Strategic advice for creatives
Curiosity may kill the cat, but it fuels creative professionals. It may even be the reason you are on the career path you are on right now—trying and learning new things often leads to a web of uncharted roads for those who are up to the challenge. Curiosity is a fantastic trait for the right-brained part of design, but it is also a crucial component to building a successful business or reputation as a designer.
Without doing the “homework” to understand your clients, their industries and their needs, you will not be able to win them over with your design skills alone. As Megan Leonard, senior designer at Antenna, puts it, “Any talented designer can bust out an awesome-looking website.”
But can that awesome-looking website fully alleviate your clients’ pain points, help them rise to the top of their industry and/or surpass their goals? Without the designer having a full understanding of the clients’ brand and product, let’s be honest—it’s highly doubtful.
To help your firm stand out among others vying for the job, it is crucial to be continually curious about the industries you serve. Nobody wants to buy a car from a salesman who does not know a muffler from a carburetor. When hiring someone, you want the best person suited for the job. Why wouldn’t your clients expect the same level of expertise when commissioning your services?
Sellability extends beyond mechanical basics pertaining to aesthetics and rules of the trade. If you want to design an experience that is true and unique to each brand you work with, “it takes time up front to dig into the data, competitive set, and overall industry trends,” Leonard says.
As a senior designer, Leonard’s work focuses on the overall brand and customer experience through digital design. She leads the creative and web design teams at Antenna, launching more than 75 B2B and ecommerce experiences thus far.
Without this in-depth knowledge, this context, it is difficult to discern how your firm’s work would differ from another’s cookie-cutter proposal laden with what Kevin Groome refers to as “shop-worn solutions.” The founder and chief evangelist of Pica9 is also an award-winning creative director, a software architect and a serial entrepreneur. “Understanding the industry is a huge part of doing the work. It takes intellectual stamina and a healthy dose of curiosity,” he says.
“Understanding the industry is a huge part of doing the work. It takes intellectual stamina and a healthy dose of curiosity.”
— Kevin Groome, Pica9
Groome believes the absence of this understanding is often the biggest contributor to mediocre designs and lackluster results. “I have always found clients deeply appreciative of any attempt that creatives make to truly understand the industry, the competitor set and, perhaps most importantly, the history of communications within the industry.”
He is right. Your clients want to see design that looks, feels and speaks like their brand. Anything less-than runs the risk of coming off as a hack job.
That is why Leonard says you should start by diving into a client’s branding and existing collateral to “not only get an understanding of the look and feel, but how they position themselves.” This allows you to see a client’s industry through their perspective and be able to apply your expertise to identify “gaps, differences, negatives, positives, new and emerging technology, and more on the client’s side and from their competitors.”
Leonard says from there it is about spending time digging into the competitive set to pull out details and performing customer interviews to lay the groundwork. “If it’s a website or product,” Leonard shares, “getting analytics and insights around performance, interactions, and goals can help spark or solidify decisions around solutions rather than assumptions or requests coming from the client.”
Attracting dream clients
Hans Hofmann once said that “Design is the intermediary between information and understanding.” Just as you use design to connect the consumer to your client’s desired messaging, also use it to guide your business in a desirable direction with special emphasis on the types of clients you serve (and want to serve).
What’s your specialty? What types of projects have you excelled at and enjoyed doing? Which topics intrigue and inspire you?
As you grow within your discipline, it is natural to gravitate toward one industry or area of specialty. After all, it is much easier to build upon existing knowledge and research than it is to start fresh with a completely different type of client each time.
Establishing your authority within a niche is an oft-suggested tactic for various businesses, and it does not exclude creative endeavors—especially when there is a bottom line on the line.
In viewing your company’s brand in the same light that you view the problems you solve every day for clients, it becomes clear that establishing a target customer, their path to your services, and their desire for top value, will help you pitch and deliver the best work.
The best way to get to know an industry? Simply immerse yourself in it.
For Groome, launching a storytelling platform in a crowded market meant his firm dug deep to find an opening—real deep. Surface-level market research on publishing tools is one thing, but effectively simulating the life of a full-time blogger opens a whole other realm of insight on the user experience. “We signed up for dozens of free trials, located almost as many potential partners, viewed and engaged with thousands of social media posts.”
Groome says his team also printed out and displayed any visual or design approaches that struck them, first as useful, and second as intriguing. “The result wasn’t just a new design or positioning statement. We ended up turning the client’s original product vision in a whole new direction. There’s nothing more fun than partnering like that. Sometimes, the client doesn’t know what they want or need until the expert (you) shows them.
Additionally, no matter how deep you dive into an industry or your craft, keeping the thread of curiosity, paired with humility, will serve you well.
The key is to keep an open mind and be receptive to learning new things. “Not everything is going to be a portfolio piece, and not every client is going to be the most pleasant to work with,” Leonard says. “However, identifying opportunities within the experience to improve your design process, your firm’s process, interactions with clients, and the way you deliver work, will make you a better designer with each project.”
Approach every problem as a student, a novice, an entry-level employee eager to learn and contribute and succeed. Getting back to basics as the “student” allows preconceived thoughts to disappear and to look at each new client with a fresh perspective, renewed interest in the industry, and a curious, problem-solving attitude.
“Identifying opportunities within the experience to improve your design process, your firm’s process, interactions with clients, and the way you deliver work, will make you a better designer with each project.”
— Megan Leonard, Antenna