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AIGA Independent Designers Roundtable

Last Wednesday, April 4 I attended a small roundtable discussion as a guest blogger for AIGA. They'll be posting a shorter version of this same post to their site sometime soon. In the meantime, here's my full synopsis of the evening.

*UPDATE: You can see my coverage of the independent designer's roundtable on the AIGA Boston website here.

Conversations are inevitable whenever a group of like-minded people are in the same place at the same time. It happens in offices every day around water coolers, by the copy machine, and in the lunch room. Ideas are hatched, plans are made, and partnerships are born. But these important interactions are typically far less common for designers who make their own hours. That doesn't make them any less important.

Creating more opportunities for spontaneous conversations—and community—for independent designers was the premise behind last Wednesday's AIGA roundtable. Ben Spear generously hosted a dozen designers at the Oficio coworking space. The diversity of the group, which included students, designers just starting their freelance career, and veterans who've been freelancing for years, insured a thought-provoking discussion that made two hours seemingly evaporate.

The evening progressed from one topic to another as individual designers voiced questions and the rest of the group shared advice, experience, and strategies. 

What do you do when a client comes to you for one thing (like a poster), and you realize they need much more than that (like an entire brand identity)?

Communication with clients is hugely important for independent designers. Having a good working relationship helps insure a successful project and often leads to even more work via word-of-mouth. So what's the best way to gingerly tell someone that their brand actually needs a complete overhaul when they're just looking for a print ad?

Everyone agreed that a lot comes into consideration when framing client conversations. Perhaps first and foremost is the question of how badly you, as the designer, need the work. If your pantry is empty, it's probably best to go ahead and give the client exactly what they're asking for. If you have the time, you can add an extra page to the end of the project proposal with work that goes above and beyond. Or if you're working on establishing your freelance client base, you may want to go ahead and do the extra work anyway.

Conversely, if you have more financial flexibility, there are a number of ways to make sure the project, client, and brand stay on-target. Establish a branding goal with the client at the very beginning of the project. Include it in the proposal so you can use it as a benchmark as the project progresses. Make sure to frame conversations and proposals in a value sense instead of just a bottom line. Emphasize the value of a strong brand mark instead of the cost. And start each project with strategy, spending time to fully understand the client and the problem before jumping into the design process. 

How do you build your strategic process?
Strategy means something different to everyone. But each individual agreed that it's an important part of the process; a time to figure out how things shouldn't look. Clients like worksheets, process, and systems. They like to have a plan. More than one designer offered the tip of searching the internet for applicable branding questions before meeting with a client, refining those questions over time to match you own personal style and process. And if the conversation comes to a standstill? Just repeat what the client said back to them. It's bound to nudge the dialogue on bit-by-bit.

How do you make sure that the work you get is work you want to do?
Finding work can be one of the most daunting tasks for a new freelancer. But once you've been in the business for a little while, a big question is how to insure that the work that comes your way is work you actually want to do. While there's no perfect answer, the consensus was that you have to find things you're passionate about, determine who your ideal clients are, and then tell anyone who will listen what kind of work you want to be doing. Often it's a matter of simply asking for what you want.

Is specializing in print enough? Do you have to have a general understanding of a wide array of skills to be successful as a designer today?
If job descriptions are any indicator of what it takes to succeed in the design world, then it would seem necessary to have a grasp on skills as varied as web, print, and mobile applications. But how realistic—and attainable—is that?

It was agreed that it's not mandatory to be an expert in such a wide range of skills, but it is important to know how to talk about different disciplines and platforms. And it's hugely helpful to establish a network of people who are really good at the things you don't know how to do. The role of a successful independent designer often shifts from simply designing to project managing, bringing in experts who work well together to complete any one project.

"Even though I'm a one person shop, my clients don't feel like I am."

In a related question, someone asked if it's better to be extremely specialized (i.e. being the best chalkboard typist in the country) or a bit more broad. There were varying opinions here: some thought that being the absolute best at what you do would be more lucrative while others believed that it's essential for designers to broaden their horizons and constantly grow their skill set.

"Less amount of skills doesn't necessarily mean less skill."

How do you differentiate yourself as a designer?
In a sea of qualified designers, personality can make all the difference. Clients want to hire a designer who they will enjoy interacting with, and strong client relationships often lead to thriving freelance businesses. Be sure that your work communicates your personality. If you brand yourself as anything other than your name, make sure your brand is strong (particularly if you are offering branding services to clients.) And if you're up for it, go out into the community and participate in events like PechaKucha and Creative Mornings.

How often do you seek input/feedback/advice?
One of the biggest things that independent designers miss out on is the daily peer reviews that happen in larger office settings. So how often should a designer working from home seek feedback and advice? How often does it really happen?

Everyone agreed about the value of taking the time to proactively seek out feedback. Often talking through ideas leads to new concepts or little tweaks that have a big impact. Some people take every chance they get to ask a fellow designer for an opinion or criticism. And others seek help from folks completely outside the industry. Individuals with no design background frequently provide the most valuable feedback because at the end of the day, we're designing for 'normal' people—not fellow designers.  

What level of presentation do you strive for with clients?
Many corporations and design firms have a standard presentation format. But what's the best way to approach client presentations as an individual? Many designers use the same format as their original proposal for their final presentation, which gives the entire project a cohesive feel. One additional suggestion was thinking through the final presentation as soon as you develop your first concepts. This is a good way to give your ideas structure and help make the final project story as strong as possible.

How are you leveraging social media?
No one designer had found a way to leverage social media for self promotion. But more than a few turn to the web (including Fast Company and PSFK) for inspiration, competitive research, and current events.

The independent designer roundtable is a now monthly meet-up. Next month's topic: Triumph and Tragedy. Each designer will arrive with one story about unbridled success, and one story about dismal failure. The date is tentatively set for Wednesday, May 2. Stayed tuned to the Boston chapter of the AIGA for more information.