There’s never been a better time for enterprising creatives to turn their passions and side hustles into a career. This is especially true for would-be graphic designers, as new and intuitive software becomes commonplace and the ability to share work with your network via social media have made marketing a portfolio as easy as pushing a button.
But as the field becomes more accessible, how do individual designers and firms get their work seen and, more importantly, commissioned, at a time when freelance marketplaces such as Upwork, Fiverr and 99Designs have thousands of designers competing for work? We reached out a handful of entrepreneurial graphic designers to learn how they command attention and snag clients.
1. Be shameless about outreach.
Tala Safié, whose clients include AIGA Eye on Design and The New York Times
“When I was living in Beirut the design scene was relatively small, so I would often get clients through word of mouth and friends of friends. This wasn’t the case when I moved to the US. It was obviously harder for me to attract clients as I didn’t know anyone, so I had to do what every designer dreads doing—updating my (then expired) website and putting a proper online portfolio together. I also tried posting more of my work on Instagram (and fewer pictures of my roommate’s dog), but that didn’t last. What actually helped was shamelessly emailing people I was interested in working with directly, asking to meet or grab a cup of coffee. This is how I started working with Eye on Design. It gets easier—one job often leads to another. My advice would be to reach out directly to people you’d like to work with and see what happens. Care about the work that you do but, at the same time, don’t take your designer-self too seriously. And don’t be shy about money.”
2. Do what the apps cannot.
Louis de Villiers, whose clients include Nike, AT&T, and the Brooklyn Nets
“When I first moved to New York, work came slowly and it was difficult, but the longer I was here, and the more I worked at agencies and with clients, the wider my network grew. The opportunities began to flow in. Professionals move around a lot, so if you can show people you’re a solid worker and not a total jerk, you can be sure your name will come up wherever they go.
“Selling clever design, nuanced thinking, and positive human experience—that becomes a freelancer’s greatest assets. We like to think we (graphic designers) are unique, but similar crowdsourcing trends are happening across the board, with apps and companies offering cheap-to-free alternatives for everything from guided meditation to dubious medical diagnosis. Consumers are accustomed to cost-efficient options, but the reality is that these alternatives only provide for fundamental, rudimentary needs—Band-Aid solutions, you could say. The adage says ‘You get what you pay for,’ and that’s absolutely true.”
3. Put a zany idea out into the universe.
Pinar Demirdag of Pinar&Viola, whose clients include IKEA, Google, MTV, and Adidas
“Highlight your uniqueness—this is the only answer. Digital design is fun, quick, requires no investment. It is a volatile medium which takes no space, meaning it’s the top profession of our times—everyone who can use a computer and has an eye for aesthetics can claim to be a designer. We had a mad dream: in a sea of countless designers, in the age of easy access to design tools, we would go against the current and work as an image experimentation lab, favoring quality over quantity, decoration over pragmatism and wisdom over false advertising. We started launching image collections with themes from the zeitgeist and aesthetics from the future, with the idea that these cutting-edge experiments would attract us the best clients, brands, and companies in the top echelon of their practice. Without realizing, it turned out to be the best business plan.”
4. Don’t overlook the power of stickers.
Kenzo Minami, whose clients include Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Kidrobot, Raf Simons, VH1, Ace Hotel
“I think the most effective tool for promotion, and to connect with clients, might be shifting back to physical and analog promotional items, like stickers, posters, stationery, as well as your physical self—just showing up. You also cannot underestimate the power of social media. When everyone is connected, and we all equally have a medium to express ourselves and release our work, it’s easy to imagine that the media is oversaturated and everyone is numb to “just another piece of cool artwork,” but we are circling back to creativity outside traditional media and guerrilla promotional methods. Unless you are very skillful and nuanced, or have already built your name, you need the combination of both worlds—digital social network as well as the physical and real world.
“In the beginning of my career, when I was in the broadcast design business and the type of work I was involved in was becoming less creatively satisfying, out of frustration and to keep my sanity, I stayed at the studio for extra hours to do my own thing. This was before social media, so everything I was making stayed inside of my cubicle. One day, I made my first sticker, just for fun. This sticker eventually made it to Portland—my roommate at the time was in a band, and when she went on tour she took some with her—which ended up in the hands of Matt Clark and Alex Calderwood, who had just opened the first Ace Hotel and were also part of Neverstop, which was handling Nike projects. They saw the sticker, and contacted me and asked if I would paint the 50-foot mural for the new Nike Art Space they were opening in SoHo. This kickstarted my solo career, and taught me not to underestimate the small things we make.”
5. Take a Swiss Army knife approach to services.
Rachael Yaeger of Human NYC, whose clients include Flour Shop and Saturdays NYC
“I didn’t know it at the start of my career, but over time I developed a keen sense of seeing and understanding how the many moving parts need to come together to make for a successful project or product. I fell into what would now be described as product management, mixed with production, all with my own creative and curated lens. Today, Human NYC’s services range from research, positioning, strategy, naming, branding, art direction, content creation (photo, video, copy), packaging to digital design and development. We have a holistic understanding of our clients’ needs.
“At the end of the day, most of our work comes via word of mouth. After we work with a client, people essentially ask them who worked on their site, and we’re referred. Word of mouth is the luckiest position to be in since it establishes a ground level of trust. It’s like being set up on a date by mutual friends—there has to be some reason we were paired up!”
6. Develop a strong social media presence.
Melissa Gutierrez, whose clients include Univision and the ACLU of Florida
“As a designer, I find that sharing your work publicly is a very important part of the design process. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but it’s been incredibly helpful so far.
“Overcoming the anxiety that comes with vulnerability has allowed me to build networks, gather feedback, and feel connected to both designers and viewers alike. Sharing my work also helped remind me that the design process is iterative, so there’s always room to improve or modify a project. I’ve been asked to work on several projects because someone happened to see my work on social media. There are a lot of designers out there, but staying true to your style will drive opportunities your way and serve as an advantage that allows you to pave your own path.”
7. Take the ‘one-off’ gig.
Amy Globus and John Clark of Team, whose clients include Red Bull Arts and Marlborough Contemporary
“Most of our extensive client relationships were born out of personal relationships or small “one-off” design gigs. Taking on a design project for a friend or colleague can come back as a large corporate brand project in a short matter of years as friends rise in the ranks along with their career paths and move around to different companies, they put us forward with the strong recommendation because they have been through it with us before and trust the relationship.
“Partnering with other agencies with adjacent skill sets has also been a successful ‘feeder’ for our business. Later, when we engage in a project with a new or existing client who needs a strategic setup to ground our design work, we recommend that partner to lead the charge.
“As for Upwork, Fiverr, 99Designs, Canva, Squarespace, etc, we genuinely don’t view those platforms as competitors. Individuals and business owners considering those solutions are after the cheapest and fastest solutions. And that’s okay—sometimes it’s the right solution for the task at hand. We work with clients who value our expertise and guidance. We are constantly helping our clients figure out something that they can’t figure out on their own and as of yet, we haven’t been up against an online platform that can offer that.”
8. Keep evolving (like Madonna).
Emily Suber, whose clients include Netflix and AMC Networks/IFC
“My clients have always come through word of mouth. I do a lot of networking (mostly through friends) and I have found that it has just worked for me. Also, most of my clients are in film, so it’s a more defined group with defined needs. I should probably post more on Instagram, but because of proprietary issues, I can’t usually show anything until it’s been released in the traditional entertainment sense (released in theatres, Netflix, etc).
“Has it gotten harder to be a creative professional? I think it depends on your particular field—I know my friends in editorial design have taken a hit. My graphic design career has evolved from publishing/print to interactive to film design/motion graphics. If anything, I feel like I am living my best life in a field that I adore. It’s all about evolving, Madonna-style, throughout the ages. If something doesn’t work, either emotionally or financially, you have to search for that next step. Although it can be lonely, you will eventually end up on the right path. Talk to people from all walks of life—you wouldn’t believe the advice you can get. Join as many design networking groups as you can (I currently bounce around 3 or 4). Don’t worry about what other people think of you because they probably aren’t thinking about you. Rejection and perseverance are essential, aim to hear “no” once a day. Find your support system and keep them close.”