Category Archives: Advice

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?

A Call To Creatives: Follow Your Unique Path


Over the weekend, I met up with a long-time friend who just landed a way awesome job and is leaving Portland soon. We both started our careers with the same exact internship and I was so excited to hear the news. His climb up the ladder in the design world over the last few years has been nothing short of impressive. I thought about our conversation afterwards and asked myself why I didn’t want the same thing. After all, a well-paying in-house design job at a cool company is the dream, right?

For six years, I freelanced and worked full-time at a lot of design studios and agencies. And I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. It was necessary for me to witness the inner-workings of how successful design businesses run on a daily basis in order to fully understand what it takes to keep things going.

But now, being on my own, I’m the most content I’ve ever been. I’m excited to get out of bed every morning to work with clients I love and feel a personal connection with. I’m excited to share new snippets of work on dribbble. I’m excited to have people on my team I admire like Star and Cathy, even though we’re not physically in the same city. I’m excited to manage things and create a vision that feels authentic, evolving and modern. It’s what I’ve wanted for a long time.

And that’s what I realized: we each have to block out the outside noise and follow our own path. It took me until the age of 32 until I felt comfortable enough to launch Branch. I needed that time to grow into myself and gain the confidence that somehow, some way, everything would be okay. This path feels right for me for right now and if it doesn’t in the future, I have the power to change it.

I know a lot of other designers that don’t want the headaches of running their own businesses. They are happy working at a job that treats them well, pays them well and provides them with great benefits. I completely respect that because I wanted that same thing a few years ago. It’s nice to not have any cares about work when you leave the office for the night. It’s a very zen feeling to lock the door and leave your work behind. When you work for yourself, that work and to-do list is always chasing you.

Working for yourself is definitely an uphill battle. But it’s a battle I’m more than willing to take on.

When it comes to your career, it’s easy to look around and obsess about people that seemingly have something more than you. There’s that someone that is younger, more talented and further along. But remind yourself that there’s always going to be that someone.

As hard as it is to not get hung up on what the rest of the world is doing, you have to remember that you’re on your own path. It really doesn’t matter all that much what everyone else is up to. I didn’t even finish my design degree until I was 27 and it made me feel like such a late bloomer compared with my peers — but I didn’t let that stop me. I just worked harder because I wanted to be a graphic designer more than anything. I put in the time to get what I wanted. I worked a lot of jobs, some of which I loved, some of which I hated. But I learned something unique from each experience and it was worth it.

This post is a reminder to block out what everyone else is doing. If you want to work in-house or at an ad agency or for a small, family-owned business, cool. If you want to work for yourself, cool. It’s all up to you. There’s no right or wrong way to build your career in design.

Advice #56: Does a Business Background Make a Designer More Valuable?

Nubby Twiglet | Does a Business Background Make a Designer More Valuable?

“I’m in college and enrolled in a business-focused graphic design program but I’m finding that it’s not what I expected. The design taught there is based around business but I’m finding that the student work is bland and built around people with no graphic design knowledge. Every time I talk to an advisor about transferring, they tell me that I’m making a bad decision because their program is so wonderful and business-oriented. They also advise me to get a minor in marketing. Does a graphic designer have to be heavily educated in business to be more employable?”

If your gut is telling you that this is not the program for you, I would advise you to transfer as soon as possible. Most of us only get one shot at college and if you feel like there’s little value in what you’re being taught, it’s okay to look elsewhere.

It’s in the advisor’s best interests to keep you where you’re at because you’re bringing in income. In a way, it reminds me of jobs I’ve had in the past that I was on the fence about but every time I tried to quit, the owner would convince me to stay. Nothing good rarely comes of staying put in a situation like this — it just creates uneasiness and resentment.

Onto your question: does a graphic designer have to be heavily educated in business to be more employable? Not necessarily.

I’m in a unique position in that I went to school for business before I earned my design degree and yes, what I learned made me much more aware and well-rounded as a designer. For instance, I always approached projects from a really practical standpoint and considered budgets when it came to the concepts I was presenting. I also gave a lot more thought to the strategy behind my creative ideas and presented them in a way that framed up how they directly benefitted the client.

Because I had an interest in business, my agency jobs tended to hand me pieces of projects that appealed to this sensibility: I’d often build out the front end of presentations that focused on our competitive analysis and research. If you’re seeking more than straight design at your jobs, you’ll get it.

Having a business base before I went into design definitely helped me but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to take this route. What you don’t learn in school or on the job can be picked up from books and blogs — after all, learning is lifelong.

Remember, you are paying this school to teach you. If you’re not getting what you want out of it, you have the right to move on and look for a better fit. Good luck!

Put It In Writing: Commit Your Goals To Paper

Commit Your Goals To Paper

Two nights ago, I realized that I’d misplaced a password for an account and that it was tucked away in a notebook lurking in my flat files. As I started digging, I fell deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole — I had stacks of notebooks going back to 2002!

Most of the pages in these notebooks aren’t filled with sketches or design ideas; they’re pretty much dedicated to to-do lists and goals. It’s always funny to look back and re-read what you thought was important enough to write down at the time.

I used to be so good about writing down my goals. At the start of each new year, I would make a detailed list and tape it up next to my desk as a reminder of what I wanted to accomplish. Then, somewhere along the way, life took over and between design and blogging commitments, they fell by the wayside. I made excuses instead of taking 10 minutes to think about what I really wanted and commit it to paper.

I’d forgotten how powerful a simple list could be, though. During that search two nights ago, I came across one in particular, from about a year and a half ago. And when I read through it, I realized that I’d not only met every goal I’d written out back then but I’d bypassed a few by a long shot! The sad part is, I didn’t even know I’d reached my so-called goals until I found that list because I was too busy living my day-to-day existence, just trying to cross off as many things as possible on my to-do list. I wasn’t taking the time to step back and look at the big picture.

So, I’m challenging both you and myself to get back to basics. Pull out a piece of paper and a pen and write down your goals for the next year. I do keep digital lists but they just aren’t the same. Having that physical reminder to glance at on a daily basis is so important! Today, I’m writing out new goals to commit to and taping them up next to my desk.

Let’s see what happens…

Advice #55: Should You Ever Work For Free?

Advice: Should You Ever Work For Free?


I’m a graphic design student, currently working in-house (but for way below an average in-house rate) and I have a few freelance clients. Only one is paying me and the others want work for free. I don’t know how much more free work I can do. I’m worried that if I say no, I could miss out on some legitimate work for my portfolio. But I also have bills, rent and student loans to pay back. What do you think?

First off, when it comes to both personal and professional relationships, we teach people how to treat us. And let’s be real — while gaining projects for your portfolio can be incredibly valuable, working for free won’t keep your bills paid.

It’s a slippery slope because you need real life design experience but don’t ever sell yourself short in the process — you’re training to be a professional in your field and that’s a serious investment! There’s a bigger issue: if you’re taking on so much free work that you’re unable to pay your bills, it just pushes you further from your dream because at some point, you’ll have to pick up another job to make up for the slack. Wouldn’t it just be easier to charge your clients a fair rate and focus on what you actually love doing as a job?

By agreeing to do design work for free, you’re setting a precedent with your clients that it’s perfectly okay to expect the relationship to continue as it always has. And really, who can blame them? They’re getting access to a dedicated, talented freelance designer with no strings attached. To be completely honest, it’s going to be hard to flip the tables and start charging them — I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them throw a tantrum. After all, who doesn’t love free work? But, you need to stand your ground. Once you start valuing your time and work, they’ll respect you much more.

I know what it’s like to break into the design industry and to need work for your portfolio. I landed my first design internship at a studio in 2007 (when the economy was in much better shape) and it was paid for the entire time. Even though I had a paid internship, I still sought out freelance work to round out my portfolio. I wasn’t super confident with my work yet because I was still in school and learning my craft so I charged what I felt comfortable with. My first ever logo jobs were for a flat rate of $200.00. It was a win-win situation: my clients got a fantastic deal and I gained valuable work for my portfolio. After doing a handful of those $200.00 logos, I felt more confident and eventually raised my rates to $500.00. And then to $1,000.00 post graduation. And then to $1,500.00 and continually on up until I was earning a decent living. It was a slow and steady increase over a few years as demand grew. There weren’t any sudden jolts — I eased into my rates. The point is, I never, ever worked for free, unless it was to help out a close friend.

I should clarify that your paid in-house position and the work you’re doing for your personal clients are two very different things. As a student, it’s important to take on internships (paid or unpaid) to gain real world experience. They’re often for school credit and the industry connections you gain are more than worth the low compensation. But when it comes to offering your clients free work, what are you really gaining? The energy you spend working on their projects could be used to build your personal brand, to create self-initiated projects and to network.

Graphic design is just like any other profession. You would never expect a plumber come to your house to fix a leaky pipe for free. A cobbler would never fix your shoes just because. Graphic design requires a specialized skill set and you’ve put in serious time and money to gain those skills. Demand more of yourself and you’ll get more. Lead by example and stand your ground when it comes to your rates and never compromise on doing free work unless it’s absolutely, completely, totally worth it.

What do you think? Are there any circumstances where you think it’s okay to work for free?

Community College: Is It the Right Choice For You?

Community College: Is It the Right Choice For You?

Over the last few months I’ve gotten many, many emails from potential design students inquiring about whether community college is the right fit for them. I’ve lightly touched on the subject before but I want to go into more detail today as to why community college was the best choice for me to continue my education.

I’m pretty passionate about community college because not only was my experience amazing but it got me to exactly where I needed to be in my career without compromising my budget, timeline or goals.

My path to community college

In 2005, after wrapping up a degree in Business Administration, I just wasn’t content. I knew it was because as much as I loved business, I felt a nagging void in my creativity. I’d always dreamed of being an artist but I didn’t think it was a practical path I could earn a living at right away so I’d chosen the so-called safe route. But by 2005, I’d discovered graphic design on a more serious level and I wanted in. Everything clicked: I liked type and layouts and grids a whole lot more than painting and sketching. I’d found my calling.

I did some research online and made appointments with potential colleges. Every time, I kept running into a wall, both with class schedules and cost. I lived on my own and needed to work full-time to support myself, yet the classes would often have huge gaps of time between them, scattered throughout the day. I wanted in but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work with my retail hours.

It all came crashing down when I made an appointment to meet the head of a graphic design program at a university and he scolded me for turning up early (?!). Then, after a glance at my transcripts, he pointed out that I was missing an art history class that was required. Since it was only offered once a year, I’d have to sit out completely. I begged for a workaround — could I still enter the program and then make up that class when it came around the following year? He wouldn’t budge and his tone was condescending. I was beside myself; why would I ever hand over a huge sum of money to someone who couldn’t even treat me with compassion and respect during a 15 minute meeting?

The more I thought about that meeting as I walked back to the bus stop, the more I wondered whether I even needed another four year degree. Both my boyfriend at the time and our roommate had earned their design degrees from community college and were extremely skilled. They both had full-time design jobs, even without fancy credentials. Maybe I could do that, too.

I then remembered that there was a limited entry graphic design program at the community college I’d spent my first few years at (I’d found out about it long after I’d graduated).

I looked up the number and called them up right there, on the spot. The head of the program, Chris Maier answered right away. I explained that I already had a 4 year degree. Did I need another to be a graphic designer? I also didn’t have a lot of time or money and needed a flexible schedule (no, I wasn’t asking for a miracle, but pretty close to it).

She explained that the class sizes were very small and program was comprised of back-to-back classes two to three days a week. If finding a job was my goal post-graduation, she assured me she could help. And later, I would find that it all held true. I was 25 by the time Fall 2006 rolled around and my goal was to be a full-time designer by 27. I’d had more time to research and I knew for sure that the program was exactly where I needed to be in order to make that happen.

Community College: Is It the Right Choice For You?

Things moved along quickly from there. With only two years to learn about design, the projects were fast-paced and everything had a purpose; there was no time for filler content. I loved every minute of it. And funny enough, the girls seated on each side of me were in a similar situation as I was: both had Bachelor’s degrees in completely different subjects and were back in our program for design. It felt good to know that I wasn’t the only one in class that had done a 180 to start over in a different field because even though many people around me had the best intentions, they definitely questioned my move.

By this time, my brother had gotten into the cool art school I’d always dreamed of going to. The jealousy I felt quickly subsided when I realized that my entire program cost half of just his first year. By my second semester, I landed a project designing album art for Virgin Records and that check was the same amount as my first year of school. I’d broken even.

Once I’d finished that first year, I walked up to my teacher on the last day of class and told her where my dream internship would be if I could choose from anywhere. She had a contact there, and the next day, we were in touch. It took me the entire summer to get in but by the time year two of my program rolled in, I had a paid internship at a design studio in Portland. A week after I graduated, I had my first full time design job. Within a year of that, I was doing freelance for Forever 21 and had designed a line of goggles through Smith Optics.

Having a two year degree for design never hindered me in any way. When I was asked about it in interviews, I would explain that I already had a four year degree in a different subject and I’d wanted to break into the industry as quickly as possible. It was as simple as that.

Instead of worrying about whether there was a prestigious institution stamped across my diploma, I put all of my time and effort into improving the quality of my portfolio and learning on the job.

Can you really learn everything in two years?

When you only have two years, of course you’re not going to learn everything there is to know about design. Design is a massive subject and even with six years of professional experience now, I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface.

When it comes to design, you end up learning so much on the job that any perceived gaps you have are filled in quickly. For instance, I didn’t know much about print production. But then, I did a freelance gig at a studio that ended up lasting for over a year. Nearly all their work was heavily production-based and though the learning curve was high, I eventually broke through. It just takes time.

In Closing

Community college won’t be for everyone. And if you have a big college fund set aside, by all means live it up! But for me, it was the perfect choice. I have absolutely no regrets and the education I gained in two short years got me to exactly where I needed to go. And remember, there are other paths you can take — once you’re done with the two-year degree and have all the basics out of the way, you can always transfer into a university or art school and continue on (many of my classmates did).

I had friends that went to art school and I sometimes used to wish that I could have had that experience, too. But to be completely honest, the only reason my design loans are paid off now is because I chose the community college route. I definitely didn’t want massive debt hanging over my head as I moved into the next chapter of my life.

When it comes to college, always weigh your options carefully, meet with multiple schools and understand what you’re signing up for. Community college is something that’s not talked about a whole lot as an option when it comes to graphic design so I just want to remind you that a quality education doesn’t have to be solely attached to a huge price tag.

I attended the MHCC Integrated Media program with a focus in Graphic Design.
Photos by Made U Look.