10 Tips For Selling Great Design Work
What is arguably the most satisfying part of being a designer? In my humble opinion, it is selling great work and having it produced as intended. I mean the kind of work you want to be known for and are proud of. No one wants to explain work in their portfolio by making excuses like, “Well, you shoulda seen the earlier rounds before the client butchered it.” No, you want to sell the recommended direction and have it come out exactly how you wanted it with all the intent and thoughtful care you put into it. No footnotes or caveats needed.
But how do we make that happen for ourselves? Is that just something that happens to the rock star designers out there? Maybe. It is easier for them because they already have social cache and clients likely seek them out for the style they’re known for. However, I actually believe it’s something everyone can achieve with some perspective and realistic goals.
This whole question of “how to sell great work” started for me with the never-ending experiment of how many design options to show a client and how to get them to go with the recommended direction. My business partner, Ron and I started our own design studio so we could work with clients we like and see eye to eye with, but also to produce the kind of work we want to be known for, not just work that pays the bills. Getting work produced in it’s pure & intended form is something we at ITAL/C still have yet to perfect though in our 4 years as a design studio (and over 15 years as creative professionals). Alas, we are constantly getting better with every new client and every new project. Here are some things that I have learned so far.
Like most things in life, the first step is acceptance. You must accept that you will never completely get your way, for you offer a client service and you are not the client. It’s ok though, that’s why you got into design: to help other brands become successful and thus give value to visual arts and make the world a better place. Right? Accept that you are not an artist, you are in the client services business, the commercial art business.
Charity work should be easy to get whatever you want produced — after all, the client is usually getting the work free of charge. We have had great experiences working with non-profits like the Surfrider Foundation and 826LA because they always appreciate and champion great design work.
2. Great minds think alike.
That leads to the next goal: find the right client. It’s always best to start with a level of respect and trust off the bat. Make sure the client already likes your work so they know what to expect visually on some level. When a client already loves what you do, it will always be easy to sell through your work as long as you are proud of it. After starting a design studio with no clients at first, we realized quickly two things:
1. Sometimes referrals from friends are great. A friend knows a client with a specific need that you happen to be an expert in, the client loves your work and is a fan of your style. Cupid strikes again.
2. Sometimes referrals are the worst way to get projects. “I know someone who can design a logo!” Referrals can lead to terrible misalignments on projects if the client came to you based on a blind recommendation versus seeking you out because of your work, style or aesthetic.
Our redesign of Reebok Rally was a great example of a referral truly working out for us. We had worked with the client at Reebok at a previous job, so she knew our process and trusted our aesthetic and ability to deliver on a larger project scope. Trust is a key ingredient in any working relationship.
3. Do your homework.
Research is a crucial phase in the design process. Remember, reasoning and logic always win. Know your client and their brand. Know the target audience. Know the competitive landscape. If you can back up your design work with a true understanding of these elements, convincing your client to follow your lead becomes a much easier task. At ITAL/C, we will always do a round (or more) of “brand therapy” and mood boarding before putting pen to paper with actual designs. It just helps to get to know the brand and get a better understanding of what the client likes before they are judging your work. Going through this process will always set a good foundation for any project, big or small.
4. Evolution vs. Revolution.
Know who you are designing for. Being able to read and understand your client’s needs is an art, but it’s also not rocket science. Sometimes a brand is ready and willing to go out on a limb and try something new. Sometimes they need a baby step toward something better, using existing brand elements and assets. Listen to your client. They need your help, but first you need to find the problem. The key is learning what the true need is, balanced with what they think they want. When showing design options, we’ll typically start with safer directions that are in the client’s current wheelhouse. Then ease into some other directions that may take them out of their current comfort zone, but they may actually love because they appreciate how we arrived at those solutions.
When it came to working with Google on their Made W/ Code rebrand, we were not tasked with a complete brand revolution, but rather a brand evolution. These assignments are always a tricky balance of pushing for something new and different, while also respecting the current brand look & feel and complimenting it wherever possible.
5. Use the force.
Jedi mind tricks and inception are key ingredients in dealing with a lot of client types — particularly clients with strong opinions of their own. Just know that fighting fire with fire is always a losing battle. In our experience, the key is to check your ego and help it be their idea. Ease them gently into directions you know are the right solution. Maybe they told you up front that they don’t want a drastic change with their rebrand, but you know they need one. Show them what they asked for up front, then set up the completely new (and recommended) direction as if the expected work led down that path and felt like a natural progression. It also helps to remind clients that they are in control, it is their brand. You are offering your creative services, suggestions and expertise, but it is ultimately their decision. This is not a science, it is an art form. May the force be with you.
Sometimes a client is looking for variety. In the case of rebranding Dollar Shave Club’s monthly print publication, The Bathroom Minutes, we explored various design directions based on different visual themes at first. Once we honed in on one specific logo and design motif, that look & feel was applied to everything else that followed.
6. Quality over quantity.
We are always running into the dilemma of what options to share with a client and how many — especially in the first round with a new client. You want to impress them with all the great stuff you’ve worked so hard on and to show them the depth and breadth of diverse options you’ve explored. On the other hand, you don’t want to overwhelm them. When you make it difficult for a client to decide on one single option, it makes it easier for them to try to combine options or borrow bits and pieces from each one creating a Frankenstein of your designs. As flattering as that may be, we all know that is not a good thing.
Sometimes it’s best to share one recommended option that you want to have produced. You heard me; just show one. Sure, it’s a bold move and they may want to see more or have changes for you in the next round, but at least you have started them on one direct path that is clearly what you recommend. Now just make sure it looks awesome.
The Doughroom was a great success story for us only showing the client one design direction in the first round. We made sure that everything made sense strategically and the execution was on point. Having things so buttoned up and thoroughly considered early on only strengthened our case and the client was on board with our recommend from the get go.
7. Have an opinion.
If you see the potential of an idea or direction, share it, show them what it looks like in context, sell them on it. As humble or insecure as you may be, remember that you are being paid for your expertise in your creative field. Demonstrate your expertise by thoughtfully and clearly communicating your vision. Clients want to hear your opinion. Whether they choose to listen and follow your lead is another thing.
8. Be rational, not emotional.
It’s not good enough to say you like something better and to trust you because you are the expert (even though that may be a valid argument). You must backup your recommendation with research and proven case studies. Non-creative clients typically respond to results and often are timid to make a creative decision because they lack confidence in their own taste and aesthetic. Again, they need reasoning to push them into an informed decision.
9. Be original.
This should go without saying, but it needs to be said regardless. The world of design — and anything creative in general, is a much bigger place these days while at the same time also a smaller place with the internet. It’s harder than ever to be original, but it’s important to make sure your work is unique and indistinguishable from other competitive brands. Use the internet to make sure you are not doing similar work to something else out there, not to copy others. Protect yourself by doing a Google image search of your designs before presenting to the client to make sure there is nothing too similar out there. If your work is derivative of others, someone will notice. I don’t know what is worse: the client seeing what work you have intentionally or unintentionally imitated or the original author of said work finding out later. Point being, always strive to be original in all of your creative work. Good things will follow.
On the flip side, sometimes a client will not want you to make original work for their brand. After all, it is easier and in some ways safer to do what is expected and repeat the successes of others. To that, you must defend original work by acknowledging similar work by competitors and pointing out that being original will strategically help them stand out in the market. Originality benefits everyone in the long run.
10. Flawless execution.
It all starts with the quality of your work and the effort you put into it. A more complete idea is easier to sell to the client. Don’t ask your client to envision something you did with something you didn’t do yet — They won’t understand that the logo will look better once you finesse the line work a little more or try a different color scheme later. “Just wait til you see what it looks like on a t-shirt and the signage. It will look better letter-pressed.” Show them everything you have in mind in context (within the project scope of course), make everything you share look as polished as you can get it. “Leave it all on the field,” as they say in football. Putting your heart into your work and going the extra mile to make something you are proud of shows. It makes it easier for you to stand behind your work and sell it through when you love what you do and believe in it. Clients can sense it too, it’s infectious. It’s hard to not have good ideas produced when your work speaks for itself. Great design always wins. Period.
Words by Matt Titone, all design work examples by ITAL/C