Starting a Design Business

Tips for Starting a Graphic Design Business

The UPS guy was just here. I now hold in my hands new business cards for Piksl Design. Now in business for over ten years, this is the third iteration of Piksl’s cards. When the business celebrated its tenth anniversary, I developed a new Piksl Design logo. And while I integrated the logo into all my online and social media outlets, I held off on printing new letterhead and business cards because honestly, how often do I use letterhead? And in this digital age, do I really need business cards?

But business cards are so inexpensive (thanks, GotPrint.com!) and mine are now in hand. They got me thinking about my early years getting started in the world of freelance design and eventually going full-time and starting my own business. I’m not going to get into the legalities of owning and operating a business, but I do have some advice for launching your own graphic design business.

Get a job

If you’re just out of school, I know you’re itching to do your own thing. I get that. But schools can only teach you so much. Be hired as a designer—it doesn’t matter if the company is large or small. Even if you’ve already done a fair amount of freelance work, you need to experience how a business is run. You need to learn how to communicate and work with clients. You need to be pushed to produce at a pace you’re not comfortable with. You need to deal with difficult people. You need to understand the type of real world tasks your job actually entails. Basically, you need to fill in the holes your schooling left in place. Some people will succeed at launching their design business right out of college. It happens. But be assured—most don’t. Get your final diploma from the business world before leaping into the unknown.

Go part time

Don’t quit your job and jump directly into full-time self employment. Make the move gradually. If you’re able, move your full-time position to part-time. If that’s not an option, it means doing freelance work in the evenings. It takes work and it takes time investment. And by the way, those evening hours are not going to go away even after you’re full time. Self employment has a lot of perks and I wouldn’t trade it. But it takes a lot of hours and is mentally draining because your mind doesn’t get to clock out at five o’clock.

Stay connected

I can’t emphasize this enough. Stay connected with everyone—especially past employers and clients. I’m not saying you need to be pen pals with all of them, but keep those relationship healthy. When you leave that first job—the job that gave you the experience you’ll need to succeed—leave on a good note. Give them plenty of time to find a replacement. When a client goes away, express thankfulness to them for their business. When a client is difficult, swallow your pride and deal with them tactfully and generously. This is where your future business is going to come from. My previous employer was a huge support when I went out on my own and continues to send work my way today. And I can’t tell you how much of my work comes from former clients who were fired from their job or simply moved on to another job—and then started using my services with their new company.

Find your niche

There are a ton of designers hidden in basements throughout your town. They’re sitting at their computers with their internet connections doing their design thing. How are you going to compete? One of the best ways to set yourself apart is to find a niche—a certain area of business that you focus on. For me, it was the music business. I created websites for bands, record companies, and related businesses. That’s not to say that’s all I did. However, I soon had a portfolio of websites, posters, and album art created for the music industry, which gave me a leg up when someone from that industry considered me for design work. Plus my name got passed around by word of mouth within that field. What could your niche be? I don’t know. But look at the things you enjoy and you’re off to a good start.

Do strategic freebies

Be very careful about taking on work pro bono. As my one friend always says, free jobs breed more free jobs. There’s very little benefit to you. If a company will only use you for a job because you’re doing it for free, they’re not going to pay you for future jobs either. That being said, there can be advantages and payoffs for work done for free if you’re very strategic about it. This is where your niche comes into play. I developed a website about my favorite band. I put a ton of work into this project and it turned out pretty slick. Now I didn’t force this site on the band or even try to communicate with them directly. I simply shared it on their chat board for other fans to check out. Soon the band themselves found it and long-story short—they hired me to do their official site. It was a strategic freebie and I was soon working for their record label and other bands. The word of mouth just snowballed. I’m not sure my business would have gotten off the ground without having created that free site. Plus it was a project I enjoyed doing anyway because it was in my niche.

Talk to agencies

Agencies like to have outside designers they can turn to on a regular basis. It provides them with options and it can save them money. I’ve worked with quite a few agencies over the years. They come and go in waves. One agency will use me heavily for a few months or years, and then I may not hear from them for five years until that call comes in again. Agency work has been especially plentiful when it comes to web work. You would be surprised how many agencies still don’t have a solid grasp on the world of web. This happens with agencies who have been around for a while and are very entrenched in traditional media. They hire a web guy, but unless that person is driven to improve, he languishes because his superiors know little about what he does. So the agency turns to outside sources. And agency work is good. They know how to work with designers, you don’t have to find clients, and you don’t have to deal directly with the clients.

Launching your own full time graphic design business is a big task, and it becomes even more daunting when you have a family to support. It requires strategic planning, and it demands many hours. But if it’s something you enjoy, it can also be very rewarding.

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