Building Business Relationships
Finding freelance design jobs and art projects is only the first step in developing your creative career. The next step is building business relationships so that your clients keep coming back to you when they need creative work. Jeff Fisher, Engineer of Creative Identity for Jeff Fisher LogoMotives, offers sage advice for developing your portfolio and building business relationships in his article “Getting the Gig.” You can read the complete article on how to build business relationships below. For more advice on developing your creative career, check out the 2014 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market.
Keep creating and good luck!
Getting the Gig: Find Work and Develop Business Relationships Through Planning, Perseverance, and Patience by Jeff Fisher
Designers, illustrators, and artists often want to know which tactics they should use to get a foot in the door of a potential client or employer. This is a good start, but a creative individual who is content with getting only a foot in the door may have more than an ego bruised when that door slams shut. Successfully introducing yourself to a prospective client and developing a business relationship takes planning, perseverance, and patience.
For many, the most difficult aspect of the design, illustration, and art business (and it is a business) is marketing and promoting yourself. It is necessary to move beyond boasting about creative output and into a position of selling a product needed or desired by a marketplace of global proportions. Marketing and promotion is a sales tool, not evidence of being self-absorbed.
Taking a step back from a myopic perspective of your work and treating professional creative efforts as those of any other client will be helpful in laying the foundation for successful marketing. Those in creative professions must be just as creative in the methods used to attract the attention of those buying art or design services.
Assign promotion projects to yourself as regularly scheduled activities. These tasks will soon become second nature. Establishing a “no client” weekday to allow time for an uninterrupted business and marketing focus is a good idea. A weekly “koffee klatch” with fellow professionals may provide a sounding board for creating an individualized sales program for art and design. No-cost blogging and social networking resources are tools that can eliminate, or at least decrease, the expense of promoting your designs or illustrations.
Do the research
Prior to contacting a potential client, do the research necessary to determine if your work is appropriate and will meet the needs of the publication, company, or organization. Search the Internet to piece together a historic perspective of the company. When meeting or contacting a potential client, it is wise to be able to back up statements such as “I’ve always been a fan of your work” with knowledge of client work or company recognition. In addition, specific art and design desires or requirements are often clearly defined in resources such as the Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, the websites of publications or publishers, and elsewhere online.
Initiate contact confidently
The one question to avoid when initiating contact with a potential client is, “Do you have work available?” The easiest response is “No.” End of conversation. Instead, ask if an informational interview with the person responsible for design and illustration decisions may be scheduled to learn more about the efforts and creative needs of the business or organization. Most people get a great deal of pleasure out of discussing the history and successes of their own work. Such meetings are a great opportunity to personalize an initial interaction with a company and begin what will evolve into a business relationship. There is also the possibility that the individual with whom you are meeting will know of other work opportunities and share that information.
Highlight your best work
Within any portfolio (online or physical) highlight only the best of the best work produced to date. Skew the content of the portfolio to the work preferred. If you’re not interested in being commissioned for a certain type of work, don’t include such examples. A well-defined physical portfolio of ten to twelve pieces of your greatest work will give a creative director, art director, or other potential client a good idea of your talent, abilities, range, and areas of specialty. In most portfolio presentations there simply won’t be time available to introduce a larger number of pieces. If interest is expressed in a particular aspect of work within a presented portfolio, offer to provide additional examples in a possible future meeting or through other means.
Present a manageable portfolio
The days of the oversized student portfolio case are gone. If presenting design or art examples in person, give consideration to the size of the case or container in which the work is to be introduced. In this situation bigger is not necessarily better. Don’t overwhelm the desk of the possible client with a large, unwieldy portfolio; the control of a professional presentation could be lost. Well-prepared individual boards of manageable dimensions are often the best method for showcasing past projects, especially if meeting with multiple members of a creative team, requiring examples to be passed around a conference table. A great deal of your talents and skills may be communicated to creative directors, art directors, editors, and others by the vehicle used to present samples.
The designer or illustrator not being totally upfront and honest in the representation and presentation of his work will get caught in an embarrassing situation. Exhibit only your own work in a portfolio showcasing creativity, talent, and skills. The Internet makes it way too easy for some to claim the work of others as their own. It has also created a very small world in which such intellectual property thefts are very publicly discovered on a regular basis. In addition, honestly represent technical abilities, industry recognition or awards, past work experience, and client lists. It is not difficult for a potential client to confirm any information presented as truth.
Give credit where due
Always give proper credit to those who have contributed to any project showcased in a physical or online portfolio of work. Be prepared to offer a detailed explanation of your own participation in projects included in a portfolio. Without being a “name dropper,” it is acceptable to mention interactions with well-known project directors, photographers, writers, and vendors when explaining projects. It is an opportunity to exhibit the collaborative skills often required in producing work for a new client.
Deliver the message
With a finely tuned and professional spiel— via cover letter, phone conversation, or in person— explain and justify your creative efforts. Test driving a portfolio presentation on an instructor, career peer, friend, family member, or spouse is a sure way to refine a sales pitch and eliminate performance anxiety jitters. “And then I produced this,” turning the portfolio page and again stating, “and then I produced this” does not best showcase skills and talents. Briefly define the project brief or requirements, express how the solution evolved, and share any known results. Don’t rush through the explanation of art or design examples, even if time restrictions are in place. A thorough explanation of portfolio pieces may be much more important than showing every piece in the book.
Engage in conversation
Ask questions. Engage the person conducting the portfolio review in conversation. Take advantage of the connection with the potential client to learn about the company, its industry, and its other design or art needs. A relaxed interaction with the individual reviewing work may result in a more successful outcome and the initiation of a long-term professional relationship.
Make reconnection simple
Make it as easy as possible for a potential client to reconnect if a suitable project arises. Provide a business card with a business phone number, email address, and website URL. A personal web presence is advised, but you can also establish an alternative online portfolio on sites such as designerID.com, Coroflot.com, Behance.net, designrelated.com, or iSpot.com. A personal blog displaying work or a social networking gallery, such as a career-specific Facebook page, are additional valid alternatives. “Leave behind” marketing pieces should also include all contact information. In fact, if the promotion piece has multiple removable pages, it is wise to have a contact number, email address, website URL, and address on each page. If a single page becomes separated from the primary marketing packet, the client still has the ability to readily make contact. An email signature with all necessary contact information, used in any cyber communication, will also make it easy for someone to quickly reconnect.
Practice “safe portfolio”
Designers and artists should never leave a portfolio of original work or precious limited samples with a potential employer or client. Scanning and digital photography make it easy to prepare a portfolio of acceptable project copies or images. Industry horror stories of original work being accidentally taken out with the trash, lost in the mail, or otherwise misplaced are reason enough to give serious consideration to not providing originals when work examples are requested. It may also be wise to produce two or three portfolios of scanned or photographed work, in preparation for multiple portfolio review requests at the same time. A well-designed, concise, and representative “leave behind” also eliminates the need for a potential client or employer to retain possession of a portfolio.
Provide subtle reminders
Marketing and promoting creative efforts is not a one-shot deal. After initiating contact with the source of possible work, expend energy and effort in cultivating a long-term relationship with the individual or company in question. With hundreds, possibly thousands, of designers or artists seeking work from a potential client, it’s necessary to stand out from the crowd. Make a quick re-introduction call every few months. Send an email featuring new work. Mail a quarterly postcard highlighting a specific project of interest. Include potential clients on press releases, holiday card mail, or email lists. Without blatantly interrupting the daily schedule of a potential client, it is possible to subtly remind them of your talent and availability.
Contact from a potential client may require an almost immediate response. At the same time, existing project commitments may be demanding nearly complete attention. Be prepared in advance to respond with pre-written email templates detailing the process used in executing work and links to online portfolios of specific examples. Have printed direct pieces or market packets ready to drop in the mail at a moment’s notice. The speed of responding to a need for additional information may determine whether a creative contract is finalized.
Maintain market awareness
While occasionally new clients do appear from out of nowhere, this isn’t always the case. To become a successful designer or illustrator, maintain an awareness of your target market. When a need arises, you will be ready to react and offer your services to a possible customer. Be aware of what is going on in the local community or within the boundaries of an industry of interest. Read daily newspapers and business publications. Use the Internet as the valuable resource it is. Network with business professionals, including those from other industries.
Always express appreciation
One of the best and most valuable marketing tools for any artist or designer is a simple, handwritten thank you note. Sending a personal note is not time-consuming or expensive, but it will make a lasting impression. Time is an incredibly valuable and limited commodity. When making use of the time of others, as is the case with an informational interview, take the time to show appreciation. Thank the industry professional who reviewed your portfolio. Make the effort to thank a client upon the completion of a project. You will be remembered when there is another design or illustration job to be done.
Making use of recommendations, such as those I’ve listed here, will get the attention of those in the position to contract or hire designers and illustrators. Patience is important in implementing such tactics. The results may not be immediate, especially if a business or organization doesn’t need specific talents or abilities at a given time. However, don’t be surprised if a month, year, or five years later contact is made and a great project or career-long business relationship results.
Jeff Fisher, author of Identity Crisis!: 50 Redesigns That Transformed Stale Identities Into Successful Brands (HOW Books, 2007), is the Engineer of Creative Identity for the Portland-based firm Jeff Fisher LogoMotives. A design veteran of over three decades, he has been honored with over 600 regional, national, and international design awards and is featured in over 140 books about logos, the design business, and small business marketing. His first book, The Savvy Designer’s Guide to Success was released in 2004 and has been reissued as a PDF on CD from www.mydesignshop.com. His book Logo Type: 200 Best Typographic Logos from Around the World Explained, about typography in identity design, was released in 2011.
Fisher serves on the HOW Magazine Board of Advisors, HOW Design Conference Advisory Council, and Art Institute of Portland Professional Advisory Council, and is a past member of the UCDA Designer Magazine Editorial Advisory Board. He also writes for HOW Magazine, other industry publications, and many webzines and blogs. In addition, Fisher is a nationally-recognized speaker, making numerous presentations each year to design organizations, design schools, universities, and business groups. Graphic Design USA magazine named Jeff Fisher one of the design industry “People to Watch” in 2009.