How Novice Designers Can Improve Their Client Rosters


Ever feel like you’re getting passed over constantly for new and exciting work by other designers who aren’t quite as, well, good as you are? Don’t worry, you’re not alone – and you’re not a bitter jerk for having those thoughts.

It’s something that most young freelance designers face, especially as they improve their skills and become better designers, yet their client roster is still as uninspiring as ever.

Today, I’m going to give all you young designers out there some tips on what you can do to stop feeling like yesterday’s news, and get in on more of the exciting, high-paying action going on in the design industry.

Gaining Entry to the Clubhouse

I hate to break it to you, good designer wallowing in obscurity, but you’re being kept out of the loop. There’s a secret store of knowledge out there that you’re ignorant of, but that those bad designers around you know all about.

They’re sneaking out at night to attend the meetings, making piles of money while you’re crashed on your friend’s couch with overdue bills and empty soda cans and junk food wrappers scattered around you, like a blanket of sorrow to go with your feelings of rejection and inadequacy.

It’s okay. I know how you feel – but there’s good news! Brew yourself a pot of coffee and read on.

The secret knowledge that these successful designers all share isn’t really all that secret. I was just joking – y’know, for dramatic effect. I’ve got a story to weave here, after all.

These designers really all know just one important thing: how to sell their work to the right audience. That’s it. The “secret sauce” is marketing.

Selling yourself is something that many creatives are famously uncomfortable with, but the truth is that we all already sell ourselves. Every time we meet with a client, we have to sell them on our ideas. Convincing a client to hire you isn’t all that different from what you already do on the job.

Marketing is a skill that tends to be despised, but it really shouldn’t be. It’s the counterpart to good design. If you create the most wonderful, awe-inspiring design in the world, and hide it at the bottom of a drawer, you may as well not have created it at all.

If you don’t make the effort to put your work in front of people who will see it and want to hire you, you’re essentially doing the same thing. You’re creating work and hiding it under a veil of obscurity.

rustic entry sign metal

Selling the Sizzle

Marketing yourself to new clients doesn’t mean that the quality of your work has to suffer. Don’t stoop down to the level of the crappy designers around you and create work that’s equally bad.

The solution to your marketing deficiency is not to get down in the mud alongside the bad designers who are outpacing you. Your task is to outperform them with your superior talent and critical thinking skills.

You don’t need to work any differently – you just need to package that work in a way that’s more attention-grabbing to a broader audience.

Many times the biggest marketing issue that talented creatives face is that they’re just too excited about what they can do. Perhaps your code is clean as a whistle and compliant with every web standard known to humankind.

Or maybe you’re a minimalism whiz, with a perfect knack for creating simple, powerful layouts with the perfect balance of clarity, beautiful type, and whitespace.

That’s nice for you, and maybe your mom, to know about, but the cold, hard truth is that most clients couldn’t care less. They’re only concerned about whether you can get the job done competently and on deadline. It’s sad, but true.

The key to marketing yourself well is to sell an experience, not a list of qualifications. You need to be thinking about how, specifically, can your technical skills improve the quality of life for your clients.

It sounds terribly dramatic, but marketing is almost pure psychology. People are motivated, in life and in business, by things most freelancers don’t stop to consider when offering their services.

If you can connect with a client on a personal level – offer them an important benefit that will earn them more money or allow them to free up more time (a huge desire of many overworked business owners and managers), you’ll have more clients than you’ll know what to do with.

designer experience

Find Your Niche

Sometimes you get beat out by the mediocre competition simply because that person has access to a wider pool of clients than you do. Perhaps they live in one city and they’re doing business all around the world with similar clients.

These competitors of yours have found a niche that works for them and they’re out finding clients wherever they happen to be. If they have to get on a plane and travel, well, it’s worth it to them to have access to clients that others in their niche can’t easily get to.

When marketing yourself and selling your services to new clients, it’s important to get specific – don’t just cater to everyone, or you’ll end up catering to no one. Find a lucrative niche within the design industry, and grow your client base from it.

Perhaps you only work with clients in the legal and medicine industries. Or maybe you work with tech startups, or fashion designers, or boutique ad agencies. Whatever your niche is, make sure there’s enough clients in it to supply you with years of new work.

If it’s hard for you to find clients in your niche (maybe you live in a small town or it’s just too competitive), perhaps it’s time to branch out. Travel has never been easier or more economical – if the clients you want to work with aren’t in your area, pack a suitcase and go to theirs.

Alternatively, you can use your design skills and technical expertise to leverage the power of your local media. Become a local design expert in one area you can master.

Marketing doesn’t have to be scary, nor does it have to be particularly hard. The majority of the effort comes at the beginning – determining your niche, finding the right clients, and establishing yourself as someone who provides just the right experience your clients are looking for.

The rest has to do with keeping yourself at the top of your clients’ minds – updating your email list, sending out mailers, etc.

There are plenty of other articles which cover these things in detail. Once you establish a system that works for you, it becomes much easier for you to accelerate your career at a rate that’s more appropriate for your knowledge and skill level.

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