There are some days when I barely consider myself a designer. I mean sure I have all the classic stereotypes: glasses, cardigan, a canvas shoulder bag, french press, and suspenders (which I no longer wear). Oh, and a computer (obviously Mac). But I know deep down that these are only the trappings of a hipster reunion and not the makings of a true designer.
In an interview about design with WIRED, Kim Collins said that “there is still no consensus about the role of our work.” And while she’s speaking about product and interior design, the statement could be said of the entire industry. Think about the roles a graphic or web designer juggles. It’s everything from client relationships to color research to photo correcting. The field is awash with varying skill sets and expertise. With so much variance in the industry, reaching a consensus on just what exactly IS a good designer, can prove difficult. In fact, simply being good doesn’t automatically mean people will want to work with us.
So if being good isn’t the goal, then where should we focus?
When I think about all the businesses I’ve worked with, what comes to mind is not so much the design, but the relationships. Yes, design is the foundation, but I finally built a referral business only after learning that people wanted much more than good work. I realized that if they were only coming to me because I was doing good work, then they could easily find someone else to do the same. Great work can be found anywhere. But a relationship? A trusted partner? Those things require much more than Illustrator skills.
After working with everyone from small businesses to family business (look out!) to agencies, I’ve learned that most people are looking for the same 10 traits in every designer. Spoiler: Actually being good at design did make the list.
There’s nothing worse than emailing a designer for information and never hearing back. Many people I’ve worked with have been dumbfounded by the lack of response from freelancers and even design agencies. I understand that life can be busy, and the reality is that some jobs really aren’t worth the time. However, not responding to potential work not only leaves a bad impression, but you could be leaving thousands of dollars on the table. Time and again, what was meant to be a one-time logo project has turned into a lasting relationship.
When’s the soonest you could do this? Sound familiar? Clients love to know when they’ll be able to get a “first glance” or “proof of concept” on an idea. It’s understandable. Creating something new is an exciting process. I’ve found that clients aren’t looking for something within 24 hours (though that does happen) as much as they are looking for responsiveness (see point 1) and reasonable turnarounds. Educating clients on industry standards and what a project will take is a great way to set expectations. The more quickly you establish expectations, the more apt clients are to feel as though you’re staying on schedule.
3) Attention to Detail
This one may seem like a given. I know we’d all like to think of ourselves as having great attention to detail, but I’ll be the first to admit that without a checklist, sometimes I forget the little things (especially when a project is wrapping up). Towards the end of a long project, clients may also forget deliverables that were mentioned on day one. Did you include all versions of the logo...social, web, print? What about that webpage that was added last minute...did you remember basic SEO? While everyone is quickly trying to wrap up, you can set yourself apart by doing a double check. Clients will love you for it.
There’s nothing worse than inflexibility. When something is inflexible, it breaks. No one wins from broken client relationships. Dealing with inflexible clients can be a pain—no question. But the more flexible I can be on my end, the less frustrated I feel and the more at ease the client feels. And an at ease clients makes for a lasting client. I often have to remind myself that clients are coming to me with their own expectations, desires, and even dreams. What I want and what the client wants may not match—and that’s okay!
And speaking of what the client wants...being flexible doesn’t mean you don’t speak your mind. You’re the designer. This is what you do. If the client wants something that is...well...ugly—and I’m not talking about preference—but straight up ugly. Tell them. If we withhold the truth from clients in order to spare their feelings, then someone else will tell them the truth. They will either find out from others or the campaign will be a flop. Clients need honesty. Even if they may not always like it. Being honest now pays off dividends in the future.
One of the things I love most about my job is being able to listen to a client and help them unpack their dreams. They’ve come to me with an idea, and they want to see it unfold. However, I used to be so focused on completing jobs that I didn’t leave time for relationships. Over the years though, I’ve found that asking questions beyond the project leads to a deeper connection and builds the case for being an asset to their growth. Sure they came to you wanting a logo, but if you only talk about the logo, then your abilities will only be limited to that project. Often, new brands need guidance—help, insight, and a new perspective. The more guidance a designer provides, the more valuable they are.
One comment I’ve heard from a lot of clients is, “Thank you so much for explaining that.” It could be an explanation of the colors I chose or the why behind certain trends, but regardless of the situation, clients love to know that designers aren’t merely making things up on the fly. Sure...um, we actually are doing that. (You know, literally coming up with designs in our heads.) But these designs are not devoid of reasoning. We’ve either got experience to back up what we’re doing, or we know certain fonts/color will work well together. Whatever the case may be, there is some thought behind what we do. Go ahead and share it! Because, “it looks good,” isn’t a strong argument. (Though I know that’s exactly what we’re all thinking!)
8) Creative Vision
Both guidance and reasoning help make up creative vision. Clients usually have a general idea in mind when they start looking for a designer, and the best designers are able to take a concept and turn it into a “that’s it!” moment. The more time you spend in discovery with clients, the better you’re able to turn concepts into vision and vision into realities. Creating “that’s it!” moments for clients is the first step to starting a buzz and gets the referral lines open.
Know your market. And know where you stand. That’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten about pricing design. It’s easy to get caught up in the comparison game pitting Olympic-scale design budgets vs. local brick and mortar stores. I mean, we all want the Olympic jobs, right? But every market is unique and every project has its own variables. In the end, clients want to be treated fairly. If you find yourself continually losing RFPs because of budgets, it might be time to reevaluate your pricing model.
10) Good Design
Now the one we’ve all been waiting for! The fun part is, many people know good design when they see it. They may not know the “it” factor behind the design. What is it that makes it good? Is it the font, the colors, the content, the photo, all of it? And the answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes. Sure design can be subjective, but clients will return to you again and again if they come to expect consistency and quality in your work.
I once had a client tell me that it was like I was inside their brain. I'm sure that comment is not unique, but it still made me feel good. While I try my best to improve my design skills everyday, the fact is that being a designer—especially a freelance designer—requires things outside of our design programs. The more we hone our skills across the spectrum, the better we position ourselves to be a person people WANT to work with.
What are some other inside tips that designers have? What's the best thing a client has ever told you about your design?