Article / Design Community / Design Strategy

Should you consider a niche for your graphic design business?

A subject that comes up a lot among designers is that of niching. There is a train of thought that says by being too general in what you design, and who you design for, you can end up appealing to the wrong audience and miss out on working on the stuff you’re most passionate about.

Running my own studio, I’m quite lucky in that I can choose to pick up projects that I know I’ll enjoy working on, and turn down that which doesn’t suit. Perhaps, in some small way, I’m choosing certain niches in doing that – but discussions with other designers brings up a lot of questions. Like with everything creative, there are strong opinions both for and against niching – so I thought it might be useful to share some of them for those of you who are wondering whether or not it’s a good business model.

What is a niche?

When I talk about niching here, I’m focussing on the design aspect – although some designers I’ve come across choose to design within specific industries, too. I guess how you choose to niche depends on your location and style, to an extent, but for me living in a small market town, that doesn’t really make sense for me to consider. It might be very different for you.
Your niche might be as specific as you only want to work on designing logos. Perhaps you want to focus on web design work, or just print design. These are all perfectly valid – but while you might have a flair for a certain type or style of design, there are things to consider.

What’s the market?

If you’re going to be that specific in your niche, then you’ll want to make sure that there’s a strong market for it. It’s no good advertising yourself as a logo designer if the people you’re targeting are not looking for logo designers. Here’s the secret, though – you don’t have to commit to just one niche. And I don’t think that you should, because there’s a danger that you could narrow down your audience too much.

For example, let’s go back to our logo design niche. Those people are likely to be start-ups, or businesses looking to re-brand. So it might make sense for you to choose a second niche, like web design – which that particular audience will also be in the market for.

You can see from that example that it makes sense to marry these two niches – and it broadens your audience.

Money is also a consideration. There will be some projects that are naturally more lucrative than others, and it would be remiss to ignore that. Don’t narrow your niche down so much that you miss out on better paid opportunities.

Broad niches

Your niche doesn’t have to be small. In my work, one of the project types I enjoy most is branding (also a valid niche), and of course within that, there are several design aspects – logo, website, print, and also the actual branding style, colours, fonts…you get the idea.

I could, should I wish, advertise my services in this way. And so could you – the benefits being:

  • You’d have a much tighter target audience to focus on.
  • Your online content and SEO would attract those searching for branding designers specifically.
  • You’d be certain that the majority of projects you attract would be stuff you actually want to work on.
  • You’d stand out as an expert in that specific field and become known for it.
  • As a specialist, you could potentially increase your rates.

What if you don’t want to niche?

All of the above might make you think that I’m advocating niches, but in actual fact, they’re not the be-all and end-all. Having a niche might appeal to you, but it might just feel wrong. In truth, it’s not essential that you niche your design business, and there’s nothing wrong with being a generalist – many designers are, and really successful in doing that.

Many designers thrive on having the variety of being a jack-of-all-trades – and it doesn’t mean that you can’t still focus on who you choose to market your business to. If you simply don’t want to be defined as a specialist, that’s fine, and you should never feel pressured to do so.

I’d love to hear your views on this. Do you already have a niche, do you want one, or are you against the whole idea?

Article / Design Community / Education / Experience / Graduates / Graphic Design

The stuff they don’t teach you at art school

OK, so it’s been a little while since my first time as a design grad. Those days where I had a little less stress, a little less knowledge… but how does my experience compare with that of todays graduates? Do we face the same problems and the same worries?

I’d guess that very little has changed, despite the huge advancement in the technology we use, because the way that we are taught is fundamentally the same. Like with everything, I suppose, the education system moves much more slowly than the real world does.

I’m bringing this up because of a conversation with one of my tutors, Alec Dudson, who has a real issue with the fact that even modern design courses fail to teach the basics of business education. When students leave education and begin searching for work or internships, they often have no idea what to expect, or what is expected of them. That can be really tough – and in some cases put a dampener on a new designer’s self-confidence.

This is written from a graphic design perspective, although I suppose it could equally apply to other creative industries too. Perhaps by sharing my own insights, I can give you some idea of what the transition from education to working for a design agency can be like, from my own experiences and some other creatives I’ve spoken to.

Getting the right internship

Internships, to me, seem relatively new – they were practically unheard of in the UK when I first graduated, and didn’t become the norm until much more recently. It’s pretty rare to find a good internship with smaller agencies, especially outside major cities, and this has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the direction you want to take as a designer.

On the plus side, if you can get in with a design agency which is well-known, then it gives your CV a bit of clout, and can get you noticed further down the line if you choose to look for localised agency work, or even if you go the freelance route.

But working with a larger agency often means being reined in when it comes to your creativity – you’ll likely be working with corporate clients who have a very clear idea of what they want, and will expect you to stick to a specific corporate style.

I remember thinking ‘do you really want it to look like that?!’ when I got my first design brief – but being in a junior role, I learned quickly that people didn’t really care about what I was capable of as a designer, what they did expect of me was to understand their vision, and use my knowledge to bring it to life.

Internships can be invaluable, though, in that you get to see how the design industry works from the inside. Having spent all of your education time learning about yourself as a designer, you get to learn about the business aspect.

Learning how a business is run

Leading on from that point, I found it surprising how little I knew about the actual inner workings of a design agency. Often, there is little scope or time to spend perfecting your designs. You’re working for a client, and they have deadlines to meet. You might find that you’re expected to ‘rush things through’ and make last minute changes, even if that means going against your instincts. I’ve had plenty of projects, even as an agency owner, where I’ve been really chuffed with a design, only to have the client come back and tell me it’s not what he wants.

Remember; most of the time, you’re working to realise the client’s vision, not your own – and that can be a tough lesson.

I suppose what I’m trying to get across here is that learning doesn’t end when you leave the classroom. Moving into an agency job can be exciting, exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting – but it’s an equally important step in the journey. In fact, it might just change your perspective on which path you decide to take. It can serve to get you ‘in the door’ of an agency you really aspire to work for, or it can give you the tools to make your own way.

There are plenty of different paths you can choose to get where you want to be – internship is just one of them. Don’t be afraid to evolve. Creativity can take so many forms, and ideas can change – that’s a good thing.

Design Community / Education / Experience / Graduates / Graphic Design

What can designers do to help graduates?

Something happened recently that brought back a few memories for me and altered my perspective a little bit. It wasn’t anything that seemed ground-breaking, but it did really help someone, and gave me a little insight into the relationship between us as designers and those who are just at the start of their careers.

Every now and then, as I suppose many graphic design professionals do, I get emails from graduates or those wanting to pursue a career in design. What they’re looking for is often guidance by way of an internship or advice on where they can go for help in starting their chosen career.

I got one of those emails last week. This particular graduate was looking for someone to mentor her; an internship – which as a small agency, isn’t something I can offer, but I can remember those early days when all you needed was someone to give you that one small chance to get you on the right path. It can be tough. You don’t yet know what it’s like to work as a designer in the real world. You haven’t got the experience to know which direction you should, or want to take.

This young aspiring graphic designer was looking for her path. She didn’t have a lot of experience out of the classroom. She had a modest portfolio online, with which she was beginning to market her skills to gain an internship, where she was hoping to continue her learning and get a foot in the door. The work she’d done was well executed. She’d developed her own style which shone through in the pieces she presented. She obviously had a real passion and flair for design – she just needed an opportunity to use what she’d learned in the real world.

I responded to her email, although I wasn’t sure I could help her – I let her know that although I wasn’t in a position to offer her an internship, I liked her portfolio, and I urged her not to give up. I sent her a few links which I thought might help her in her search. It was a short message. But what surprised me was her reaction to it.

You see, despite sending emails to several design agencies, I was the only one who replied. She was elated that I’d taken the time, not only to let her know I couldn’t help with her request but had also offered her even a few little nuggets of encouragement and advice.

Our short email correspondence made me realise that my response was rare. But why should this be? Have we forgotten what it’s like to be there? Are we really so busy that we can’t take a moment out of our day to help those at the start of their design career? Or is it that we feel that because we had to work through it and find our own way, unsupported, that all graduates should do the same?

Whatever the reason, I strongly disagree. We need exceptional designers. We need a diverse pool of talent to feed the ever-evolving landscape and changes in technology. Design changes so rapidly, and we need to keep standards high, and that means we need a constant supply of fresh blood in our industry.

And that starts with giving what we can by way of help and advice to those who are beginning the journey. How can we do that?

Be approachable

Next time you get an email or a call from a young designer, respond. Even if it’s a ‘Sorry, I can’t help, but good luck in your journey’. Encourage them to look at your portfolio, and other admired designers’ websites for inspiration. Send them a couple of links to places they could go for information.

It takes less than 5 minutes to put together a quick message – and you’ll feel better for it.

Use your contacts

I’ve said before that the creative circle tends to be a pretty closed one – particularly the smaller, localised agencies. But that said, we all have a list of resources and other designers that we follow as a source of inspiration.

Perhaps you are signed up to their newsletters or are part of an online community together. If you can’t help out when a grad student approaches you, I bet you know of someone else who might. Be generous with your contacts, and don’t be afraid to share names and details of people you trust who might be able to offer guidance.

Tell them your story

Give them some insight into what you did when you were in their position. Where did you go for information? Who helped you along the way? Who inspired you? How did you decide which path you wanted to take? All of these little personal insights could help in their decision making.

A sense of community

I think that we all have a certain responsibility in shaping the way design evolves in the future. And maybe it starts with this – offering that little bit of encouragement and inspiration to those who follow. Let’s not be remembered for ‘that agency who didn’t respond’, but instead, ‘the agency who helped me see that I could make it.’ We all need a bit of that sometimes, don’t we?

Article / Collaboration / Design Community / Graphic Design

Working with or working for?

Do designers need other designers?

I live in a relatively small town – there’s a lot of history here, and there’s also a large-ish college, which means that there’s a good mix of people, and a growing creative community. I think I’ve talked a bit about his before, but where I live and work is, from a designer’s point of view, a bit odd.

There are a number of graphic design and marketing agencies in and around my town, but they’re all quite hidden from view. You really have to seek some of them out – if you don’t know about them, you probably wouldn’t stumble across them.

I think that designers as a collective can be a pretty guarded bunch. When you work outside of the big cities there seems to be an air of suspicion, whereby other designers are seen as competition rather than part of a more extensive network.

But in thinking this, are we losing out on opportunities to foster growth and create a helpful, creative network? Rather than having that fear that other creatives are lying in wait to poach our clients, maybe we should think instead of teaming up and collaborating to offer something more significant than we can currently provide; a way to stretch our creativity and learn from each other.

Creating as a collective

If you ask a bunch of designers – or creatives for that matter – what they do, you will get a different answer from every single one of them. No two designers are the same; we all have our own style, specialism, and niche.
Of those tucked away agencies around my town alone, I bet they all have something very different to offer.

Having more than one style or skill come together can make for a much richer result, and open fresh avenues for designers. It’s not about stealing work from each other – it’s about working together to create something completely different.

There’s always going to be one person who takes ownership for a project – perhaps because they came up with the concept or something that is for their client – but collaboration is the difference between working with and working for. You can sub-contract out elements of the project, or you can choose to work together in a partnership where everyone is on an equal footing to get the job done – I know which I’d prefer.

Can collaboration make us better designers?

I think that no matter what type of creative work you do, there’s always something new to learn. There are so many different ideas, techniques, tools… having the opportunity to share some of that with other creatives can make you see things differently and get you out of a design rut.

It’s easy to trap ourselves into certain thought-patterns, whereby we get caught up doing the same things over and over, becoming too comfortable to break out of our comfort zones. If that happens, we tend to lose confidence, and then spend our time convinced that our designs have to be perfect before we can let anyone else see it.

But design isn’t about perfectionism – it’s about creativity. If we get stuck in a loop of getting everything perfect, doesn’t that mean that creativity is shoved to one side?

Being with other designers is a good way to break that cycle – rather than being there to criticise your work, they can lend a fresh eye to it, and having those conversations can spark new ideas, and get you moving forward again.

Work culture

Aside from actually collaborating, keeping in touch with other designers be valuable. We make connections with who we can lean on for advice and have other like-minded people on hand to talk things through.

This is particularly true if you are a small agency or work alone – as you can feel quite isolated, especially in these times where many of us are unable to work in our usual settings.

Having that extra ‘back up’ can go a long way in giving you that feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself.

Article / Design Community / Graphic Design / Inspiration / Press Release

Creativepool: Best Graphic Designers of 2020

Written by Antonino Lupo
Published 17/12/2020

10 of the most exciting and talented graphic designers to keep an eye on in 2021

Good graphic design is easy to spot. But excellent graphic design? You need to have a specific kind of eye, taste and interest to understand what that is all about. The best graphic designers of this year all embody that spirit – a quirky, creative will to do things differently, to excel in simplicity and amaze with the pure power of shape, colour and text.

Read the full article at creativepool.com

Collaboration / Design Community / Inspiration

How having a local creative hub can help designers get more work

I’ve spoken before about the lack of creative support in my town – there is little here in the way of events for designers, and that’s something that I’d love to rectify. I think there are a great many benefits in creating a community, or hub, for creatives in my town, but they seem to be reserved for larger towns and cities. It’s important that as an industry, we are able to call on each other for advice, support, and inspiration.

So this article is more for the benefit of my fellow designers, who, like me might be struggling to connect with like-minded people, and wonder how we can better support each other in creating such a community and share resources in searching out and getting more paying clients.

Firstly, I’d like to explore some of the ways we might get clients, because we all do things very differently. There is no right or wrong way, but in sharing ideas, perhaps we can help each other to try new avenues, and get more of the types of clients we really want to be working with.

When I created my design agency, I did so because I believe that being part of something gives a professional edge. I decided to open as an agency for that reason.

I don’t really know whether the way that I market my agency should differ very much from the way that a freelancer might, perhaps being an agency means that my marketing is a little less personable, in that my brand is The Severn Agency rather than myself, Tony Clarkson. So whichever method I use to market, I’m doing so as ‘us’ and ‘we’, rather than ‘me’ and ‘I’. It kind of sounds a bit more professional to the kind of people that I want to be targeting, but you might think differently.

Sharing resources

A lot of us get overwhelmed when it comes to looking for new projects, especially in the beginning. Although in time, we find our own methods, it can still be difficult – the current climate has proved that. It’s important that we explore different ways of marketing, and building a design community can once again be so helpful in that. When we get stuck in a rut, as we all do, it’s useful to be able to call on others for support.

In that, I’d like to be able to share a few ideas here with you about methods that you might already use, or that you might not have thought of but want to try.

My methods

In my experience, the best work comes through referrals. Getting your name and face around as much as possible, talking to people about what you do, and not being afraid to network face-to-face is by far the most effective way you can grab people’s interest. If you can get even one client to refer you to a few of their contacts, it tends to have a ripple effect, and you can build quite a decent portfolio this way.

When you’re at the beginning of your career, I think the most important thing you can do is to create enough samples of the kind of work you want to be doing and sharing it across your website and social media platforms. The great thing about graphic design is that it’s visual, and can easily grab people’s attention. If you’ve got a specific style, people will begin to recognise it as yours and look out for it.

If you do want to approach people ‘cold’, it’s vital that you address any emails or letters to a specific person. Get a name, and do a bit of research about them. There’s no harm in stalking someone you want to work with on LinkedIn, and this can then lead you to their other social platforms and websites, where you can learn so much about their businesses, helping you to approach them in a more personal way. Rather than a ‘Dear Sir, I’m a designer, please hire me’, you can be saying, ‘Dear Tom, I see you are creating a great brand through your Instagram – I really think I could help you with that…’

Can people find you?

It stands to reason that if people don’t know you exist, they’re not going to seek you out. Something I see time and time again when I’m asked to help businesses with rebranding and web design is that they’re not making any effort to share what they do. It’s all very well having a beautiful website, but it will just sit there if you fail to use it.

Your aim should be to lead people to your website, and make it clear what you want them to do when they get there (i.e. hire you!) Make sure that all your best work is on your website, and share it around social media. Update people about the work you’re doing right now. Create a blog and drive people to it via a newsletter or sales funnel.

The more content you create through your website, the better you will rank on Google, and the more you will be found.

Be visible, and pool your resources

Rather than seeing others in your industry as competition, start talking to them. This again comes back to the original subject here of building a design network – other creators are not the enemy, and we can and should help each other out.

If you see a piece of work by another designer that you admire, there’s no reason you can’t reach out to them through social media – tag them publicly telling them and others how much you love their work. Spark a conversation, and get to know them.

If you don’t yet have a design community in your area, like me, look at ways you can create one. This is where I’m at right now. I want to make that happen, so that myself and others in my town and surrounds can have our own ‘hub’ to call upon.

Design Community / Graphic Design / Inspiration

The Benefits of a Design Community

I wanted to talk about a subject that I touched upon in a couple of earlier articles, where I write about why I went back into education to complete my design MA, and then about being a designer working within a smaller community. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own working location, a small-ish market and college town, and how perhaps larger places have a much closer design community.

Shrewsbury, where I live and work is quite a unique, and in some respects, vibrant town. It comes with a lot of history, and is also a great hub for businesses.

What surprised me, though, is when I began to look around at my own industry, there really isn’t much of a community at all. It’s not for lack of designers or design agencies in the town – if you know where to look, there are some very successful designers here. But they seem to be quite isolated; hidden away from view. Seemingly keeping to ourselves, not through lack of interest, but more because we don’t go out of our way to know about each other. There is simply no interaction between us.

The discovery led me to look around, at other places, and how they have come together to collaborate and communicate, creating a ‘hub’ for their design communities. I looked at some of the most successful ones – the Graphic Design Festival Scotland, and closer by the Birmingham Design Festival. These designers seem to not only willingly collaborate, but celebrate doing so. They come together for events such as these – perhaps because, rather than see each other as competition, they see the value in working together on occasion, in pulling together to learn from one another, and creating their own ‘hub’ in their own communities.

The positives of design communities

There are many positives that can come from being part of a close design community – and creating local festivals and exhibitions to celebrate and collaborate. Of course, it does have the obvious benefit of showing off our work in order to give publicity to our individual studios – but I think it does much more than that.

Being so isolated, in many ways, can be such a negative. For starters, by working in such close quarters, you lose that sense of the world around you – you become self-absorbed in your own work. And yes, you might argue that we are all part of the ‘online’ community, but is that really the same thing? Is there really any substitute to getting to know what’s going on in the immediate community, what’s happening in your own industry, in your own town?

The opportunity to bounce ideas with each other, to learn for each other’s experiences, to come together to work on bigger projects, can only help us to thrive as designers.

Being part of such events as the ones mentioned above can be such a positive experience, a moral booster, and give us a sense of where we are going, as an industry collective. There’s such a lot we could learn from each other.

Can we create our own communities?

This is where I am right now. This is the big question I’m asking – how can I facilitate putting together something in my own community which can bring together other designers?

I’m looking at other local events – there are regular, and successful events for other creatives in my town. There are exhibitions for local artists, both traditional and modern, festivals for writers and comic book artists, amongst others. So there is scope – and some really great venues in which to host such things.

I’d be interested to learn how other places do it – perhaps you have even been where I am, and have seen the opportunity in your own town or city. If you have, maybe you could give me the benefit of your experience. Tell me how you did it, what obstacles stood in your way. Were you successful?

Shrewsbury, I think, would be the perfect place to host a festival for graphic designers – and I’m hoping that in the future, I can facilitate that. I can see a huge benefit in raising the industry profile in the town and surroundings.

Collaboration / Design Community / Education / Graphic Design

Reasons for Graphic Designers to go back into education

Graphic Designers – never stop learning

I’ve worked as a graphic designer for a long time, graduating from Wrexham Glyndŵr University in 1993 and working in various studios, bringing me to launch The Severn Agency in 2017. You might say that I’ve made it – that there’s nothing else that I need to achieve from here. But you’d be wrong. Graphic design is a fluid industry, ever changing, ever evolving, and to stay in the game, it’s important that I don’t sit still, because chances are, if I do that, I’ll fall behind, and things will move without me.

Digital Evolution

In the early 90’s, things took a real leap in the field of graphic design, as it was in 1990 when we saw the first version of Photoshop arrive on the scene. This changed the industry a lot, as it meant that designers could experiment with graphics in a way that we’d never seen before. The techniques it allowed were ground-breaking, with overlapping text, image overlays, and faded elements, which previously had been impossible to achieve on-screen.

By the 2000’s, the tech had become much more powerful, and we saw a surge in portable devices. Graphics evolved again with this new technology, and images with movement came into focus. Corporate design and logos began to look much more like they were in motion, using new techniques with angles and shadowing.

Now, trends change year on year, and there are so many styles and techniques open to us in the graphic design industry. But both design and technology continues to change and evolve.

The next step

This year, I have embarked on a Master’s Degree in Graphic Design. Why? Because I want to safeguard my future in this industry, and I want to be the best that I can be.
And that is the reason for my writing this article. Whether you are a graphic designer, are looking to get into the industry, or are pursuing another job entirely, I think there are huge benefits in going back into education in order to get better at what you do and advancing your knowledge.

It can be a great refresher on what you’ve already learned, or it can take you to the next level in the evolution of your career. And of course, it gives you the opportunity to learn about advancements within the industry, whether that’s technological changes, changes in trend, or changes in the industry that you might otherwise have missed out on.

As well as this, you could be connecting with people who are at the same point in their career as you, which gives you the opportunity to learn about what others in the industry are doing.

Why go back into education?

For me, going back into education, to get my Master’s Degree in Graphic Design, is about me keeping up with the industry, and becoming an expert in what I do. But there are many reasons for you to seek further education, whether you’re already working in the industry or not. And you can do it at any age.

It could be that the career path you’ve chosen is no longer a good fit for you, and you’re looking to change. There are plenty of people who decide very late on in life which career path they have a passion for – it’s a myth that everyone who leaves college or even university has a clear idea what they want to do for the rest of their lives. People change, and so you shouldn’t be afraid to make changes in your career, no matter your age.

Perhaps you are in your chosen career, but have come to the end of your potential, either by salary or skill. If this is the case, you might decide to take the next step and go back into education in order to climb the ladder and further your career.

Or it might be that you simply want to learn something new, to accompany the education you’ve already got. There are plenty of jobs in which graphic design feature, and having some kind of formal education can do wonders in enhancing your skills.

Graphic Design never stays still – and whatever your reasons, learning the skills needed to keep yourself current in the industry is always beneficial.

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