This blog was originally published on Workamajobs!
You’ve finally found your footing as a freelance designer. You have a healthy client list, a growing set of skills, and a proven process for landing new leads.
All in all, things are good. Or at least good enough.
But what if you wanted to take things up a notch? What if “good enough” wasn’t enough?
This article is all about taking your freelance design career to the next level. You’ll learn the business, design, and marketing skills you need to set your career on hyper-growth. You’ll also learn the approach you should adopt to go from “getting by” to making six figures and more as a designer.
Part I: Strategy
Taking your freelance career to the next level is less about specific skills. Rather, it’s about how you approach your business. As you’ll see below, a strong brand and strategic positioning will have a far bigger impact on your career than picking up new design skills.
Understand Your Clients
Why do businesses hire freelance designers?
If you said “design skills”, you’d be wrong.
One of the biggest reasons why freelance design careers fail to take off is that designers don’t understand business fundamentals. Too often, they approach freelancing with the same perspective as a regular job.
In regular jobs, skills are paramount. For a hiring manager, knowing that you can work your way around Sketch and UI/UX issues is important.
A typical designer job description. Note how it focuses on skills, not end results.
But businesses hire freelance designers for entirely different reasons. They don’t care if you understand Sketch or Photoshop. Many times, they won’t even know what these tools are.
Instead, they hire freelancers because they have a pressing business problem.
A startup might hire a UI/UX designer because it can’t get visitors to convert. A salon might hire a graphics designer because it wants to upgrade its brand. A local charity might hire a web designer because it wants to accept donations online.
In all these cases, your design skills are the conduit to a solution, not the solution itself.
Think of the time you hired a plumber to fix a leaky faucet. You didn’t care if the plumber was skilled with a spanner; all you cared about was whether he could fix the leak.
A design career works the same way. Your ability to fix problems is more important than your skills with a tool.
The sooner you understand this, the better you’ll be able to serve clients, and the faster your career will take off.
Develop Niche Expertise
When you’re starting your design career, it’s tempting to take on every project, regardless of its size or industry.
This can be good move initially to get some experience and build up a portfolio. But continuing along the same path is a recipe for disaster.
Four reasons why:
- A generic design service means that you don’t stand out from other designers.
- Bigger brands want usually want designers with expertise in their niche.
- Trying to do everything means that you never develop specific, in-demand skills.
- By focusing on a niche, you understand it better and can create custom-made solutions for it.
Once again, think from your client’s perspective. Clients want to hire the best person for the job, not just someone who’s completed 50 projects in unrelated fields.
If you’re a B2B SaaS startup, would you rather hire Generic Designer #144 or a designer who has helped dozens of similar SaaS companies improve their conversion rates?
The latter of course.
ConversionForGood’s Shopify-focused service is a great example of niching down to own a market
There’s an added benefit to niching down – it narrows your focus. Figuring out what kind of leads to focus on in a large market can quickly get overwhelming.
But by focusing on a niche (such as “e-commerce store owners who use Shopify”), you force yourself to narrow your search.
This not only helps you while searching for clients, but it also helps you develop niche-focused solutions.
Focus on Positioning
Positioning, in marketing speak, is how you place your product or service in relation to others in the market.
Think of the difference between a Lexus and a Toyota. Even though both brands belong to the same parent company, Lexus is perceived as a luxury offering because of its positioning.
As a designer, your positioning is made up of five things:
- Your pricing
- Your niche focus
- Your design approach
- Your brand
- Your clients
Positioning is essentially the process of defining who you are. This is a subtractive process. Who you are depends more on what you don’t do than on what you do.
Lexus, for instance, is a luxury brand because it doesn’t sell cost-effective cars. WalMart is an affordable brand because it doesn’t have glossy interiors and high prices.
A well-defined market position makes it easy to narrow down your marketing focus. If you’ve positioned yourself as a “high-end” designer, you won’t waste time chasing cheap clients.
At the same time, clear positioning helps clients figure out whether you’re the right fit for them. A client looking for affordable solutions won’t knock on the doors of a designer who works exclusively with luxury brands.
Try to define your positioning early in your freelance career. Identify the clients you want to work with and the kind of work you want to do for them. The clearer you are about what you are (and are not), the easier it will be to win over your target clients.