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Venturing Out to Create a Design Business

Every designer has a story to tell. How do you create opportunities to share it? The AIGA (the Association for Professional Designers Illinois Chapter) offers a mentorship program, which connects creative professionals with local businesses and education opportunities. In April, Cushing partnered with Mohawk Paper, exploring digital printing possibilities with an audience including students, graphic designers, and business owners. Having recently launched a freelance design firm, Travis Gerhart attended to uncover creative opportunities. Specifically, he wanted to know how he could better help his growing customer base.

How did he start? There were many lessons: from shattering comfort zones and attending networking events, to understanding how social media could generate new business. It was a steep learning curve, but he would not have it any other way. We decided to stay in touch and the conversation moved to LinkedIn.

Following up on his experience in the Cushing graphics lab, dialogue shifted to a potential interview. What drove him to prepare and build a business from scratch? What were the project goals? Travis was eager to share knowledge and his experience. Below is the session, with insights and nuggets from this new business owner and graphic designer. Travis, we really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today! Excited to be a part of this conversation.

Can you share a little on your personal background, where did you grow up and go to school?

I grew up on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. After graduating from Houghton High School, I went to college at Northern Michigan University. I ultimately finished my degree in the Chicago area after a lengthy transfer process.

How long have you been in graphic design?

I started designing posters for the on-campus DeVos Art Museum at NMU in 2007-08 while getting my degree. I worked as a museum guard but was thrilled to help create promotional material while still learning the craft.

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

It took a while for me to realize that I could pursue Art & Design as a viable career path. I always loved art and computers in high school, but it didn't click until my sophomore year of college that it was a realistic option for me.

Which fields do you specialize in? Digital, print, environmental, or all types?

I specialize in printed material, especially wide format printed vinyl used in the vehicle wrap industry. I also specialize in hand lettering, illustrations and mural work.

Before you decided to move forward with your business, where did you work?

I spent several years as a Graphic Artist with Whole Foods Market and more recently as a Graphic Designer at a local shop in the vehicle wrap industry. My time at Whole Foods gave me great experience lettering and illustrating with water-based markers on windows, floors and chalkboards while following strict style guides when it came to designing material for print and web. Going from a big company to a small local one was a great change of pace and helped me grow as a designer and an entrepreneur.

How did you decide it was the right time to venture out on your own?

I always knew it was something I wanted to pursue but leaving a stable job is difficult. When my wife and I had our second child, my solo venture got pushed to the forefront. Daycare, preschool and all other logistics were substantial and my willingness to play the part of the “Design Dad” helped make the decision seem natural. Now you can find me caring for my two kids while finding pockets of time to create impactful designs to push my brand forward.

What are some challenges of getting started? (expected and unexpected)

If you're like me, you might be familiar with something called analysis paralysis. There can be so many choices it can be completely overwhelming at times. I think the biggest challenge comes from within, and by that, I mean overcoming your inaction, focusing your energy, planning and taking small concrete steps to get things rolling. You don't need a solution to all possible hypotheticals before you even start. Be comfortable and confident in yourself; you got this!

What are some benefits? (expected and unexpected)

For me the single biggest benefit is flexibility, which is to be expected given my situation. An unexpected benefit is being able to connect to people as an entrepreneur and not just a designer. I find myself listening and learning from people who may have nothing to do with design but have great insight on this business side of things. It's especially helpful during the potentially awkward networking events.

How are you connecting with new customers (and prospects) for your business?

Against the will of my inner introvert, I regularly attend events with a networking component. I engage in several different creative communities, both in person and online, to surround myself with peers in similar industries for advice and guidance. I'm active on a few websites based around submitting proposals for potential projects with new clients. I seek out ideal clients on social media and make first contact to get the conversation started. I basically just reach out and mention that I'm a freelance graphic designer to anyone that will listen, after I praise something specific that resonated with me of course.

Have 2 – 3 tips to share on managing customer expectations? (before a project)

Be honest, be honest, be honest! Get out in front of any potential issues that could arise and address them before they become a problem. Timeline, budget, and deliverables are among the most common issues in my experience. Explain the whole process and be clear about deadlines, backup plans, payment and anything else that could throw a wrench in the execution of a project. Ask lots of questions so things are flushed out sooner rather than later, it'll make everything go much smoother.

AND after the project starts?

If something does come up that changes the whole trajectory of a project, get the backup plans solidified and break the news to the client/customer right away. Usually being honest and upfront is the most successful route here.

What’s your top 3 pieces of advice for the freelancer or small graphic design firm BEFORE they start a business?

Ask yourself the questions you'd ask a client for a branding project. Can you rattle off an elevator pitch explaining your business?

What kind of work do you want to create? Don't be afraid to niche down and get specific when it comes to industry, services, and subject matter. Keep learning! There are so many amazing communities, books, podcasts, and videos filled with crazy awesome value that it'd be criminal to start a business without checking them out first.

Travis, are there any other comments or advice you would like to share?

This spring I was a mentee in the AIGA Chicago Mentor Program: Being A Better Freelancer and it was a game changer. My mentor, Jack Muldowney of Studio Malt, deserves a shout out for making it such a rewarding session. The design community here in Chicago is totally amazing and I want to join them in sharing knowledge and value when asked. So, consider this my open-door policy to field questions from those looking for perspective in the industry.

Thanks for reading. If you have any thoughts, ideas or questions about freelancing, share them in the comments! It helps shape content for future interviews.

Jon Davis is in the marketing department at Cushing, a digital printing company located in River North. Their team works with creative professionals in Chicagoland and throughout the United States.

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