Marketing Approaches for the Graphic Design Industry

How to approach business and marketing, for graphic designers is a tough and necessary question. I have been a designer and know a lot of people in the industry. As President of Savannah College of Art and Design Alumni in Atlanta, I see the questions and needs all the time. It’s hard to grasp all the business needs if what you went to school for is art or design. But if you’re going to do any art professionally, there are things you should understand. Here’s a primer, some tips and common questions for going out on your own in business that might help:
One of the biggest questions and dilemmas is targeting: So how does a designer know what industry/people to target? An obvious approach is “local,” but in a saturated market that can only get you so far. There’s always talk about becoming a “knowledge expert;” a specialist in a specific industry. But this is more obvious for copywriters than designers.

But if a designer can build a library of infographics and stock photos, (s)he can make a case as a “visual expert” for a specific target industry. And then reinforce that projection by going to those industry-specific functions, networking events, conferences, etc.

A big thing here it to know the difference between horizontal vs. vertical business: Horizontal means for example you create infographics for everyone in every business. Vertical means you provide overall graphic design, brochures and websites for the doggy daycare industry (which is actually a growing market – pay attention to growing vs. declining markets – Google Finance can help you identify those). This is what a lot of business & marketing books (even for designers) say (realize however that there’s always more to it than the books say).

But it all comes back to supply, demand and cost of services. For example there may be no other designers targeting plumbers, but then plumbers may not have budgets to pay for custom design. So research and know all of these possibilities for client industries.

A big thing to ask is: How can you sell? If you aren’t a people person, and just can’t sell, then you’d better find a referral source, a freelance sales person, or do a lot of marketing (and marketing is most cost-effective when you target a specific market or industry).

If you get a business/sales partner, okay but you’d better be sure you can afford it. Giving someone 50% of $25k a year isn’t going to make sense. Giving a freelance salesperson 15% of all the business they bring you makes more sense (if you can find a good person who will work for that cheap). Or you could do something like incentivize copywriters and web developers to refer business to you for 5-15% – tell them upfront that’s your policy. Remember that typically the best business comes via WOM (word of mouth), and it can cost you a lot of time and money acting as salesperson (that doesn’t mean don’t do it, just be aware).

I tell my GSU Social Media Marketing students to demonstrate that they are “growing knowledge sources” – becoming experts – in a field of their interest by blogging about it, spotlighting that in their LinkedIn profiles, creating YouTube videos and presentations about that industry, etc. By focusing your digital footprint around one specific industry, you can paint yourself as knowing the ins and outs of that industry, even if you don’t have a lot of experience in it. So for example if I’m a potential client in the construction industry, and am looking at two different designers with equal experience, I’ll pick the one who talks all about the construction industry in blogs, social media, has construction imagery on their website and Pinterest accounts, etc.

The biggest fear for designers (and other pros) is, “But if I narrow my scope to just one industry, won’t other people think I can’t design for them because I only do construction?” The traditional marketing answer to this question is that you’ll always get the friends and people nearby who are looking for design work for a lawyer (WOM) – but the further you get outside of that immediate sphere of influence – where people don’t know you – you have to be ready to demonstrate your knowledge of them and their problems. So the thought is that you should still get the lawyers or dentists who know of you anyway. Even if your website is full of construction projects.

Show people testimonials and case studies. It’s obvious, but so few people think that way right off the bat. Show people immediately that other people like the work you do, show that you did some successful projects, projects THAT SOLVED OTHER PEOPLE’S PROBLEMS! Show that you do work to help clients – NOT ART FOR ART’S SAKE! No one cares about Cleos if the ads sold nothing or viewers couldn’t remember the brand name.

Design unfortunately has become a commodity – so find a tangential service you can provide clients to make money. Don’t just design the website, know how to build it (or have dependable relationships with cheap web developers you hire). Or do the writing, too. Or the videography and social media/video site posting. Or know how to buy ad space and place the ad you design. Have another profit center than just design or art.

Always think networking – find networking organizations where your clients could be – not designer networking organizations – you won’t get work from designer organizations (unless you’re the cheapest and best designer in the room looking to work for other designers really cheap or intern for free).

Pay attention to how others label and describe you. When my former business partner Steve Chalk and I had a design firm in the early ’00s, we thought of ourselves as a ‘brand and identity design firm.’ But others kept calling us a web design firm. We did some websites but didn’t think of ourselves that way. But if others were referring us as a ‘web design firm,’ then we had two choices: Either own and project that label for business, or swim upstream and try to project and be something else.


-Jake Aull, Zen Fires Digital Marketing