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.