Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’re either a designer or someone interested in design at some level. On top of that, a good percentage of you readers freelance either full or part-time. There are a lot of freelance designers out there, and the majority of us brand ourselves as just that: a freelance graphic designer. But is that really accurate? Do we only offer graphic design services, or do we offer a wider range of services – one of which is graphic design? Allow me to explain.
Graphic design is a skill. This skill can be manifested in the design of a business card; the design of a marketing print piece; the design of a website. It is a skill that is required by every small business at varying levels; however, it is also a skill that has to be in touch with a variety of previously defined goals and strategies of that business in order to be effective. Here at Paper Leaf, we preach about knowing the end user and designing with them in mind. We also talk about goals and designing towards achieving those goals (for example, for a web user to follow a predetermined path throughout a website that culminates in a phone call or email). With all that in mind, ask yourself: do your clients come to you with these goals and end users already defined? Or do you help them strategize and set goals prior to setting pencil to paper?
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Strategic Design vs. Pixel Pushing
We work primarily with small businesses, as do many freelancers; thus, the majority of the time we’re helping clients define goals & strategies as part of our design process. However, we also receive projects where we are essentially expected to carry out an already planned design – essentially, act as a “pixelpusher” as the design community sometimes (usually negatively) calls it. These latter projects are quite different than the former; the latter are projects where we are not asked to use our cerebral or strategic knowledge of design. Rather, we are more or less the “labour” – we know the Creative Suite, we know CSS & HTML, we know WordPress – and this is why we’re hired, to simply work in these areas. I realize this sounds somewhat negative, but I don’t intend it to be so all the time. I’m just trying to clearly define the two types of projects: strategic design projects (where the freelance designer acts as creative director, chief strategic officer and so on) and basic design projects (where the freelance designer solely brings a design to life, or working format), for lack of better terms.
When a project comes to us that has clearly defined end users, goals, and creative direction, it is a pleasure to take part in as a “basic” designer who is tasked to carry out the vector/pixel/coding work. However, there are also misguided projects that come to pass, where an ill-equipped project manager acts as creative director, UX planner, and designer without any prior experience. These sorts of projects rarely turn out well, and plenty of designers have experienced them – just read Clients From Hell – and it got me to thinking: by branding ourselves as “designers” or a “design studio”, are we inviting in the “basic design projects”? After all, being a designer isn’t the same thing as being a creative director, or being a strategic planner. It’s also not the same as being a “creative problem solver”, a more general umbrella term.
The Definition of a Designer
Designers view the term “graphic designer” as a well-rounded term, where a good graphic designer can not only carry out the actual work (drawing/layout etc) but also strategize and set goals in order to design effectively. However, not all clients view a “graphic designer” in this light. Some do; some also view a graphic designer as the aforementioned “pixelpusher”. This difference in understanding is no doubt where so many common client/designer complaints come from. Perhaps branding ourselves in a different light is the answer.
Consider Your Audience & Your Services
Who makes up the majority of your work? What sort of projects do you want to take on? These questions should, as always, steer your branding effort. For example, if you’re a freelance designer who acts as a subcontractor to many larger advertising firms, perhaps branding yourself as a freelance designer is accurate and effective. After all, an advertising firm will have a creative director who works with the client to define their goals; they are subcontracting to you to carry out the actual design work, not to carry out the larger spectrum creative thinking as well.
On the flipside: if you’re a freelance designer who works with many small businesses who don’t have a marketing or creative department, perhaps you would be better off branding yourself not as a freelance designer, but as a creative director & graphic designer, or a creative/visual problem solver, or a strategic business designer (or some other term; these are just examples off the top of my head). After all, you are offering more than just design work – you’re offering strategies for the blog you just implemented for them, or helping them define their target audience.
Find These Clients
Once you’ve figured out what you truly offer, what you want to focus on, and how you’re going to brand yourself, you have to go out and find the clients who need your services. Your success rate of finding new clients will improve thanks to your newly focused rebranding. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s good from time to time to re-evaluate your work/business/brand and see if there are any ways to improve. By rebranding yourself to focus more accurately on what you truly offer – or what you truly want to offer – you will not only get more business, but you will get more of the business you like to work on. This will lead to an improved quality of life, work-speaking, and nobody complains about that, right? What are your thoughts?