small agency, so I don’t get to really choose the work that falls into my lap. What I do get to do, however, is find ways to insert the work I want to do into the projects I’m given. Most recently I took a risk with some video style comps that got sent over to a client. Despite the fact that I was sure they’d go the boring route, they ended up picking my out-there style and now I get to try something new that I’ve wanted to do with my animations.

  4. Thao says:

    Thanks for this, Shauna! I love the idea of having more agency/control over your dream niche. It seems obvious, but can be hard to remember when you’re first starting, as I am, and trying to build any solid client base at all! My dream niche is a bit of a strange one–author websites–but as a writer and designer, I feel positive this is where I can make the most impact. There’s a lot to think about in this post!

  5. Yup, totally! Even though my focus is mainly on working with female entrepreneurs right now, I started out designed everything from family reunion t-shirts for strangers to SEO & front end design for a nursing home website, and even though they weren’t really my passion, from doing those projects I have learned a LOT about how better to serve & attract the clients I *really* do want to impress. And, of course, I only share the work that I want to get more of in my portfolio!

  6. Alana Wimmer says:

    Thanks Shauna, this post is great. I had no idea of your sporty background! So interesting.

    I have been pretty blessed to work (mostly) on projects I have a personal interest in. For the ones that I don’t, similar to you, I choose to leave them out of my portfolio and curate a collection of designs I love, to attract similar future clients.

    • Shauna says:

      alana Wimmer: Haha, it’s not something I usually bring up in conversations! Portland is a sports-obsessed town and a lot of the design work here revolves around that niche. I am glad I got that experience early on because if all of my dream clients were handed to me right out of the gate, I don’t think I would have realized how lucky I was. We all gotta struggle first to appreciate the really great things when they do happen. 😉

  7. Flo says:

    I love your career advice posts.
    I started reading your blog about five years ago, and have been studying (industrial) design for 4 years now. Every time I feel discouraged or lost you just happen to post something related to it, and it’s been such an inspiration to keep moving forward.
    Thank you so much!

    • Shauna says:

      Flo: Wow, thank you for this — I am always so happy to hear when my advice helps others! And industrial design is hard work! Huge props for sticking with it and making your dreams a reality.

  8. Maja says:

    Great post, and absolute great reminder! I am in that exact stage where I can’t afford to turn down projects yet, even though they are not my absolute passion projects. Everyone has to pay there dues ( and bills…) and even though these assignments might not be the perfect fit, you grow and learn with each and everyone…and so does your network. Love your realistic perspective on this, thanks!

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