Tag Archives: Business & Marketing

Branch: An Inside Look at Starting A Creative Business

We Are Branch Boutique Design Studio Branding

Last Monday, Branch went live. Less than two hours after flipping the switch, I rushed off to the airport to fly to LA for some client meetings and from there, straight to Palm Springs for Designer VACA. I barely had time to catch my breath, let alone explain the brand in more detail. Today, I’m sharing more insights on how I came up with the concept of the business, along with the nuts and bolts of the branding.


As I discussed last week, I knew that it was finally time to reach out and ask for help when it came to running my design business. In the year leading up to Branch, I’d co-launched The Blogcademy with Kat and Gala, was receiving many more freelance inquiries than I could possibly handle and struggling with the work/life balance on a daily basis.

I’ve always been tight with my immediate family — every time I talked to my mom and told her how I was having trouble keeping up with emails and scheduling, she’d offer to help me manage the administrative parts of my business. My brother, also a graphic designer, was beginning to see his photography career take off and had already been helping me shoot projects. I’d been working alongside Star since 2007 on web design projects. Joey had been doing paste-ups and print production since the late 90s. Everyone I needed to help me was already there, I just needed to put the wheels in motion.

We Are Branch Boutique Design Studio Branding

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Announcing: Branch, A Boutique Design Studio!

We Are Branch

Today I have a big announcement to make about a personal project that I’ve put a lot of time and energy into: I’m officially launching a full-service design studio, Branch!

This shift in my career has come along partially out of a personal evolution and partially out of the fact that I had to admit to myself that my design business was bigger than myself. From the outside, it might seem like designers dedicate most of their days to doing design. But as time goes on, project management, research, keeping up with emails, blogging and social media takes up more of our daily existence. I know that a lot of other small business owners feel this creep as well. Pretty soon, you have to stop and ask yourself where all the time to create has gone. I did. Finally, I had to stop what wasn’t working and take what was to the next level.

In The Beginning

As you probably know by now, I started my blog, Nubby Twiglet in 2001. At that time, I was active on Live Journal and blogging quickly became the creative outlet I desperately needed while in school for business. Six years into blogging, thanks to a heart-to-heart with my friend Star who insisted I needed to move my blog over to the WordPress platform, I relaunched here, in August 2007, on my own domain.

By that point, I was in school full-time for graphic design. As I finished projects, I shared them with my readers. Before I knew it, I was getting freelance inquiries. The more work I shared, the more work rolled in. It was a natural progression. Even as I worked at design studios, I kept my blog very active and built up my portfolio, spending nights and weekends wrapping up client projects. Nubby Twiglet had quite accidentally transformed from a lifestyle blog to a design studio as well. The thing is, that “design studio” was just me. This worked out wonderfully for the first few years — I was able to keep everything running smoothly and build my clientele without all the headaches that come along with managing other people.

Then, as the scope of projects grew and more inquiries than I could handle started flooding in, I felt a shift. And when I gave it some serious thought, that shift I was feeling was completely normal: it was part of my evolution as a designer.

I’d spent six years at design studios and ad agencies collaborating as part of larger teams and that was actually how I was most comfortable working. I liked bouncing ideas off of other people and I also liked being challenged design-wise by co-workers who were much better than I was. It forced me to grow and constantly pushed me out of my comfort zone. But with my freelance clients, which I worked with through Nubby Twiglet, I had to adjust back to managing everything myself.

We Are Branch

My methods and work kept growing and then I saw the writing on the wall. That shift I’d been feeling but couldn’t quite articulate became more apparent after launching The Blogcademy last August and working as a team, even though it was virtual. Once Kat, Gala and I had decided to partner up for our new venture, we got so much done in incredibly short periods of time. Having assigned tasks for each of the three of us upped the productivity dramatically and I saw the benefit once again of working as a team. I wanted that for myself but it didn’t feel within reach at the time.

I loved design but seemed to spend most of my time answering emails and putting together proposals. I didn’t want to live my life filling up my free time with administrative tasks. I had another heart to heart talk with Star, this time late one night in our shared hotel room during Designer VACA, trying to sort out my feelings about my business. I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with Nubby Twiglet, as I had for the past six years. But when we dug deeper, we were able to pinpoint my uneasiness: the twig had grown into a branch. To take things to the next level, I needed “branches” to get everything done. The business was bigger than I was. To move forward from there, I needed to admit that I couldn’t do it all myself and be okay with that. It sounds easy enough, but when you’re an overly organized control freak Virgo like I am, making that admission and letting go is incredibly difficult.

We Are Branch

What I’ve since realized is that being brave enough to let go can lead to amazing things. That initial upheaval that comes with realizations about our businesses, relationships and ourselves has the potential to bring forth some of the best things into our lives. Now, everything feels right. My blog, Nubby Twiglet will keep on going as it always has. I’ve loved it since 2001 and I’m still excited to wake up every morning and publish new articles to share with all of you. The Blogcademy fulfilled my dreams of traveling and teaching. And now, Branch is the place where I’ll have the opportunity to collaborate on design projects with my favorite people.


Today is launch day and as a full-service creative studio, I’m ecstatic to have a business that’s finally bigger than myself. As a freelancer, I felt like it was my duty to answer every single email, fill out every single contract and manage all of the creative on my own. At Branch, I have the opportunity to design a whole lot more. And that is what I feel best doing. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far for help to manage the day-to-day administrative tasks. My mom, Cathy will now step in as a project manager and with over 30 years of management experience, she’s a whole lot better at tackling spreadsheets, forms, receipts and emails than I am. Star, who coded my first ever blog back in the day and helped me make the idea of running a studio bigger than myself a reality, is joining me for web design duties. She also deserves some serious applause for pulling a week of nearly all-nighters to bring the site to life. Joey, my brother Carey and even Rocky will be involved (because every company needs a mascot). Needless to say, I love my branches.

If you have a project that you feel would be a good fit for us, we’d love to hear from you! Thanks for all your continued support. I am beyond excited for this new era of design, business and blogging.

Mastering Business Basics with the Computer Arts Design Studio Handbook

Computer Arts Design Studio Handbook

Computer Arts has been killin’ it lately with their handbooks and the recently released Design Studio Handbook is no exception. Whether you’re a creative that’s always dreamed of running your own studio or you already are, this guide is for you.

This issue covers all the juicy business details that I’ve often found to be scarce in detail when searching online. Topics covered include what it takes to launch your own studio, managing money matters, how to be more efficient, how to win more work, the nitty gritty of dealing with clients, advice on building the perfect team, creating an awesome studio culture and more. Even better, a resources section is included in the back of the guide with links for startup advice, basic business information, the best design blogs, events and of course, books. Everything you need to acquire essential business savvy is at your fingertips. Pretty awesome.

In the first chapter about launching your own studio, that pesky document a lot of designers tend to skip over when launching their studios is right there, in a very simple breakdown: the business plan. With the design industry becoming increasingly competitive, this is a must-have. What I like most about their explanation of what to include is that all the jargon is cut out — which, if you’ve ever researched business plan how-to’s, is definitely the exception. Funding is also covered, as well as how to make your business legal.

Next up is money. Most of us creatives hate talking about it because it always feels a little dirty, like we’re admitting to not just doing a project for the sheer love of it. There’s no escaping it, though and the better informed you are, the better you’ll be able to manage your bottom line and heed off potential disasters. Setting rates is always a struggle — do you charge the same for a similar project scope but for very different clients? How do you build in pricing that takes into account your reputation and experience? This is all covered, including the basics of balancing the books (ugh)! Oh, and project management software options are also recommended.

As a studio, if you want to be profitable, efficiency is key. Time is money and the more efficient you can make your processes, the more time you’ll have to focus on the creative side of your business (which is what we all really want, right?) Understanding the basics of creating an automated workflow that functions in a similar manner for all of your clients is so important — the more informed they are, the easier it will be to manage their expectations and avoid disappointments.

Without new work, your studio will grow stagnant. But the process of how to win it can be a little fuzzy. This guide details how to spot opportunities and what to consider for your pitch. Pitching takes a lot of research, polish and confidence and it’s important to know what to include so you have the best shot of winning.

Computer Arts Design Studio Handbook

And without clients, your studio wouldn’t exist so it’s important to take care of them. After all, word of mouth is a powerful thing and happy clients create happy referrals. Managing expectations and giving them what they want (before they even know it) is key. The basics to building long-term relationships are covered and I especially agree with the tip to “become irreplaceable.” That, my friends, is key. But not all client relationships are meant to work out — understanding how to choose them wisely and recognizing red flags will take you far.

Finally, for a studio to grow, it takes a team. Understanding how to expand it in a healthy, flexible manner will keep you from becoming overextended both mentally and financially. With employees comes a whole set of laws so understanding what you’re responsible for before you get in over your head is also important. And, once you have a team in place, you need to take steps to keep it (thank god that’s covered as well)!

I adore these guides (remember, I covered the Design Student Handbook a few months back?) because the information is very straightforward and avoids fussy language that only accountants and lawyers can understand. I love that these issues are written by creatives for creatives. Computer Arts constantly knocks it out of the park — while beautifully designed, their publications are never just about the ‘pretty’ — I always feel like the business side of design is demystified and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Images: Computer Arts Design Studio Handbook.

5 Tips To Jump-Start Your Post-College Design Career

5 Tips To Jump-Start Your Post-College Design Career

‘Tis the season for graduation! But beneath all the anticipation and excitement, I have been receiving a number of nervous emails from freshly minted design grads looking for ways to carve out their post-college careers. Most of us have been in that boat as well and I know how stressful it can be so I’ve compiled some tips to help make the transition smoother.

1. If full-time work is your goal but you don’t have a job lined up, try placement agencies.

I’ve worked with both Aquent and 24 Seven in the past and have had fantastic results with both. Placement agencies are great for a number of reasons. If you’ve never been to one, here’s what happens: first, you’re interviewed by an agent and they review your portfolio in-depth to determine your skill set. From there, it’s their goal to place you in jobs that they feel are the best possible fit. They have a good reason for wanting to keep both you and your employer happy: for each hour you work, they earn a commission.

Through placements, I was able to get into a number of boutique design studios and even Nike. The experience I gained was incredibly valuable and by moving around, from the tip of corporate America all the way down to 10 person studios, I learned a lot about how the design industry functions in a really short period of time. By trying on different hats, you become much more adaptable to varying management and design styles and I would argue, more valuable as a designer.

With placement agencies, since the work isn’t consistent (unless you get offered a contract), you tend to get paid substantially more than you would at a full-time position. I had times where I would get booked for two days but I can tell you that if you’re a good fit, they will find a way to make room for you. One particular short-term gig I had turned into an entire year! And if the company loves you, there’s a chance that they will offer you full-time employment.

Placement agencies are a great way to test the waters, especially if you’re still finding your way and settling into a niche. You’re able try out a variety of places and determine what works best for you (Agency or in-house? Digital or print? Design or production?) And if things don’t work out, that’s okay, too. Your agent can help you with parting ways gracefully and it’s a lot less painful than quitting a full-time job.

2. Before you reach out, whip that portfolio into shape!

When I graduated in 2008, print portfolios were absolutely mandatory. I know that since then, a lot of job seekers have switched over to digital portfolios exclusively to showcase their work. While I do use my iPad for supplementary work, I still have a print version. Maybe I’m old school but I know that a lot of the people I meet with are older than I am and appreciate the time and energy it takes to put together a print portfolio. I limit mine to 10 to 12 projects max and then share a larger variety on my iPad if they request more samples. If you’re curious, here’s a peek inside the last print portfolio I did.

While my print portfolio is very tightly edited, my digital portfolio is much more broad. I love Cargo for its ease of use and very reasonable fees. The pre-made templates are fantastic and with a little CSS magic, you can refine them further. I’m working on a full website to house my projects (more on that later!) but in the meantime, Cargo has treated me well over the last two years. Also, Squarespace has some beautiful template options, too.

3. Nail the interview basics.

We’ve all heard tips for nailing a great interview from friends, family and industry professionals enough times to feel like they’re one big cliché. Show up on time! Dress the part! Act enthusiastic! We know, we know! UGH!

But seriously, all of these small things combine to make an unforgettable impact. I’ve been on dozens of interviews and can vouch that most run incredibly smoothly — most creative staff were once in your position and remember that nervous, uncertain feeling well. As long as you move through your portfolio quickly, they are usually incredibly accommodating.

But, there’s always those curveballs when we least expect them and that’s where practicing these tips comes into play so you can remain graceful under fire! There was one interview that I’ll never forget: it was so intense that I felt like I’d been transported to the O.J. trial. I kept thinking, “I’m being interviewed for a job so why does it feel like an interrogation?!” Even so, I made it through, smiled, shook the interviewer’s hand and thanked him for his time. And then quickly left. Always keep your cool! My 11 tips for acing your next design interview can help you get started.

4. Knowledge Is Power.

I’m always reading books about my field in an effort to stay current with design trends, strategy and business. My top three picks for highly valuable insight on breaking into the industry are:

A. How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy

I found this book to be hugely beneficial when I was first starting out — it’s simple, relatable and immediately applicable. And that’s exactly what I needed.

B. Work for Money, Design for Love by David Airey

I love the smooth flow of this book, from beginning to end. It’s so rare that hugely successful designers open up and share the inner workings of their businesses along with detailed insights of their processes.

C. Design Student Handbook by Computer Arts

Looking for a guide that covers all the nitty gritty of prepping a killer portfolio and breaking into the design industry? The Design Student Handbook is for you. I wish there was something like this on the market back when I graduated!

5. Blog about your projects. Always.

When I was first starting out, I used my blog to share all of my new client work. The good, the bad and the ugly made its way up for the world to see and each project I shared brought in new prospects.

Getting comfortable with sharing my work was hugely beneficial in getting my foot in the door at a number of design jobs because I’d already developed my voice and style very publicly. It can be scary putting your work out there but it’s something you have to get accustomed to because you never know who’s reading it. A good example: In 2009, I was three days into a Nike contract when I got called into my department manager’s office. I thought I’d done something terribly wrong and was getting fired! Instead, he said he’d recognized me from my blog and wanted to know if I’d be interested in permanent positions.

If steady work doesn’t pop up right away post-graduation, your blog can be a great way to drum up freelance work. And who knows, you might be so successful at it that a full-time job becomes a fading memory. Oh, and don’t forget to share those in-progress snippets on dribble and your glowing final outcomes on Behance.

Graduates, I know it’s not easy but view each opportunity (no matter how small) as a learning experience and with time, your path will unfold. Good luck on your new, exciting journey!

2 Game Changers I Learned in Entrepreneurship Class

Game Changers

Last week, I completed a two-part entrepreneurship workshop, So You’re The Owner of a Million Dollar Company and You Don’t Even Know It! While the whole class was jaw-droppingly good from beginning to end (really, it takes a lot to keep business chit-chat interesting and Stephanie Lynn sure delivered), I thought I’d share my top two takeaways. While it’s never a walk in the park running a small business, these two points were huge eye openers for me:

1. To overcome your fears, put them on a shelf. Literally.

Hear me out: we all have fears when it comes to running a business / blog / etc. and I have a lot of them. If you’ve met me, you’ll know that I’m confident, a hard worker and I’m never afraid to seize new opportunities but at the same time, I also value stability. There’s a really fine line between craving a stable life and playing it too safe.

In class, we were asked to write a list of everything we were afraid of. I quickly scribbled down half a page of notes without a second thought. Easy enough, I figured. Fear flows out freely if you let it and glancing down at that paper, I was holding onto much more of it than I realized.

Next, we were each handed a Ziploc bag and told to place that list inside, zip it closed, take it home and place it on a very high shelf. It was time to put away those fears, once and for all.

I know this exercise sounds simple but sometimes the act of physically doing something is such a powerful thing. Just writing that list wasn’t enough — how many times have we each written those same lists when we’re scared? But the symbolism of physically putting those fears on a shelf really inspired me to finally let go and move on.

2. For your business to flourish, you MUST understand the difference between price and value.

No matter how fabulous your business is, there will always be people who come along and ask for a discount. There will always be people who want something for nothing. But if you’re not benefitting, don’t be afraid to say no. It’s hard but most of the time, these are not your ideal customers anyway.

Your ideal customers do value your offerings enough to pay you what you’re worth. They respect your talent and your experience. These customers aren’t the easiest to find at first but I promise you that they’re out there.

One of the keys to convincing your ideal customers that your product or service is worth the price you’ve set is to back that value up with a story. For instance, Stephanie used the example of her business, Sweet Spot Skirts — her story is that all of her products are manufactured in the U.S. and she provides jobs for unemployed women. She clearly outlines her commitments here.

Any time someone balks at your prices, reaffirm the value they are receiving from doing business with you. Do not lower your pricing unless you have very specific reasoning for doing so (such as a holiday sale, anniversary and so on).

If you have sales all the time and offer up a discount to anyone who comes along, you’re diluting your offerings and once you’ve gone down, it’s a tough climb back up.

Thinking back, I had come across these two concepts at earlier points in my life but sometimes it takes a certain teacher outlining specific experiences to bring them to life. And when they finally click, they’re lessons you’ll never forget.

Brushing Up On The Basics: The Ultimate Small Business Guide

The Ultimate Small Business Guide

As any small business owner knows, running a company isn’t always pretty. Yet blogs and social media tend to gloss over a lot of the most unflattering aspects.

Back in December, I picked up The Ultimate Small Business Guide, hellbent on brushing up on the basics before the new year hit. I had good intentions but as projects began to pile up, I pushed it off to the side…until this week.

In truth, this was partly because I tend to gravitate towards more light-hearted, philosophical quick reads when it comes to business and productivity (my favorites are Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite and It’s Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want to Be, both by Paul Arden). But I kicked myself into gear because I realized that I was lacking a solid book of business basics in my personal library. I wanted a source I could depend on outside of endless googling (and questionable results).

I’m not gonna lie, this book is a heavy read; it’s solidly informational and not something you can just fly right through. But if you’re wondering if you have what it really takes to run a business, if you already have a business but need to create brand awareness, if you are curious about the basics when it comes to staff planning and employment law and if you’re interested in brushing up on trademarks and intellectual property, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s covered in fine detail in this book.

Too often, we get excited and jump too quickly into a new business without really stepping back and doing the proper research so I particularly loved that this book starts out with a chapter quizzing you on if you really have the drive to be an entrepreneur. Instead of building you up, The Ultimate Small Business Guide makes sure you’re faced with the cold, hard truth and then takes you through the process of understanding everything you’ll be responsible for. It’s all this un-fun stuff that often gets overlooked in the pursuit of the perceived glamour of being your own boss.

At the end of each section, there’s a column dedicated to what to avoid. Once again, it digs into the sticky situations we can find ourselves in if we’re uninformed. It’s important to keep it real, even when the real can be scary.

The book ends with something we’d rather not think about: how to properly wind down a business and put it to bed. Once again, this is a topic that’s not on a lot of small business owners’ minds when they’re full of passion in the beginning.

The Ultimate Small Business Guide won’t be for everyone but it is an enlightening look into what it takes to be a responsible business owner. I’m so glad this book covers the good, the bad and the ugly because it’s good to know what you’re in for and how to handle those really difficult decisions. The more informed you are moving forward, the easier the whole process will feel.

I’m on the hunt for some more solidly informative business books. Any favorites you’d recommend?

Rock n Roll Bride: A Brand New Website & The Big Picture

Rock n Roll Bride Website

I am so happy for my good friend Kat Williams because after many long months of hard work, the brand new design of her wedding blog Rock n Roll Bride has launched!

This has been a huge labor of love and part of a string of projects we’ve been working on for two years now. Kat and I met through a mutual friend in 2010 and perhaps the most ironic part of our design relationship when we began working together is that I was completely clueless about weddings. COMPLETELY. At the time, I’d never bought a wedding magazine or read a wedding blog. Looking back, in a way being an outsider turned out to be a benefit because I wasn’t weighed down with expectations of how her brand should look.

Creating A Brand You Believe In Doesn’t Happen Overnight

When Kat approached me needing a rebrand for her business in 2010, the typical wedding finery didn’t particularly link up with what I had in mind for her. I thought she was much too badass with her pink hair, attitude and all to go down that road — and with a name like Rock n Roll Bride, I was way more inspired by one of the original sources for rock and roll news, Rolling Stone. My gut was to embody the the timeless, rock and roll vibe that they had but with a purposely feminine twist.

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Differentiation is Key

When creating a brand, while it’s important to do market research and see what’s out there, don’t be afraid to add that unique twist and think outside of the box. Instead of thinking about what makes you the same as your competition, ask yourself what makes you different. Early on, it might seem safe to do what your competition is doing when it comes to your branding in the hopes that you can ride on their coattails and get some of that recognition too but then you’ll just be second best. Remember that if a bunch of brands are put into a lineup, the one people will usually remember is the one that’s different from the rest. With Kat, the differentiation we created with her identity by doing less wedding and more rock and roll is what makes her stand out.

After the identity, we did new headers for her blog, a media kit for advertisers and then, we went a step further designing a 40 page print magazine for her to take to a wedding fair (1,000 copies flew out the door). All that was a great platform for where she saw her brand going but looking back, I didn’t think it was polished enough yet. After all, the wedding industry has high standards and deep pockets — there’s no denying that a tight, polished image plays a huge role in staying competitive.

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Rock n Roll Bride Magazine Issue #2, 2012

Momentum really built in early 2012 — I met Kat for the first time in February with a proof for her fully redesigned 80 page magazine inspired by Elle, W, O and Martha Stewart Weddings. I’d dug deep into my favorite fashion magazines (and finally a few wedding ones too!) and this was the turning point for her having a more refined image. Remember, her blog had been going strong for many years by this point. This branding evolution takes time!

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Digital Media Kit #2, 2012

Kat is relentless and I admire that about her. Once her print magazine was done and the site comps were delivered, she wanted me to redo her media kit to match the more grown-up, editorial feel of the mag. We finished that in the Fall. Finally, things had come full circle.

The Final Piece of the Puzzle: The Site Redesign

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Rocknrollbride.com, 2013

Kat’s website launch is the final piece of her brand revamp we’d been slowly chipping away at. We finally finished the site comps over the summer and in the the next few months, the deceptively simple looking design came to life. Kat’s husband Gareth does all the development (he’s my hero) and I know how hard he worked to make many of these features come to life. Even when I was building the layouts, there were many times where I said, “Are you SURE you want me to do this? I’ve never seen it done before!”

Rock n Roll Bride Website

One of the features I’m most excited about is the header area. When you visit Kat’s site, it’s all white with just her logo (see above). But, if you click into a wedding feature, the logo shifts upwards and the space reloads with an image of the bride. In this way, every featured bride becomes a cover girl! I also like the use of the drop caps (something we used throughout the print magazine).

Rock n Roll Bride Website

At the end of each wedding post is the Supporting Cast, also styled very similar to the magazine. I like that all of the resources are consistently called out in one spot. I’m sure this is a huge time saver for brides-to-be.

Rock n Roll Bride Website

Another interesting point is that Kat skipped over the usual sidebar fare. In an effort to make the site less about her and more focused on the weddings, she’s saved much of her personal content for an extended footer at the bottom, freeing up much of the sidebar for valuable advertising space. It’s an uncommon move but because her brand is so recognizable in the wedding blog niche, she’s able to take some chances.

In Closing

I’ve shared much of this in an effort to remind you that brands take time to build; nothing will be perfect overnight. Take time to let yourself evolve and invest in pieces of your collateral when you can. And, while it’s good to plan, that one project that comes out of left field may actually shape the way things go. At the time, we didn’t know that Kat’s print magazine would end up driving the way her blog and media kit looked. She was already established online but it took that fresh look at the offline to realize this was the way to go.

Kat has a successful brand now but it took years to build, piece by piece. This is often the reality. And that’s okay. Don’t wait for the perfect everything, perfection is a myth when it comes to branding. Instead, think of it as an ecosystem of interconnected pieces. It should shift, change and grow with you.