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.

Graphic Design / Inspiration / Side Projects

Why side projects can be good for graphic designers

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.

Above: Spectra Kinetic Sculpture by Accept & Proceed

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…

Above: Grace-FO Display by Accept & Proceed commissioned by NASA/JPL

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.

Above: Part of our visual proposal for a community project documenting a day-in-the-life of one of Shrewsbury's iconic buildings.

Do what you love

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.

A fresh perspective – for you and your clients

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.

Education / Inspiration / Self Publishing

Self-publishing as part of your marketing strategy

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.

What self-publishing my book taught me

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.

‘“I thought the book was great… It’s a very personal experience you’ve captured”’

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.

A lasting legacy

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.

© SEVERN AGENCY LTD