Throwback Thursday: How to Build Your Network

Todd LeMieux by Donya Dickerson

An award-winning designer on getting and keeping clients

Graphic designer Todd LeMieux says his first big break was losing his job. “I worked for a small ad agency whose owner suffered from some serous health concerns. He abruptly closed the agency, and for the first time in my life I was unemployed. I called a handful of friends in the industry and a few small freelance clients I had on the side and told them, ‘Hey, I have a lot more time on my hands if you need any graphic design work.’ To my surprise, the jobs started coming in.”

LEGO_logoAnd they kept coming in. These days LeMieux keeps busy with clients who range from local businesses to Fortune 500 companies, and include everyone from LEGO to Motorola to the Connecticut Lottery. He’s also won several impressive awards, including an American Graphic Design Award for logo design, and awards from the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts and the Hartford Ad Club.

LeMieux’s career success is especially impressive concerning he originally had not planned on working as a designer. “I had gone through two other majors in college,” he says, “and I was taking a core (required) course that happened to be an art course. I loved it, and I was doing so well the instructor assumed I was an art major.” It was that professor who helped LeMieux realize art was the right path for him. “She convinced me that I had what it took and encouraged me to join the Art Department. I did . . . and here I am!”

One of the exciting benefits of working as a graphic designer, says LeMieux, is the ability to work with an interesting variety of clients and in a wide variety of media. “My portfolio includes samples of advertising and design executed in just about every form of media, including print, outdoor and online. I feel equally comfortable designing for banks, colleges and insurance companies as I do for microbreweries, record labels and art festivals. My portfolio reflects my diverse client base.”

emailAs LeMieux has grown his business, he’s developed many ways of reaching new clients and breaking into new types of markets for his design work. “I run advertisements; I send direct mail (postcards) and e-mail blasts; I cold call,” he says. “I am fortunate to have benefited greatly from word of mouth and referrals, but also from doing some marketing for myself—online and in the ‘real’ world with traditional advertising and direct mail.”

“But,” emphasizes LeMieux, “the best thing you can do is network. Don’t be a pest about it, but there is an art to networking that, if you learn it, can serve you well.” While networking is a skill that many artists, especially those just beginning their professional careers have difficulty with, LeMieux claims it is something anyone can do successfully. The trick, he believes, is talking to as many people as possible. “It’s a numbers game to a degree,” he says. “The more people you know, and the more business events and online resources you can participate in and plug into, the more likely you are to find out about possible projects, and the more visible you will be when a potential client is thinking about who to call.”

And of course, timing is key. There is a right time to network, and a wrong time. “I’m always open to networking possibilities,” says LeMieux, “but I try not to be pushy, greedy or forceful. I would not solicit business at a social function like a wedding.

Many artists also find that once they start building a client list, they are able to grow their business by asking for referrals from people with whom they’ve worked. This is another way LeMieux has been able to expand his own clientele. “I do occasionally ask or remind clients to refer me,” he says, “especially if they’re particularly enthusiastic about my work. But I have to say I’ve been very lucky. I think success comes from a combination of the quality of your work, your personality, and how many people you know.”

So what is the best way to ask for referrals, especially for people who prefer doing their art over doing business? Besides the obvious, which is directly asking for referrals, LeMieux believes the answer is providing your clients with top-quality work. “I’m sure in sales there’s a proper ‘technique’ for getting referrals, but I can’t say I have one or know of a certain way to get referrals. Be good at what you do and always strive to get better and learn more. Develop yourself (and not just your design skills, but yourself as an individual), because the more life experience you can bring into your work, the better it will be.”

LeMieux’s own ability to serve his diverse clientele flows from broad sources of inspiration. “Design is everywhere in our world,” he says. Of course, it takes a lot of research and imagination to fulfill each individual client’s needs.

When it comes to creating ads, logos and other designs for his clients, LeMieux takes the time to explore every design option that could possibly meet their business goals. “I start with input from the client, getting the usual info about target audience, the purpose or goal for the piece being created, and various other specifics like quantity and budget. All of these elements affect design decisions,” says LeMieux.

image“Then I begin to research, gather image and style inspirations, and start to develop some visual directions to then work out various design solutions. Sometimes I sketch things out and make notes; sometimes I jump right to the computer.” The Mac was just becoming part of the graphic design toolset when LeMieux was in college, so he knows how to work with paper and pen, or mouse. “But ideas and thinking always come first,” he says. “The computer is a tool, and software features—all the bells and whistles and power that we have at our fingertips—are not graphic design or ideas; they are a means to an end.”

As he creates work for his clients, LeMieux sticks to a basic design philosophy, which has served him well. “I like to think my work is clean, simple, pure design. No extraneous ‘stuff.’ No design just for the sake of design. Less is more,” he says. “I usually start with several different ideas/directions and continuously refine and narrow the focus, removing unnecessary elements until the final solution is the distillation of all the right elements.”

During the creative process, LeMieux also takes time to investigate the market. “I do research not only to see what’s out there for inspiration,” he says, “but also to avoid creating something that may already exist. A unique solution is important, particularly when considering copyright issues.”

Determining what fees to charge is part of the process, too. “I usually get as much information as possible about a project from the client and then provide an estimate based on that,” says LeMieux. His own fees vary “depending on the project and the client,” and he frequently consults The American Institute for Graphic Arts, which publishes an annual salary survey for what rates are typical for different positions, types of works and regions of the country. And for some of his clients, LeMieux is willing to negotiate, especially if it’s for a good cause. “I do a fair amount of pro bono work for causes I believe in, and I have donated or steeply discounted my fee for a startup business or a friend’s business.”

LeMieux’s favorite job so far has been one that combined two of his loves: graphic design and music. For this project, he was hired to design a logo for a new record label [Cordless Recordings] owned by the Warner Music Group, as well as several music CDs for bands on the label. Seeing his own design work in public is “pretty cool,” he says. “It’s still really neat to see my work out there in the world. I’ve seen CD’s I’ve designed in the racks at Tower Records, Virgin Megastores, Best Buy and other places that sell music. Sometimes I overhear someone comment favorably on the design. It’s a great feeling, very validating.”

Of course, when working with other people, sometimes things don’t always go well. LeMieux has had encounters with a few challenging customers. “Generally speaking,” he explains, “clients who don’t know what they want are difficult to handle. When I hear ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ I cringe. A client who says that may not be sophisticated enough to work with a professional graphic designer (which can be a lot of small or startup businesses), and/or they haven’t done their homework in regards to defining a particular project, which only makes my job more difficult.”

When it comes to working with tough clients, LeMieux offers the following advice: “Sometimes clients need education and explanation in order to ‘see the light.’ But you have to be open to input from a client, too. It can be invaluable, giving you another perspective, even if that perspective isn’t backed by the same design experience you possess. If I feel strongly about it, I try to stand my ground by explaining the decision-making process that led me to a certain design choice and why I still think it’s the best approach.”

Of course, there are times when clients either just don’t get it or become too demanding to work with. When this happens, “let them go,” says LeMieux. “They wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to you if they weren’t happy with something. Life is too short, and wasting time dealing with a difficult client has what’s called an opportunity cost associated with it. You’re potentially missing out on other opportunities while your energy and focus are directed toward that problem client/situation.”

One tough client he won’t fire, jokes LeMieux, is himself. He creates all his own promotional material, including postcards and his Web site (toddlemieux.com), which is a valuable tool for potential clients. The site includes his résumé, several samples from his portfolio, and, most importantly, contact information. Yet working for himself is never easy, he says. “Between being my own toughest critic and being too busy for myself, designing for my business can be challenging.”

But perhaps it is this high level of standards LeMieux has for himself that has helped him earn several awards from the design community. “Hopefully, an original design solution made my work stand out,” he says. “It feels great to win, especially because it’s usually a jury of my peers—people in the graphic design and advertising industries—making the selections. For fellow designers with presumably high standards to praise my work is very gratifying.”

LeMieux advises artists and designers who want to build a successful career in the advertising field to “live your life to its fullest! Experience all that you can, and let your work be inspired by all those experiences. Find that inspiration everywhere, in everything, and from every person you meet. Design is all around us, from the pattern in the ceiling tiles to the newspaper on your desk, to the graphics on the instrument panel of your car, to the signs on the streets. It surrounds us. Take it all in and add to your visual vocabulary.”

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2014 Artist's & Graphic Designer's Market

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