PUSH YOURSELF AND GET GOOD
I’m not the best designer out there, and you don’t need to be either. But you do need to be pretty good. I like to think that there is an 80/20 rule applying here. That is to get 80% good takes a few years of work, to get that last 20% and get to the top of your field takes a lot more effort (and/or talent). I think I’ve gotten to 80%, I design things that are solid. I’ve never won any awards, but my work is functional, appealing and generally well-liked. I admire reallygreat, cool and clever designers, but know that I’m probably never going to be one of them.
So how do you get 80% good? You push yourself of course! I started out years ago as a mathematics major who liked photoshop tutorials, not exactly a recipe for good design. But I read a lot of really good design books on typography, grids, aesthetics, colour, more typography, branding, advertising, even more typography … you get the picture. I went to design events and conferences, talked to designers as much as possible, got a job at a small agency and endlessly talked to the senior web designer there.
I also did as much work as I could find. First I wrote tutorials, then I started entering competitions (never mind that I never won, or even had anything worth competing most of the time), then I started taking charity jobs, then freelance work and the whole time I would design my own sites and brands over and over and over. Do I think you need talent to be a good designer? Not particularly. It sure helps, but I like to think I made up for a lack of talent or artistic background with sheer hard work.
BE LIKEABLE, EXCITED AND ENTHUSIASTIC
I have met some really talented people who I would never want to work with, simply because I didn’t really like them. The people who are going to hire you are … well, people. And like any other people, they are going to like someone who is nice, friendly, warm, interested in them and interested in their project.
It’s often the little things that make a big difference in this area. Cyan likes to tell a story about a photographer she knows who takes cups of coffee with him to photo shoots for his clients, and has noted that a few times this has been the deciding factor in winning him future jobs. A friendly tone in emails, a genuine interest in people, enthusiasm about work, it all helps!
A large number of jobs for most freelancers come from referred clients. Do a good job for one person and they tell others for you. 80% of all the jobs I’ve worked were referrals and I think being referrable is extremely important. Focus on the characteristics that make people want to work with you, and be reliable, very reliable.
Reliability is one of the most prized characteristics for a freelancer. As a client finding someone you can rely on means solving a problem permanently. Many freelancers are not reliable, and this presents and easy way to stand out from the rest.
DESIGN THE PORTFOLIO YOU THINK YOUR CLIENTS WANT TO SEE
It never fails to amaze me how many designer portfolios I see that feel like they are aimed at other designers. The language you use on your portfolio site, the pieces you choose and the presentation should all be pitched at the clients you are trying to land. When hiring designers for corporate work I’ve had people present me portfolios of grungy, edgy or just arty work. This is a huge turn off and for a client, rather confusing. People want to see what they want to buy, not something completely different. So if your target market is edgy, make it edgy, if it’s corporate, make it corporate. Spend the time defining your brand and target market and then create a portfolio that will appeal to them.
FOCUS ON CLIENTS AND BE FLEXIBLE
To be a good designer you need to do work that fits your brief. You should not do work that you happen to want to do, use a trendy style just because, be fixated on designing how you like or any of the other many sins designers regularly commit. If you focus on solving your client’s problem, are flexible and adjust to their needs and within the framework of your brief put together the best possible design solution you can, then you are going to be a designer in demand.
One common complaint I hear from designers is, “my client has bad taste” or “my client demands changes that ‘ruin’ a design”. First of all, let me say, I *completely* understand. Unfortunately that’s rubbish, and you’ll need to get over it.
If you want to make things to please yourself, go be an artist.
If you want to make things to please yourself, go be an artist. If you want to be a designer you have to learn to manage your client, explain why some things are good and others bad, fit their requirements, be flexible and compensate for external issues out of your control (your client’s love of pink or their horrid logo). That’s just part of the job description.
GET A HIGH PROFILE
Most of what I’ve said so far applied to me when I worked as a freelancer. In February of this year I stopped taking freelance work and started working fulltime for Eden. Since then the visibility of some of the sites I have designed has gotten a little higher. Sites like FreelanceSwitch, FlashDen andPSDTUTS get seen by a lot of people and generally result in the plethora of job offers that still trickle in.
But you don’t need to own a high traffic website to get a high profile. Most of the job offers just get sent to our various contact forms saying things like “Who is your web designer?”, “I have a job for your web designer” and so on. In other words you just need to design a site that has a high profile. You can do this by getting your work into CSS and web design galleries or by offering to design a high profile blog (lord knows, some of them could do with a redesign).
There are other ways to get a high profile too. Positioning yourself as an expert and achieving credibility are great ways to make clients come to you. Often becoming an acknowledged expert has more to do with deciding you are one than any external nomination. One excellent strategy to achieving is outlined in Leo’s recent article on giving away your services