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10 Challenges of a Graphic Designer

Colored_PencilsGraphic design is a weird art form; it is half business, half art.  Most people who get into it do so because of their love of design. The successful ones get into it for the business. It’s a strange brew of art and commerce, but I believe that I now have found a good mix of the two – or should I say three, if I include the essential work/life balance.

As Graphic Designers we have our work critiqued and displayed on a ‘pedestal’, manage tight and strict deadlines, consistently stay creative…and when we have time, live our daily lives. We play many roles, wear different hats and face many challenges daily.

1) Current Climate

When I started my own design business back in 2010, my husband’s friends were telling him ‘Ohhh, it is not the right time to be starting up a design business. It will never work in the current economic climate’.

Whilst I was working out my notice this did sit at the back of my mind, but it turned out that the publisher I had just resigned from asked ‘What shall we do if you go?’ in response to which I volunteered to carry on laying out their magazines, books and promotional materials on a contractual basis.  We agreed a 12 month contract and they kindly let me keep the full Adobe Creative Suite software for as long as I was still creating design work for them.  I therefore had no initial setup costs and enough work guaranteed to cover the mortgage – so I was then up for taking on starting my own company.

2) Competition

There are thousands of independent design businesses out there.  This really worried me at the outset, but I soon learned that reputation goes a long way.  I remember typing on my Facebook page that it was “my very first day of working for myself”, and the phone rang within seconds with people asking whether I could take on more work!  …which was wonderful.

I also believe that if you are personable, and take time to listen to your client’s needs and ideas, engage them in the project and then complete it on time and to their satisfaction – then you will earn their loyalty. Sometimes even the smallest of projects, if the client is ecstatic with what you have produced, can build into engaging, ongoing work.

So, to round up the challenge of ‘competition’… to be honest, I have barely had time to worry about it in the past three years.  I just ensure that every piece of work I create is my best because that’s what keeps the clients coming back and recommending me to other people.

3) Running the company

You may be the best designer in the county, but if you want to set up a design agency you really have to learn about running a business – and sharpish!

You need to find someone who knows their way around all the paperwork that is critical to setting up and keeping a business running smoothly so you can stay focused on getting on and doing the work you love. A good accountant is most definitely worth it!

4) Keep on top of the paperwork

Be organised and stay on top of the paperwork. Figure out a system that works for you and stick to it. From record keeping and invoicing to file saving methods – don’t look at admin as the root of all evil, as it keeps you well armed for the road ahead and gives you peace of mind.

A few things you need to do…

  • Create a tracking method for projects so you can do effective estimating and know if you’re making money.
  • Set up long-term business and personal goals for growth and financial stability.
  • Develop record keeping systems to ensure you understand where the dollars are coming from and going to.
  • Make certain you have proper legal paperwork in place.
  • Plan for setting aside money to find investments in equipment.

5) Set Rates

‘Bad Bait, Bad Fish’ – A great saying. I believe if you are giving your design services away for next to nothing, 9 times out of 10 you are not going to attract people who either understand or fully appreciate what you do.

When I first started I was so panicked by not having a guaranteed income that I accepted every job and quoted ridiculously low rates.  Three years on things have changed hugely…I am  not willing to work in an environment where I am not respected, given creative license, or paid fairly.

6) Know when to turn work down

I admit that I have turned down some clients because I didn’t like the company or the project or even individual personalities. If I am dreading taking a job on, because I can foresee issues already, then why put myself through it?

7) Take time to get to know your client

From my experience, clients often come to me as a referral or because they’ve seen something already and they think they really must have exactly that same thing. My first question is, ‘Aside from the look, why do you want that? Tell me about you and your company first.’ I like to get to know the client because I want the work to reflect them as much as possible, with my vision adding to theirs.

8) Be Professional - Clarify the Work

I always set clear expectations for a project, no matter how small. I like to put a full and detailed quotation or contract together and get written authorisation from the client to proceed on those terms before starting work. I am always clear about the payment terms and may ask for a down payment up front to ensure the client is as invested in the project as I am and to ensure I’ll have some money to cover my time and expenditure if the project gets pulled down the road.

Things to clarify before starting a project:

  • Overall budget for the project
  • Billing expectations, as in hourly or project basis
  • Payment schedule
  • Delivery schedule, as in what phases to be completed and to whom by when
  • Final deliverable (eg whether I am expected to show concepts only or delivery production quality files).
  • Subcontractors – Whether I am using them, or am expected to use my client’s? If so, how much will they be paid, and by whom, and how much, and is there a markup?

9) Timekeep

It is always good to keep track of the time spent on each project.  I think with design, you can find something particularly fascinating and get really engrossed in creating a very complex design beyond what you have originally quoted for.  Sometimes you don’t mind this – if the end result is appreciated by the client – but I do compare actual time spent against the initial quotation to ensure that I am still working for a decent rate per hour.

10) Never Stop Learning

Graphic design is in an industry that technically and creatively evolves faster than many other professions. Designers constantly have to learn new software, and stay on top of trends – never stop learning or looking for inspiration.