Written by Antonino Lupo
Written by Antonino Lupo
Written by Antonino Lupo
So I’d like to talk a little bit about what got us here, and share some of the most noteworthy projects that we’ve had the pleasure of being involved in over the past few years.
The reason why a made the decision to start an agency, rather than to freelance, was because of the way I wanted my business to grow. I wanted to be seen as part of something bigger, and having an agency felt a bit more substantial, and had a certain stamp of trust about it.
I feel fortunate that I made that decision, because it’s opened the doors to so many great design projects, and given me the freedom to experiment with plenty of techniques and processes, and allowed me to work alongside many different industries.
I’d like to share a few of my favourite projects and highlights, and some of the projects that are happening right now.
Perhaps it’s unfair to say this is my favourite project over the last three years; there have been many that I still look back on with a sense of achievement. But saying that, the work that I did for the local business, Glouglou, is one that sticks in my mind. Possibly because I had involvement in the branding of the business from its infancy, and the owners were so great to work with.
You can read more about what I did for them in an earlier post, but in summary, their approach to the brand was unique, and I think we managed to come up with something that completely encapsulates what they are all about. I can’t think of another brand that looks like they do in their branding, and everything they do, both online and offline, ties in with their image perfectly.
From setting up the business, and then working towards my MA, I’ve been able to explore so many opportunities I might not have thought possible before. Like creating my own book, Ten Yrs Later, which showcases my design thinking and tells my story through my work.
I also won the Creative Conscience Award, which was fantastic to work on and a huge confidence boost. Designing the app allowed me to try out new techniques and be involved in subjects I hadn’t previously had too much experience in – Mental Health, and the Emergency Services.
It’s not something that many people think about, but there is huge pressure on people who work on the front line, and taking care of their mental health is often overlooked, and frequently stigmatised. So being able to look at ways I could help them, as a designer, was an eye-opening and valuable experience.
And an upcoming highlight – I’ve recently been asked to get involved in the Coventry Design Festival (although that one isn’t happening until 2022).
There are a couple of local projects going on that I’m part of, and both are centred around Shrewsbury.
The first one – Market Hall: A Day in the Life – is focussed on Shrewsbury Market Hall, and tells the story of the building’s history, and the people who work there. The building has always been a big influence within the town, and it’s great to keep it alive by telling the stories of the current stall-holders, and giving a history of its architecture and use over the years, in relation to the town.
Another ongoing project – Public Opinion – where we created an online survey, did face-to-face interviews and asked on social media, where the local public could share, anonymously, their opinions on the town of Shrewsbury.
We used this information to share some of the comments, using stickers around the town, sharing a booklet, and projecting them on slides from the studio.
I was affected very personally by Covid – my family and I caught it about 2 weeks before Lockdown 1.0. What hit me most was how utterly exhausted it made us feel. And then of course businesses began to shut down, and I was left in a situation where for the first time in a long time, I had to seek out work, because everyone was putting their marketing on pause, meaning my workload reduced significantly.
The second lockdown has felt different – in general, more businesses are staying open where they can, and those who are working from home are more confident in booking meetings vis Zoom, so even if budgets are reduced, they are thinking about how they can remain in front of their customers, which means keeping ahead with web design and graphics.
I think for all businesses, the future looks different to how we thought it would back at the beginning of the year. We’ve all had to adjust, and I’m no exception.
Views have changed, and for me, it’s forced me to focus on things in a different way.
I’m keen to continue to evolve in a professional capacity and challenge myself a bit more. I’m really enjoying working with local causes, and I count myself lucky to be in this part of the world.
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.
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.
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…’
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.
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.
I’ve heard a lot of talk, especially during the current climate, around whether or not graphic designer should consider creating their own side projects. Opinions tend to vary quite widely on the subject – some designers see them as somehow a waste of their time, in that it takes them away from doing paid work, and perhaps sends the message to prospective clients that they’re not so much in demand. Others think that they’re a great way of doing something ‘out of the norm’ and taking it as an opportunity to expand design portfolios, and indeed knowledge within the field of design.
While I can see both views, I think that, done right, they can enhance a design portfolio, and even lead a designer off in a new direction that might not have been possible within ‘the day job’. In fact, I myself published a book showcasing my design journey, and am currently organising some events promoting local designers, both of which were things that have come as a result of my own passion and desire to push myself beyond what I normally do.
I think, as creatives, it’s easy to get bogged down in doing work for others, so in occasionally doing things that come from our own passion can be a welcome release, and a really good way to inspire us. I’ve found that, in doing these side projects, I have so often been inspired to try different techniques and designs for my client work, too.
Looking around at other agencies, there are some examples of side projects that have been so successful, they have enabled the agency to take on completely new projects that they might never have had the opportunity to bid for under normal circumstances, like London agency, Accept & Proceed, who created a kinetic sculpture representing the impact of meteors on the surface of the moon that led to a commissioned project for NASA. Ok, so that might be an extreme example, but you never know…
Of course, there is no harm at all in flexing your creativity and working on a project just for the hell of it, even if it goes nowhere. It can teach you a lot – not just by playing around with different styles and techniques, but also giving you practice in new programmes which might not come up in your usual work. Unlike some industries, the graphic design field is ever-evolving, and it’s good to try out new ways of working now and again. It might give you the opportunity to incorporate a new service for your clients, or even take your agency in a different direction.
And they can be so varied – I’ve seen designers doing online courses teaching others simple design techniques, YouTube channels showcasing everything from ‘a day in the life’ to time-lapses of works in progress, blogs and magazines, photography…the list is endless.
I know what you’re thinking – if you are busy indulging your passions, doesn’t that pull you away from the money-making projects? And yes, of course that’s true, but if you don’t make time for creating your own stuff, then what’s going to inspire you if all you’re doing is working for clients? As a creative, you need an outlet, somewhere. After all, most of us got into this industry from a place of love for creation and design, and if we fail to keep doing what we love, then there’s a danger that working could become monotonous.
Of course, there’s the added benefit of being able to show your clients a different side to what you do. If you’ve been designing as a job for a while, you tend to end up doing the same kinds of things, but think about this: what if the very client you are designing that website for is also in the market for some photography, or a new identity, a video…if they are not aware that you have a talent for those things, you could be missing out on a whole new set of projects.
All in all, I believe that there can be great things to come out of doing side projects. So why not plan for them? Even if it’s simply a one-off, or a few hours at the weekend? It could be great for both your mental health, and your career.
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.
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.
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.
There are a lot of industries, the creative ones especially, where it can be difficult to find effective ways to showcase and market our work. And with such an emphasis on mediums such as social media and online portfolios, it can be hard to get ourselves noticed. So how can we, as creative designers, rise above all the online noise and showcase our work in the most effective way? The answer could be to self-publish a book, and here’s my story of how I did just that.
Sometimes, the only way to move forward is to draw a line and start again. I realised this after spending ten years at my old agency, where I’d become stagnant, waiting for things to happen that never would. Over time, my joy for what I was doing had diminished, and we were just…coasting. Something needed to change. And so, I decided to start again with the Severn Agency.
I wanted things to be different – I knew I didn’t want to rely on placing a few case studies on my website and hoping to be found. I had this idea of having some of my work printed. And with that thought in my mind, I started looking back at some of the work I’d done over the past ten years, trying to find elements that I’d still be happy to show. I poured over the smallest details of my designs, and what attracted me to them; what drew my eye and still captivated me.
That became my inspiration for the book, TENYRSLTR. It’s more than just a showcase of my work. It tells my story, captures the hard work I put in over those ten years to get me to where I am now. It serves as a reminder of the path I have taken. It’s something very personal.
When I was compiling my book, I wasn’t really sure about the end goal. In my mind, it was in part a therapeutic exercise for myself, in part portfolio to gain interest in my new studio. Everything beyond that felt a bit vague. It wasn’t until I got feedback from someone who I’d admired for many years that I began to rethink that, and everything became clearer.
The feedback came from one of the partners at the prestigious Pentagram agency, which is renowned as the largest independently owned design studios in the world. In it, he asked where he could buy a copy, which made me think; perhaps this book could have a life beyond being a promotional piece. Maybe there was another market for it.
By looking back over my career so far; by reflecting over how my new studio had come to be, I had now regained the motivation I needed to move forward. Looking back can be a great incentive.
If I’d have taken the easy, more predictable route, by just creating my portfolio online, how would I have differentiated myself from those other creative studios? In truth, it would have been a whole lot harder, and would have taken much, much longer to achieve. I prefer to think about things a bit differently – you never know where it might lead.
As much as we need to rely on online media, I think we’ve neglected to consider more traditional methods of promoting ourselves. We’ve got lost in digital. And the process of self-publishing has taught me that it’s still a very relevant media. Perhaps there’s a new hunger for this more lasting, material concept; something you can physically hold and touch and come back to time and time again. There’s been a huge upsurge in things like vinyl music recently – same thing. Digital media is great, but it’s also fleeting and feels kind of temporary. Having something you can keep, and can own, has huge benefits. It’s something you can show to people and be proud of. Despite what some people have said, print is not, and never will be, dead.