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.
It takes guts to go out on your own.
Drumming up new business. Managing client expectations. Keeping up with technology.
Dreamed of starting your own design firm? Planning to plunge into the depths of freelance design? How does one get started? We decided it could make for an interesting topic – and reached out to Chicago-area designers for their stories, lessons, and advice. Together, three graphic designers from very different backgrounds, interests, and disciplines provided insights. After attempts to trim these amazing responses, it was clear each interview deserved more.
So here we are: a one-time contribution to Self Employment in the Arts has transformed into a series of articles.
First up? Erin Bonham, a designer who specializes in brand identity and print design. Bonham’s business has two branches: EB Creative Co., a creative design firm for corporate branding, and BoxBerry, a “punny” greeting card line. We recently had the opportunity to catch up with the versatile designer.
When did you realize you wanted to be a graphic designer?
As a kid, I would spend hours with learn-to-draw books and freestyle painting. I just liked making stuff without boundaries or rules. I’ve always enjoyed making art and I’m certainly a right-brained person.
My introduction to Graphic Design was in college, as part of a Business and Public Relations program. Later, I expanded my skills to illustration and print layout (now used to run my greeting card business). I continued to learn design skills in and outside of my corporate job.
When I’d spend weekends buried in design tutorials and books, it was easy to realize that this was my passion. I had that childhood feeling of creating stuff again.
So, you started out in the “corporate world” before starting your own business?
Yes. I worked in corporate marketing departments as a marketing manager and graphic designer. I started BoxBerry in 2013 and ran it while working full-time. It was difficult to juggle but by age 24, I had my mind set I was going to be working for myself by the age of 30 (a goal which I met by age 29).
How did you decide it was time to start your own design business?
I had the itch to start my own design firm once I had a base clientele. Soon, I was unable to take on new clients due to the full-time job. The spark was there: I had a fire lit under me and I just had to go for it.
Trust me, there was nothing easy about the beginning phases of self-employment. I took on a whole new set of responsibilities, stresses, and stomachaches but it all got easier with time! All the talk about “girl bosses” is nothing to glamorize. It’s not all balloons and cupcakes. It’s hard work - just boss will do.
How did you earn your first client?
Like many designers, I used a few online platforms. It started with simple logo designs for small businesses.
When taking on a new client, how do you decide if they are the right fit?
The best part about being your own boss is choosing the projects and clients. I ask myself several questions before accepting a new client:
1. Do I want this in my portfolio? Does it match my design style?
2. Does it challenge or excite me as an artist?
3. What is the client’s communication style, and will it be a positive working relationship?
I steer clear of clients that are rushed and communicate poorly (usually flagged with introduction meetings.) Sometimes, I just don’t like the style of a client’s brand, so I decline the offer and that’s totally okay!
What’s your top 3 pieces of advice for the freelancer or small graphic design firm BEFORE they start a business?
1. It’s all possible. Success stories about people working for themselves – it can totally be you. If you sense a natural fire to make a career out of what makes you happy, go for it! It’s a lot easier than watching the clock at a job you hate.
2. Record everything you do: Make a to-do list (in Word or Excel - something that’s easily adjustable) and review it every day. Categorize the list (administrative, client work, finance, billing, pending payments, etc.) and prioritize the list by deadline.
For every project, record every move you make with the date and time (for example: drafts sent, waiting for approval, hold for further direction). It helps you stay on track and be most efficient with time when you are aware of your moving deadlines.
3. Set your expectations high: Don’t be willing to take any project at any price because you feel you need the client – the client needs you. Great clients pay for quality work, at your price, without question.
If a client is trying to talk you down, stand your ground and be prepared with a list of reasons WHY you charge what you do. If you lose the client, move on.
How do you manage client expectations prior to the start of a project (for example do you have a set number of design revisions that are included with a project?
The introduction brief is so important to a successful working relationship.
Communication: Schedule a phone call, don’t just email. If you’re not comfortable making calls with clients, now is the time to start practicing. Customers appreciate confidence. You are developing relationships, not just providing a service. Designers are a dime a dozen - be different.
Direction & Deadlines: Gather the art direction, milestone deadlines, and revision allowance (specify what a “revision” is) before the project begins. There WILL be clients that try to squeeze more work out of you than included in the brief. It’s okay to say NO.
Pricing: Lay out estimated pricing at the beginning of the project so there are no “surprises” when you send the bill. Imagine if you got a bill for twice the expected amount – nobody wants that.
If you could go back in time, and “re-do” one thing when you started your firm, what would it be?
I’m a big believer in learning from mistakes and I’ve made so many - whether it’s business or personal. Marty McFly (Back to the Future) taught me that if I changed anything, it might throw the universe off. If I could go back in time, I’d go to the early phases of starting both businesses and simply tell myself “you got this.”
Hope you enjoyed this first interview. Will you use these ideas as you start your career? How are you starting to build relationships? Tell us in the comments below!
Jon Davis is in the marketing department at Cushing, a creative print shop and graphics lab in River North. A Chicago-based business since 1929, they work with graphic designers, art directors, artists, and creative professionals in Illinois and around the country.