Category Archives: Advice

Advice #40: How Do I Get My Blog Noticed?

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Source: Jasper James Photography.

I’m currently working as a graphic designer and have completed schooling. The one thing I have however not been able to master is the power of the blog. I enjoy blogging, but I just can’t seem to find the proper balance to get people into reading it. What would you suggest is the most effective way to bring readers into my blog? Am I simply boring, or am I lacking a key factor?

The truth is that getting your blog noticed is a lot harder than it was a few years ago when there was a lot less competition out there. When I relaunched my website in a blog format in 2007, there was so much less saturation! And, there definitely weren’t nearly as many bloggers who were able to sustain a full-time living from their sites. But now that companies have realized the power of having real people pitching their products, bloggers have gained a powerful foothold into a number of industries (along with the advertising dollars). So, what can you do to stand out?

1. Consistency, consistency, consistency.

Of course it’s not necessary to blog every day — we all have varying amounts of time to contribute to our blogs. But, if you’re really serious about blogging and building an audience, keep a regular schedule that works for you. Is your goal to post once a week? Three times a week? Whatever your schedule, once you’ve been posting for awhile, readers begin to anticipate content at semi-regular intervals. If you need to take an extended break, make a note of it so that your readers know what to expect (instead of thinking that you’ve quite suddenly fallen off the face of the earth).

Think about consistency this way: Would you repeatedly frequent a business that was constantly closed without notice or, after a few tries, would you eventually give up? If your blog isn’t your business or livelihood, feel free to ignore this advice. If it is, you’ve got to be fiercely committed and goal driven if you want it to get noticed. Consistency counts because it builds a sense of reader loyalty.

2. Authenticity Rules Supreme.

When you’re first starting out and offers of freebies and other goodies start rolling in, make sure that you’re comfortable with the trade-off. What does the company want in return? If you don’t believe in a product, don’t share it with your readers under any circumstances. People can sense something fishy a million miles a way, even when it’s hidden behind a computer screen. Never, ever compromise your values or the pocket books of your readers. Ethics are a slippery slope, especially in blogging. Once you lose credibility, it’s a tough climb back to the top.

How do you stay authentic? Only share content that you wholeheartedly believe in. Use your unique voice and share experiences, advice and visions that are uniquely your own. Just be you.

3. Always take the high road.

Not everyone is going to understand or believe in what you’re doing. That’s how life is sometimes but it’s important to stay strong and to not give into unnecessary negativity. On the other hand, blogging, like any other profession can become seductive once a level of success sets in. It’s up to you to not lose touch with your readers. We’re all busy but do what you can, when you can. Don’t lose sight of what you’ve set out to do. Hold yourself and the content that you’re producing to the highest possible standards.

4. Share links and build your audience in the process.

No matter how established other bloggers out there are, everyone appreciates it when someone takes the time to link to their content. Producing original content can take some serious time and dedication and it’s a great feeling knowing that other bloggers like it enough to share it with their readers. If you continually share links to content of other bloggers, they will take notice and maybe even return the favor!

5. Use other platforms to your advantage.

When you’re starting out, it’s important to get the word out. To build momentum, pick a handful of platforms that you believe in. Depending on your focus, Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (along with dozens more) can help you reach new readers. If viewers like what they see, they can click through and check out your blog. It’s honest and organic. Don’t spam other blogs with generic comments. Instead, if you choose to leave a comment, be sincere and heartfelt – the chances of someone clicking through are much more likely!

I keep my self-imposed social media plan very simple on a daily basis. It goes like this:

Immediately after posting, I share a link to my article on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ as well as posting the article photos to Flickr. That’s it. If I had more time, I’d definitely use Tumblr as well but I’d want the content to be unique from what I was already posting on my blog. The five minutes I do spend spreading the word each day definitely contributes to my traffic. Bonus tip: services like Twitterfeed can automatically ping Twitter and Facebook with a link to your blog’s updates!

6. Knowledge is power. Share what you know.

How can you gain the adoration and respect of new followers? Open up and share. We all possess a well of knowledge and have something that makes us unique. By allowing others to learn from us, our human connections grow and so does the quality of our blog’s content. For instance, my passion is design and I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned through schooling, internships and client work. There’s so much insight that I’ve gained over the years through rebuilding my portfolio a million times, freelancing at agencies and learning how to get organized in the process. By sharing my personal experiences, hopefully someone else’s path will be smoother than mine was. Life experience is infinitely valuable and if we can help or inspire someone else, why not share it?

7. Produce original content.

This ties into sharing what you know. While some blogs thrive on the republishing of images and content of others, the easiest way to stand apart from the competition is to produce content that is uniquely your own. Shoot as many of your own photos as possible. Customize what you already have with fonts, photo filters and handwriting. Step away from the computer and experience life and then share what you’ve learned with your readers. Give them something that they can’t find anywhere else.

8. Keep your head up. It’s a long, winding road.

I started blogging at full capacity over four years ago when I was getting ready to start a design program, working a full-time retail job and living with many roommates. My life was much different then but blogging gave me a sense of structure through many uneasy transitions. It was a welcome outlet as I learned about design, traveled extensively, graduated and began working full-time as a designer. Along the way, my life completely shifted from being unfulfilling to working every day doing what I love and being settled in my own house with a wonderful husband and dog. Along the way, I never lost sight of my goals. At first, I just wanted 25,000 unique visitors a month. Then, 50,000. Then 75,000 and so on. I didn’t set lofty, unattainable goals but instead built momentum, slowly but surely. With the schedule I kept through school, I usually had to be up by 6:30 in the morning, putting a post together but it didn’t deter me because I really loved blogging.

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Source: Jasper James Photography.

Finally, don’t wait.

I’ve said this so many times before but it bears repeating! Even if you don’t have tons of readers, keep on blogging. Each post is an exercise in your growth as a writer and communicator. Many of the great bloggers that you admire have been chipping away at their craft for years and the quality of their posts has grown with practice. It’s okay to feel discouraged some days (we all do) but don’t give up. Set some realistic goals, ask yourself what purpose you’d like your blog to serve and build it, one reader at a time. Don’t make the process more difficult than it has to be. Just stay true to what you’ve set out to do. Good luck!

Advice #39: How Do I Determine What My Clients Want?

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How do you create something that your client will love? Especially when they don’t know what they want at all? Their answers to my questionnaires are vague and their feedback on my designs are all over the place! What is your process to help clients that don’t have a clear direction?

When designing for clients, it’s important to remember that not everyone has a strong design sensibility. They are expecting you as the designer to be a voice on what’s relevant and appropriate for their brand. Remember that you’re being hired for your skillset and knowledge. Though, of course not everything should fall squarely on your shoulders. After all, you’re not a mind reader! The good news is that when pushed and prodded, most people do have an opinion. Perhaps they just don’t know where to start. Sometimes, formulating what you want into words for the first time isn’t that easy — maybe all a client needs a healthy dose of visual inspiration and an explanation of a few terms to get the ball rolling.

It might take a little work to get the responses that you’re looking for but think of it this way: as an example, most people don’t walk into the hairdresser and say, “Oh, do whatever you want. Any cut is fine!” To determine what exactly a client is looking for, here are a few strategies that you can employ.

1. Keep using the questionnaire.

Firstly, you are doing the right thing by implementing a questionnaire. I recently came up with my own version and it’s meant to serve as the equivalent of a quick coffee date. In basic terms, it’s saying, “Tell me about your business. What do you want to accomplish with your branding? Who do you want to reach? And finally, what inspires you?” A questionnaire is great because often, clients don’t know how much or how little information to supply to you about their brand. These questions get the ball rolling and provide a guide of where they need to open up their dialogue. If your current questionnaire isn’t working, step back and re-read your questions. Are they more of a statement than a question? Are they too wordy? Are they focusing on too many unknown factors?

2. Ask your clients for examples of what they like.

Yes, this is broad, but inspiration comes from everywhere. Perhaps they have a penchant for branding that they’ve seen somewhere else, an editorial layout from their favorite magazine, a movie still, an album cover, etc. Together, a collection of images can provide obvious visual cues for a designer to pull from. If they don’t know where to start, I provide a list of relevant inspiration sites. You’d be surprised at how well this can work — often by the next day, I’ll have an email loaded with twenty great images!

3. Always do your own visual research.

No matter how much information a client provides for me, I always do my own visual research before starting the design process. In the initial presentation, there are two sections. The first features a handful of design concepts and the second contains visual research. This serves two purposes; it shows them ‘what’s out there’ and also, if they aren’t connecting with the options that you’ve provided, they can hopefully pinpoint something in the research that does resonate. That way, you have a starting point for the next round. I should mention that at the agencies I’ve worked at, the research decks are much more extensive. But for a logo especially, I try to keep it simple by presenting my ideas, backing them up not overwhelming the recipient in the process!

4. A little explanation goes a long way.

How do your visual solutions relate to the client’s business? If any of your ideas are more abstract, take the time to include a few sentences. And remember, the more confidence that you have in your outcomes, the more confidence the client will have in you.

5. Don’t Overwhelm.

It’s good to show a variety of options in the first round but if you show too many, clients may feel overwhelmed. Remember that quality is much more important than quantity. Save your energy to really branch out on the options they show an interest in after the first round. Otherwise, you run the risk of showing all your cards and wasting way too much time only to have nothing chosen!

Finally, Don’t Stress.

All clients are different. And let’s face it — we’ve all had times where we thought we knew what we wanted but once it was fleshed out and sitting in front of us, it just didin’t feel right. It’s hard to believe but sometimes you’ll nail a concept in the first round and other times, you’ll hit round three without a final solution in sight. Overall, what I’ve noticed is that the easy and hard jobs tend to balance out. Being a designer isn’t all about designing — often, it’s just as much about the process which includes listening to your client and doing your research. Hopefully, these tips will help you reach a conclusion that makes both sides happy.

Designers, do you have any suggestions about how to handle client uncertainty?

Advice #38: Mix and Match

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So many of you have been writing in with questions lately so I wanted to use this week to answer as many of the shorter ones as possible. Enjoy!

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Givenchy Heels

I’m almost 20, and even though I adore how they look, I don’t know how to walk in high heels. Really. I own a pair and I ‘practice’ walking in them around the house every now and then, but I don’t know if I’m doing it right.

As with anything, get comfortable and then work your way up! Start with a one to two inch chunky heel or wedge and wear them as much as possible until you feel like walking around in them is second nature. Your stride should look as natural as possible though it will take some time to get used to walking at a normal pace. I don’t think that any woman is born walking perfectly in heels!

I’ll let you in on a little secret — if you go through my photos, almost always, you’ll notice that I stick to wearing wedges. They are great because they give you that bit of extra height with a huge dose of stability. Nobody wants to hobble all around town! In truth, I own one pair of actual stilettos. Everything else in my shoe arsenal is mainly a wedge or a super chunky heel. My all-time favorite wedges are my patent gray Dries Van Notens and my most easy to wear heels are also by Dries Van Noten. Both pairs have really great non-slippery rubber soles. When it comes to shoes, aim for quality over quantity — take care of your feet!

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I’m about to graduate high school next month and I’ve applied to a college for a two year diploma in graphic design. When I’m done with the two year diploma, I can upgrade for another year (it’s advanced graphic design). After those three years of studying, I get a one year transfer credit to a university towards a BFA degree. I could’ve applied for a BFA degree at the university now, but I didn’t, because their GD program is more studio art and art history. What would you say are the ups and downs of the choices I made?

Degree titles aside, you really have to focus on the program and route that you feel is the best match for your goals. Have you already taken the time to meet with advisors at both schools?

When you’re finished with college and applying for design jobs in particular, it doesn’t necessarily matter what your diploma says or what your exact path has been to earn that degree if your portfolio isn’t solid. In my personal experience, a great internship along with a solid portfolio and client list have gotten me further than what a piece of paper says I acomplished. I had my own reasons for seeking out a two year degree in design versus a four year degree. The most important reason was that I already had a four year degree in another major and I didn’t see any benefit in wasting the time and money to have two. Plus, my community college program was focused on preparing us for the real world as quickly as possible with the end goal of us having jobs by the time we graduated. I put in the time and effort and that held true.

Which program best fits your focus and budget? The less money you have to pay back when you finish, the better (thanks to the affordability of community college, my loans are almost gone). It sounds like you’ve already given your route some serious thought and who knows, after earn your two year diploma, you might be ready to work professionally and not need to transfer after all. Quite a few students in my two year program were.

Do you ever get tired or bored with what you do?

Tired, yes. We all get tired. Bored? Never. There’s always an opportunity to learn something new, even when you’re working on the most mundane projects. Realistically, this comes down to adopting a positive mindset and choosing to find value in every new experience. They say that practice makes perfect and I agree — you should always strive to find ways to improve your skill set and to become more rounded as a designer. For example, while I don’t find production work to be the most thrilling, I often work on projects with huge amounts of it because I want to sharpen what I already know. I chose my career because I loved it. If I didn’t love it, wouldn’t every day feel like torture? You’re only going to live once so you might as well do what you love. Of course you don’t have to love every little experience or project but you should strive to enjoy your overall path.

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Source unknown

I have a question about time/energy. Young female entrepreneurs work insane hours, right? I want to launch myself as a freelance art writer. However, I get tired and sick pretty easily and am dealing with some tough personal stuff, so am having to learn to pace myself with how much work I take on at any one time. Do you have any advice on managing workload? Do you have to work a 60 hour week to be successful?

I am probably the wrong person to ask about this because I genuinely enjoy working; it provides me with both structure and purpose. Everyone is different though and it’s really important that you adopt a plan that’s best for your health and lifestyle, not just your career. Unfortunately, while freelancing provides some huge perks, the lack of structured hours and often intense deadlines can weigh you down. We all require varying amounts of sleep and downtime — if a job, self-imposed or otherwise starts taking a toll on your health, it’s definitely time to reconsider!

I have to stay super organized because I freelance at agencies as well as working with my own clients so there is a constant rotation of projects and deadlines. I keep a fairly simple routine for staying organized — I am a die-hard list maker. Every single day, I open up my Moleskine planner and write down everything that needs to be done. If something doesn’t get done, I carry it over to the next. Crossing items off my list makes me feel accountable for my time and that I’m not letting anything from emails, client work, appointments or household chores slip through the cracks.

Additionally, I try to keep a routine. Since everything around me can be crazy, I try to wake up at around the same time every morning, answer emails, re-write my to-do list and then unwind at night my catching up on my favorite blogs in Google Reader before starting any freelance work.

Success is a bit open-ended. Once you pinpoint what exactly you’d like to achieve with your freelance career and when, you can form a plan that will help you move forward in a way that works with your lifestyle. If your plan starts to not seem worthwhile, ask yourself why and reformulate your goals. Remember, your goals for you career don’t have to be all or nothing. Nobody reaches a level of huge success overnight.

Advice #37: I Am Still In School. Should I Start Blogging NOW?

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Image by Julian Bialowas.

I am currently in my 3rd year of studying design and I am wanting to start a blog a lot like yours. I’m wondering if I should start now and figure it all out, or wait until I’ve got more of a brand going on and do it properly?

Simple Advice: Start Now.

My advice to students who want to start blogging is always the same: DON’T WAIT. Nothing is ever going to be perfect — you could spend the rest of your life tweaking your brand and your work, waiting for the ‘right time.’ And you know what? That perfect moment never comes. Our lives and our work are fluid, always in constant motion. The web is always in a constant state of change as well…and that’s what makes it so great! Once you have your site live, you can make tiny tweaks as often as you’d like. But you’ve got to start somewhere to begin building momentum. As with anything, practice makes perfect. Blogging often requires more work than it appears and the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll develop your unique voice.

When I started blogging on my site in the summer of 2007, I was less than a year into my design degree. I didn’t even have that much work to post but I didn’t let that stop me. In the beginning, I simply shared things that I loved — design books that I found exciting, outfit photos, student projects and more. I knew that as my work and confidence grew, so would the quality of my posts. Looking back, I am so glad that I didn’t wait! There were much fewer personal blogs out there four years ago and because of that, the community felt much smaller and more accessible. The blogosphere only continues to expand so the sooner you make your imprint, the better.

At the time, it wasn’t as common for designers to have blogs. I wasn’t so sure that turning the front page of my site into a blog was the best move but one of my closest friends, a web developer who was constantly on the pulse of the next big thing convinced me otherwise. What I’ve realized is that you have to do what you feel is best for you.

To this day, I have a huge list of things that I want to change about my blog (a redesign is definitely in the works this year) but I never let that trip me up. Blogging consistently has had immense benefits that I might have not received otherwise. Over the last few years, it’s helped me gain a huge amount of freelance clients, I’ve received speaking offers from colleges and in the process, I’ve connected with and made many new friends. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that blogging has opened up a whole new world for me.

The secret to success in most things is consistency and this applies to blogging, as well. Follow the same routine day after day and slowly but surely, it becomes like second nature. There’s no reason to wait because truthfully, once you go live, even if everything is ‘perfect’ in your eyes at that point, within a year, you’ll find a million little changes that you want to make anyway. If you wait to get started, do you think you will look back in a year or two from now and wish that you’d just jumped in? If the answer is yes, make it happen now.

Advice #36: I Love Design But I Am Afraid of Change!

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Source: Julian Bialowas.

Hi! I see how you adore your job, you put a lot effort into it and, in my opinion, that’s the most important element: PASSION. I’m only 18 and I have realized that I’m just studying physics because it’s like a “safe” way to live my life. You know, you graduate, you get a job, you marry and have children … all those things. I’m afraid of doing what I want to do, what I like to do. I love graphic design and I’m now thinking about my options. How did you arrive at where you are now, what’s your job exactly and how does it work?

Remember that life isn’t a big check list.

You’re not in a race through an obstacle course, checking off your adherence to societal standards, one by one. As we get older, it becomes even more clear that our happiness and well-being are often more important than the perceived clout we get from a job title. If you’re not in school for a career that you feel passionate about, it tends to only get worse with time.

Relax. We learn through trial and error.

In life, I’m a firm believer that sometimes you have to try out a few things that you don’t necessarily like before finding the right fit. Because then when you finally do, you just know. It’s about trial and error — at some point, most of us will end up at jobs that we end up hating or choose a college major that isn’t the best fit. When you do make mistakes, take the opportunity to learn from them…and then move on. Then file it away under life experience!

You have to do what’s best for you. In the end, you’ll accomplish nothing except feeling miserable if you’re just going through the motions, trying to live up to an ideal that doesn’t necessarily mesh with what you want. If you’re determined enough, you’ll probably hit every one of those goals (degree, career, married and children) before 30 and then what? Will you be happy? Or look back and wish that at 18, you’d decided to take the graphic design route because that was REALLY what you wanted to do?

How did I arrive at where I am?

Right now, I am happy with where I’m at but it took years to get to this place. I’m a designer and blogger, both of which I love and set out to do a long time ago. I’ve been actively blogging since 2001, most importantly because I enjoy it. I’ve always felt like my work, life, surroundings and style were all interconnected. While my design work is very important to me, it’s a snapshot of a much bigger picture, much of which gets shared daily on my blog.

I’ve been designing professionally since 2007 though I started dabbling a few years before. 2007 was the year that I got my first agency internship. The second I graduated in 2008, I started working full-time and transitioned to freelance in 2009. A career in design isn’t easy. You have to be really passionate about it because the task of constantly trying to deliver your best work possible meshed with what the client wants (they’re paying you, after all) can be incredibly stressful at times. But that feeling of getting a complement from a client or seeing your work in print just can’t be beat.

Like you, I have always been very practical when it comes to school and a career — I’m just not one of those fearless, ‘anything goes’ types of people! I had no idea that graphic design was a career option until my mid-twenties! So on I went, doing what I felt was the most practical and earning a business degree. I’ve always loved marketing and advertising and anyway, I wondered, where would I get a job with an art degree?

Once I’d finished, I felt like something was missing. By 2005, I’d discovered graphic design and was doing small freelance jobs. I soon realized that half of being a designer is made up of what you don’t see — gathering assets, setting up files, the production. So, back to school I went. Since I’d already gone the ‘practical’ route (like you) and trudged through all the classes I’d deemed un-fun (namely pre-calculus), going back to school for design was a total dream. I was passionate about it, excited to learn every single day and the time flew by. If you feel that you’re in the wrong major, don’t suffer through it ‘just because!’

Follow your passion.

It’s never too late to make a switch. Only you can make a decision about what’s best for you. If you have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right or keep wondering ‘is this all there is?’ then stop and listen to your intuition. You’re in charge of your happiness.

Of course, getting from Point A to Point B isn’t magic! You have to first decide if a switch to design is what you want and if it’s the right choice for right now. Next, you have to make a plan. What school will you go to? How will you afford it? Next, you have to set some goals. How long are you going to give yourself to finish school? To build a portfolio? To find steady work once you’re finished? Finally, ask yourself…what is holding you back? What are you afraid of? Once you answer that, you can break through and take the next step. Good luck!

Advice #35: What Would Your Last Blog Post Be?

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Dear Nubby,

Last night I had a dream where you came to my house to announce that you were going to shut down your blog and we (me + many many random people who were there) could ask you any questions we wanted. My question is: If you could write one more article before leaving this world (blogosphere or planet earth), what would you say?

Wow. This is probably the most challenging question I’ve ever gotten here on the blog! At the same time, it’s also a topic that’s interesting to contemplate. We all get into routines. When it comes down to it, I’m so used to having a set blogging schedule in place every week that it’s like second nature to me. I started this blog in its current incarnation over three years ago and I plan to continue for a very long time. But, back to your question. Bloggers by nature are always planning for the future. We’re always thinking about what’s next after we hit the ‘Publish’ button. When that’s no more and you’ve reached the end of blogging, how would you metaphorically wrap up all of those loose ends?

In my case, I realized a long time ago that there’s much more to life than blogging and the internet. While this blog contains a pretty good overview of my overall aesthetics and thoughts, in reality it’s only a small part of my life. I view my blog as a creative outlet to share my work, thoughts and inspiration but it’s not comprised of everything I do. So in a way, I would want my hypothetical final article to be bigger than my blog. Essentially, it would contain pieces of advice that are important to me and help guide me through life.

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Some of you are fans of Oprah and some of you are not but either way, I felt that she hit upon a profound moment in the closing page of her January 2011 issue. In it, she said:

In July, I read a Vanity Fair article about the making of Michael Jackson’s album Thriller. The piece quoted some of Michael’s friends saying that one of his biggest mistakes was never realizing that Thriller’s becoming the number-one-selling album in history was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. And because he didn’t realize that, he spent the rest of his life chasing that success.

Reading that was a big aha for me. The reason I had wavered was fear: I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to duplicate what I’d done. But as I thought about Michael Jackson, I began to see that not only can you not duplicate success, you’re not supposed to. Every new endeavor is created out of the quality of the energy you bring to it and is meant to be its own thing.

Popularity, fame, notoriety (or whatever you want to call it) comes and goes. Sometimes you’ll be more popular than others but through all of that, it’s important to appreciate what you have because you can never again relive that exact moment. In a society obsessed with documenting everything that happens, it’s important to just block that out sometimes. What YOU are doing in that space of time can’t be replicated, no matter how much documentation you have of it.

Do what you need to do to make yourself happy. Stop chasing past accomplishments and instead, set new goals. Stay true to those goals and say no to things that make you unhappy (I am still working on this). Oprah closed her article with:

What I know for sure. Fear comes from uncertainty. Once you start clarifying your purpose for doing something, the way to do it becomes clear.

I wholeheartedly agree with this. While this advice is fairly general and it’s been said a million different times in a slightly different manner, the point is that a lot of times, unhappiness stems from feeling stuck, feeling like you don’t have a purpose or perhaps most profoundly, like you can never relive a past experience. That energy has to go somewhere. Blogging makes me happy, having a career in design makes me happy, having a list of goals that clearly define what I want to do next makes me happy. It’s all connected. That purpose, whatever you decide it is will help to propel you forward.

Advice #34: Is a Freelance Career Right For You?

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Image: Convoy.

Hello, I am a graphic designer and long time reader of your blog. I’m writing to ask for some advice on how to start a good freelance career and to hear your experience as a freelancer for design agencies. How long did it take to you to become a valuable freelancer? Do you send resumès to agencies, or do the agencies call you directly? Are recommendations important in finding a freelance job?

First of all, design is an immensely competitive field — for every one designer hoping to make it at an agency level, there are probably 100 more candidates waiting in line. Over the last year, I’ve started doing portfolio reviews at colleges and the talent coming out of schools is astounding! Students are more well-versed in what’s required to work in the design field now more than ever. Talent isn’t the only component of building a successful freelance career, though. Work ethic, personality, the strength of your portfolio and industry connections all play a part.

As a freelancer, there are a number of ways you can seek new work. The tried-and-true method of sending resumés and portfolios off to agencies and setting up interviews is perfectly okay. Placement agencies are another great option. And finally, it’s always a good idea to build a client base on your own outside of agency work because this could supplement your income if that area slows down. They say that you should never put all of your eggs in one basket and I agree 100%. As a freelancer, I’ve diversified my revenue sources as much as possible and they are now split between a steady freelance agency gig, a roster of my own clients and ad revenues.

Start building your career while you are still in school.

It’s never too early to get started with your freelance career. The day school ends, work doesn’t just magically appear — I know that this seems like common sense but I cannot tell you how many students are ill prepared for the harsh reality of being out on their own! By ‘building your career,’ start networking (with fellow students, teachers and local agencies), perfecting your portfolio, building an online presence (these days, a blog and online portfolio are a must) and reaching out for internships as soon as possible.

While I was in school full-time for design, I also worked full-time. I don’t think I had a real day off for a year. But, I still made time to start thinking about my portfolio and picked up the occasional freelance design job so that it wasn’t all school work. Once I finished my first year of school, I began working on getting an internship. Luckily, I got my first choice and spent my second year interning at an agency. A combination of things helped me get in the door and jump-started my career:

1. My portfolio was diverse and included projects that I’d done outside of school. This showed that I was a self-starter and able to handle real world deadlines.

2. My design teacher provided me with a solid recommendation. Having a teacher vouch for you is invaluable!

3. I showed a willingness to do whatever was asked of me. Initial tasks included spray painting shoes in the parking lot, filing invoices and designing CD labels. These small assignments built up a level of trust and led to much bigger projects.

4. Even though I was in school, I had a blog that I updated five days a week and the agency I interviewed at was very savvy with social media.

Though your question wasn’t about interning, finding internships while still in school can help you build a relationship with agencies (that may need freelance help later on) and add solid work to your portfolio.

If possible, gain in-house or agency experience before going freelance.

Attempt to build a reputation working full-time with at least one agency before branching out on your own. Learning how to work with varied teams of people, responding to feedback (both positive and negative), learning how to build presentations, picking up new creative tips from fellow designers, mastering the art of multitasking and making friends in the industry will all help you once you decide to take your career into your own hands. Also, I really do feel that being surrounded by creatives who are more advanced than you early on helps to push your boundaries and essentially ‘get better faster.’ Working at an agency when you’re starting out can also help in the portfolio department and can be a stepping stone to bigger things.

Work with placement agencies.

Once I’d built a reputation at one ad agency, I was able to successfully interview at placement agencies (in Portland, I highly recommend Aquent and in New York, I work with 24 Seven) where agents were able to pitch my work for other positions.

As a new freelancer, having an agent to assist with lining up interviews while vouching for the quality your work is hugely beneficial. They have the connections directly with top agencies — and they are the first people that get called when help is needed. Recommendations are very important — agencies don’t want to waste their money. They want to have someone who’s reliable the minute they show up. If you make a great impression and have solid work, agents want to place you. After all, they get a commission and the more you work, the more they earn.

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Image, Convoy.

My first year as a freelancer.

What’s that old advice? That the first year of running your own business is the hardest? I’d have to wholeheartedly agree. Since you’re just starting out, the fear of the unknown can get the best of you. And, it’s really hard to know how to budget when you have no idea how much you’ll earn. Since I wasn’t sure what to expect, I felt like I couldn’t stop working…because what if I did and it all came to an end? During that first year, I found most of my jobs on my own. They came in through recommendations from previous clients, interviews and a few lucky breaks. I constantly refined my portfolio, fired off emails, went out to events and lunches with people in the industry and most importantly, never gave up. Before I knew it, I’d freelanced at five agencies in that year and doubled the projects in my portfolio.

Even though the first year was a struggle at times, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If I’d spent that year sitting at the same desk every day at the same agency, I wouldn’t have made as many connections or become as rounded as a designer. Working in completely different atmospheres with a variety of teams gave me a better perspective of the design world and what was expected of me. In the process, I concepted the direction of an entire ad campaign from scratch, designed a book in a week, assisted with building graphics for every team store in the NBA, revamped corporate guides, and, well…did production work for months on end. Though I learned something valuable from every experience, not every job was brimming with fun and excitement. But, that learning in varied situations, surrounded by a variety of personalities and deadlines (that ranged from extremely fair to you can’t really be serious) all prepared me for whatever may be just around the corner. Freelancing tends to push you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to have a can-do attitude.

It takes time to become a valuable freelancer.

Looking back, I would say that I became a valuable freelancer within six months. Every agency I worked at did things slightly differently and it took me awhile to get well-rounded enough that I could bounce from working on an intensely creative assignment to building production files. And, different agencies focus on different niches — for instance, I designed a website at one, created retail signage at another and worked on 100+ page catalogs at yet another. But sometimes, gaining the skill set needed for the wide variety of jobs that you’ll encounter isn’t the hardest part — adjusting to completely new environments and expectations is. There are always going to be times where you’re scared to death or wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. Yet somehow, you always get through it.

Why would you want to go freelance?

The reasons for going freelance vary for each designer but almost all freelancers relish the freedom of choice. It’s up to you to decide who you want to work with and how much you want to work. The variety of clients, both big and small can be another appealing factor. And, there’s the opportunity to travel — I’ve packed along my laptop and worked in multiple locales with total ease. Also, there’s a chance to learn how to wear many hats instead of doing the same job every day. And finally, perhaps best of all, there’s no limit on how much you can earn. It’s completely up to you to decide how hard you want to work and what to charge. Though freelancing isn’t for everyone, I’ve found the experience to be highly exciting and rewarding. Perhaps you will, too.

Extra Credit

One Year of Freelancing: What I’ve Learned
Freelancing 101 for Graphic Designers
7 Tips For Creating A Print-Based Design Portfolio