Ten years ago, in 2005, I took on my first freelance project. Though the project was very small, it was a start.
I put aside my fear of not being good enough and just got going and as you know, getting started is sometimes the biggest hurdle. Once you believe in yourself enough to try something new, doors will slowly but surely begin to open.
In the time since, I’ve been fortunate to work at ad agencies on projects for Fortune 500 companies and now, I spend my days running a design studio, collaborating with dozens of small businesses to make their brand visions a reality. While that’s a short and sweet overview, the learning curve has been ridiculously steep. With the good comes the bad and with the career highs come plenty of lows. Having a creative career is a nonstop roller coaster and through it all, subjectivity plays a big part in what we do.
I’ve always felt that we can learn from one another’s experiences, both in an effort to improve ourselves and also to avoid the same pitfalls.
So without ado, these are 10 lessons I’ve learned during my first 10 years as a graphic designer:
1. Trust your gut.
That old adage trust your gut gets thrown around a lot. I used to get annoyed when I heard it, partly because I didn’t fully understand what it meant. Later on, I found myself in plenty of positions when I just knew. That general uneasiness? That feeling of being pushed into a corner? That knot in your stomach that just won’t go away? Simply put, your body is telling you to trust your gut.
It doesn’t matter how badly you want to work with a company, it’s important to pay attention to the signs. If they have issues communicating during basic email introductions, balk at your contract, flake out on calls or contact you only to disappear for weeks on end, it never ends well.
An email recently popped into my inbox from a massive toy manufacturer whose products line the shelves of every big box store in the U.S. After some quick back and forth, the contact blew off our call, then rescheduled and missed a second one on the same day. They then promptly disappeared, only to pop up two weeks later with an unplanned phone call, asking if we could push aside my studio process to start the project right away. The warning bells went off and after I politely declined, they promptly hung up on me. Crisis averted!
2. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Start where you are, right now. No excuses. With consistency and drive, you can build an amazing company, brick by brick. The reality is that when you’re starting out, you probably won’t have a fat bank account to keep you afloat for months on end while you design a custom website with finely tuned copy, create letterpress business cards and decorate a big, modern, all-white office. And, that’s okay. Don’t let a lack of anything hold you up, ever.
I started experimenting with graphic design from my childhood bedroom and when I couldn’t afford art school, I enrolled in a community college program. My business really took off in the spare bedroom of a house I bought with my brother and it wasn’t until I’d been freelancing for nine years that I finally signed the lease on a dedicated studio space.
Even though my first real portfolio was a basic template hosted on Cargo, that was good enough to bring in steady clients until it was time to take the leap to launching Branch. Oh, and that website has never been perfect because it was literally designed and developed in 10 days flat. Only now am I going back and refining my brand with a completely new site that’s launching later this summer. Wherever you’re at right now, good enough is good enough.
3. Being “the best” is a losing battle.
Instead, strive to be original. While it’s inspiring to look at the work of creatives you admire and use that as fuel to improve your craft, I’ve learned that being the best at what you do is completely subjective. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Not everyone is going to love what you do so trying to please a massive audience is a sure-fire road to mediocrity.
If you’re struggling to find the originality in what you do, start small. Before you share a piece of work, step back and ask yourself if there’s a final, unique touch you can add to the mix. Those small details are what make your work stand apart from the rest. If you’re having trouble finding your voice, start by writing more personal Instagram captions and tweets. Eventually, those snappy one-liners will grow into stories. Your voice and visual style are already in there but you have to flex your creative muscles every day to make them stronger.
4. Word of mouth is stronger than Google.
Some of the project inquiries I get are directly from Google or Pinterest but believe it or not, the majority these days are from good ol’ word of mouth. I recently did a spider diagram and was shocked at how many of my clients crossed over — most of them knew one another. Good, reliable help is harder to find than you might think so if you do a fantastic job for a handful of people, they’ll be more than happy to recommend you to their friends. Take good care of your core group of clients and in return, they’ll take good care of you.
5. Middle-of-the-road is career suicide.
I’ve always been an all-or-nothing type of person which can be intense and draining but it does have its benefits. Coasting along in a creative field just won’t cut it. Whether you have a full-time position or work for yourself, you have to be willing to hustle big time. Your ideal projects won’t just get handed to you out of thin air — competition is stiff and there’s some truly amazing talent out there. If your burning desire to create has softened, it may be time for a reboot. Read Damn Good Advice by George Lois (one of the original Mad Men) whose drive and chutzpah can inspire just about anyone.
6. Define your voice and style.
Focus on developing your personal style along with the way you package and sell your services. That packaging coupled with your unique voice is what’s really going to make you stand out from the 1,000 other choices your customer has at their fingertips. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re really no different from everyone else but the fastest way to climb out of that hole is to refine your voice and vision.
Not sure what your style is or where to start? Spend the weekend looking through the websites of your all-time favorite designers. Take screen shots and pin the best snippets of visuals and copy to a private Pinterest board. What is it about their style that feels cohesive? Do they gravitate towards hand-lettering, botanical prints, punchy colors, a lot of negative space or something else?
Even more importantly, subscribe to the blogs and Instagram accounts of the folks you admire. Now, comb though each and compare how they share their portfolios and their services. What feels the most natural and non-sleazy to you? I call this exercise market research — and remember, everything you need to know is out there!
7. Only share what you want more of.
The beauty of being online is that people only see what you choose to show them. This might sound deceiving but I assure you, it’s not. If you work a day job doing graphics for big box sports stores (I’ve been there!) but don’t want more of this type of work in the future, don’t show it. I used to show everything I worked on — the good, the bad and the questionable were all fair game. At the time, I needed the work and the work came flowing in by the bucketload. The only problem? It was a strange brew that I didn’t necessarily love.
Once I started Branch, I tightened my focus towards small businesses with an emphasis on fashion, beauty, food and do-gooders (those who are dedicated to making a difference in the world). All the stuff that equaled a good paycheck but left me unfulfilled got axed. By only sharing the projects I feel most passionate about, there’s been a huge domino effect of like-minded folks reaching out.
8. Bigger isn’t always better.
When I began freelancing, I knew I eventually wanted to run my own studio but beyond a few sets of helping hands, I never aspired to have a massive company. Why? Because I once worked at those big agencies and the people around me were never content. There was a feeling of more, more, more with no end in sight. More clients meant that there needed to be more employees to do the work. And naturally, more employees equaled more overhead. It was a never-ending cycle and I always felt a bit lost in the mix. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to grow your business — in fact, I encourage you to because you’ll never know if it’s a good fit if you don’t try. But, the key is to figure out what your goal for earning more money truly is. Not sure? Read Sian’s post.
9. Pitch, even if you’re scared shitless.
It doesn’t matter how popular someone is — they’re still a human sitting on the other side of the screen. Reach out and make a good pitch but always remember the golden rule of letting them know what the’ll get in return. The worst thing that can happen is that they say no and a no at least means that you stepped outside of your comfort zone and tried.
At the beginning of this year, I taped a list of goals to my wall. Six months later, two of the goals felt completely insurmountable on my own — I couldn’t seem to find the time or gather the resources so I regrouped and came up with another angle. I knew the ideas were too good to throw away so I gathered a list of creatives I could pitch my ideas to. Now, I’m working on two courses with businesswomen I admire and the ideas will be so much stronger thanks to their knowledge. If I’d never pitched, the ideas would still be there, gathering dust. Go forth and send at least one scary email today — it could change your life.
10. Stay humble.
Have you ever worked with someone who made everyone’s life around them a complete, living hell? Yes? It sucks, doesn’t it? Please don’t be that person. No matter how talented you are, nobody wants to deal with an asshole.
Kindness goes a long way and can shape a designer’s future. I still remember how unsure I was of myself during my first internship but through it all, the designers around me were so patient and helpful. We all have to start somewhere and it’s so much easier to grow into your full potential when you’re placed in a nurturing, nonjudgemental environment. Now that I have my own interns, I’m always thinking of new ways to show I care and checking in regularly to see if they have any questions. It’s cool to be kind.
There you go! 10 lessons in 10 years. The best learning happens on the job so here’s to 10 more! Thanks for reading!
Your turn: What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned during your creative career?
Photos: Afsoon Zizia and Shauna Haider.