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Honing More than Your Craft

SEA is excited to have Jon Davis from Cushing join us for a series on creative professionals who have found success starting their own design firms. Here is the third article in the series. (Shared from SEA's former blog site)

Looking for a way to get past the holiday haze? Let’s jumpstart your January with another creative professional that has found success, in the world of freelance design.

The interesting thing about these question and answer sessions: the advice transcends graphic design and the arts. From developing project management skills to building a customer base, each contains valuable lessons, for anyone contemplating their next career steps.

For the latest contribution, we spoke with Bradon Webb, an experienced director and freelance graphic designer. Ready to venture out on your own? According to Webb, self-promotion is at least a part of the equation. Aspiring creative professionals may find they are honing more than their craft.

-What’s your social media strategy? -Will you attend networking events to earn new clients? -How will you market your business?

Webb ponders these questions as our three-part series with Illinois-based designers wraps up.

Bradon, thanks for talking about your experience and sharing advice.Could you tell us a little about your design business, and what you specialize in? I provide an assortment of services, mostly Creative Direction and Design for experience and physical installation, sometimes CG or Animation. My specialty is elevating the artistic sensibility on projects to create a more engaging experience for an audience. I use both creative and technical problem solving and team leadership skills to arrive at unique solutions that stand out from the crowd.

When did you realize you wanted to be a graphic designer?

Shortly after college I was exposed to the emerging field of motion graphic design. A few classmates ahead of me started a studio in Kansas City called MK12. That was my first internship and put me on the path I’m on today. They broke the formula of ‘safe design’ and produced work that had more personality. It was experimental, edgy, and subversive. This was the first time I felt that design could be both artistic and functional.

Did you work at an agency or company before starting your own business?

I was the Senior Creative Director at Leviathan for 8 years (since founding) before branching out on my own. I also worked at various other studios before that and have freelanced once before in my career.

When did you realize it was time to start your own design business?

It was both a long process, and also, a spontaneous one. It’s something I had thought about for several years, and then one day woke up and realized it’s time. There is a force that pulls us through life to make decisions and at times it’s mysterious and unknown. You have to submit to it in order to find out what it’s all about. I’m still figuring that out.

How did you earn your first client?

Personal connection with former colleagues.

When taking on a new client, how do you decide if they are the right fit?

Often times, I know their work already and have sought them out specifically, or it’s based on recommendations from friends. I’ll look through a company’s portfolio and see what projects they have done and if there are similarities to my work.

What’s your best advice for the freelancer or designer before they start a firm?

1) Having a great portfolio is important but it’s not the only thing. Personal connections and referrals are by far the best way to find new work and clients. Keep connected in the community and stay in touch with former colleagues..

2) Plan a social media strategy. This includes not only having a social media account, but staying active on it. Use social media not only as a means to share your work but also as a platform to amplify other things that you care about or find interesting. This is a great way for new clients to find you, to stay connected, and provide value to the community.

3) Do research and collect as many standard contract examples as you can. Running a business is about more than just the creative, but also all the financial, logistical, and legal details too. These can be overwhelming at first.

4) Embrace and prepare emotionally for change. Change is hard and the best way to prepare is having a positive attitude even when things don’t go exactly as planned. Have patience, and instead of trying to make a perfect plan just do the best you can do. Having a runway of at least 6 months savings is helpful to allow yourself some time to make these adjustments.

How do you manage client expectations prior to the start of a project? For instance, are there a set number of changes you agree to, before a project?

It’s all about communication. For a fixed bid situation, you need to get the clients on board with clear goals. When you have hazy goals, expectations and revisions can get out of control (and are costly. I try to define the checkpoints where I can communicate most effectively my vision for the project with the minimum amount of invested time.

I’m less concerned with the details as long as we’ve agreed to the broad strokes. The best thing is to put yourself in the clients’ shoes and be their advocate. If you serve as their advocate, you’ll both share the same goal and get a lot fewer revisions. In general I like to hit the mark of one or two revisions per milestone.

If you could go back in time, and do one thing over when getting started, what would it be?

Make more connections, do speaking engagements, volunteer, and do outreach at industry or networking events.

Thanks again to the team at Self Employment In the Arts for the opportunity to contribute. Have more questions? Ideas for a follow up interview? Or future content you would like to see? Please leave your feedback in the comments section.

Jon Davis is in the marketing department at Cushing, a display graphics firm celebrating 90 years in business. From environmental branding and custom vinyl lettering, to decorative window film in an office space, Cushing works with creative professionals, artists and designers in Chicago and throughout the United States.

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