Designer Vs. Design Entrepreneur

It’s no surprise that many design graduates strive to eventually branch out on their own, to start their own businesses. After all, it’s much sexier to call yourself an XYZ entrepreneur rather than an XYZ designer. But just how different is it to run a business as compared to simply practising your specialist trade?

Creative Industry Specialists

Disclaimer – The term “designer” used in this article is a blanket term. When I say “designer”, I mean to include all the creative industry specialists. “Specialists” here include photographers, videographers, writers, graphic designers, multimedia designers, web designers, fashion designers, editors, painters, sculptors, layout artists, etc. Hence, for the purpose of this article, the term “designer” shall be use as a blanket term to represent all these professions.

Designers spend a lot of money, not to mention countless years and sleepless nights to learn their chosen craft. As a result, they become very good at what they do. They’ve mastered the usage of all the specialised design tools. They’ve developed an “eye” for design. They even know how to make a design “pop”… So with all these skills under their belt, their services are definitely worth a lot of money, right?… Well… Not exactly!…

It’s true that they know “how” to do a design, and “what” to do for a design. Unfortunately, they may not know “why” they’d want to do something specific for a design… And no, they don’t teach you the “why’s” in art schools. Interestingly though, the “why’s” are taught in business schools… A school that no designer in their right mind would enrol into…

What Do Clients Really Want In The Real World?

I’ve personally encountered several instances, where clients “think” they know exactly what they want. However, in reality, they don’t really know what they want at all.

I call this a cause and effect equation. Clients want an effect to occur. Let’s assume that they want to elevate their brand identity in cyberspace. They think that all they need is a beautiful website, complete with all the bells and whistles. And by this, I mean all the widgets, gizmos, sliding images, lot’s of colours, and lot’s of information… lot’s of information… They think that by having such a website (the cause), they’ll attract visitors to their website, and drive their brand identity up (the effect).

So going with their logic, all they need to do is to engage a web designer to build a very attractive website (the cause). And with an attractive website, visitors will throng in, and drive their brand identity up (the effect).

Unfortunately, this is far from the truth… Very far from the truth… The most likely effect will be that not many visitors will come. And the few that actually do come, they don’t hang around very long either.

So what went wrong?… They’ve engaged an experienced web designer, who knows what to design, and just how to design an attractive website. What they don’t have, is the reason why visitors don’t throng to visit your website…

“I’ve Got A Beautiful Website, Stuffed Full With All The Features That Money Can Buy, So Why Is My Visitor Count Still So Low?…”

To answer this question, we first must understand why people are attracted to something in the first place. First up, understand why you are attracted to something, and not something else. After all, we’re all consumers (i.e. information consumer). So what attracts us to a particular website, and not to others?…

Human beings are visual creatures. We’re attracted to images that are colourful and high contrast. But we’re also highly impatient too. The average visitor will stay on any given page for 10 to 20 seconds. If they see something that they like, they’ll probably hang around longer, and read the whole page. But if the initial page (top of the page) doesn’t attract them, they’ll be in and out in a flash.

Yes, we’re all attracted to colourful and moving images. But don’t go overboard and flood your whole page with all these elements. You’ll risk visual sensory overload, and visitors will still leave your page, even before finish reading.

In essence, the cause (too much/little attraction) on any given webpage will effect in low visitor count.

So How Do You Achieve Your Objectives?

Always start with the effect first, not the cause. In the example above, the client wants to drive the visitor count to their website up. So in order to do that, they first need to understand why visitors want to visit certain websites. And for that, no amount of design education or experience can help a designer to understand. What they need is an understanding on the human psychology, which isn’t normally taught in design courses. Fortunately though, if a designer is exposed to the feedback loop long enough, they’ll eventually learn it… But only if they’re open to absorbing new knowledge outside of their specialty.

Unfortunately, only a handful of these designers learn enough of this additional knowledge. That, or they’re unwilling to practise them, as it’ll lead them further away from what they do best – design.

You see, designers are specialists. They’re best at what they do. And they take pride in being able to deliver the best design possible, under any circumstances. However, what’s best for them (visually) may not be enticing enough to draw visitors (viewers) in. Especially when the design is choked full of all the bells and whistles… In the world of design, sometimes less is actually more. Unfortunately, most clients can’t see past “I want a very attractive design (or website)…”

The Business Of Design, And Other Artistic Professions

Being a professional designer is a pride and joy. It’s an ambition that many young design students strive to become when they graduate. Unfortunately, the problem that these fresh design graduates face are two pronged. The first one is that being able to design something so artistic and beautiful doesn’t necessarily result in commercially successful applications. The second, which is more disheartening, is that they’d end up competing with their fellow brethren for the same slice of cake.

They’re good at what they do, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just that understanding how a design will translate to raising the brand identity is a whole different ballgame altogether.

Back in the day when I was a professional photographer, I had my head up in the cloud most of the time. I liked – no, loved – photography, and I dare say that I’m very good at it too. Earning a living doing what I loved best was like a dream come true… Unfortunately, for me at least, running a business of photography was something that I was very unfamiliar with… Balancing how to best translate the images that the clients want, and getting paid for achieving the actual commercial results were often difficult.

The biggest problem was (and still is) that when I delve deep into the nitty-gritty, technical and artistic details of the photography work, I lose sight of the big picture – the business of photographic services.

So to bring this into perspective, the same thing happens across the whole range of artistic and design businesses. Either you specialise in what you do best, and die of starvation due to business failure, or you give your clients the best of what they need (not want), and distance yourself away from doing the things that you love best.

“Thank You For The Doom And Gloom, So What’s The Solution?…”

Fact – the designers are best at what they do. Fact – delivering the effect that the clients want requires business acumen. Hence, the best way forward (both satisfaction and commercial result) is to combine these two talents together.

To start with, you need a client liaison, a coordinator, a mastermind. One who can communicate with the clients, and interpret what they actually need (not want). And translate all those requirements into achievable objectives that the individual designers can work on. Then ultimately, coordinate the individual designer’s work so that they all fall neatly into place, to address the clients’ needs.

If the clients are willing to work with a perfectly choreographed symphony orchestra, they’ll ultimately achieve their commercial objective. Unfortunately, there’s a catch…

“Why Should I Engage A Whole Team Of People When I Only Need One Specific Job Done?…”

We’ve all encountered them before, the client from hell… They seem to think that they’re knowledgable enough to coordinate the creative work directly with the designers (or designer). For example, if the client wants to set up a website, all they do is to engage a web designer.

First of all, they think all they need a website, when they actually want to boost their brand awareness, and ultimately their sales. So they engage a web designer to design a beautiful website around their brand, and fill it up to the brim with all the bells and whistles. Then they just sit back and wait for the visitors to come, and sales to increase… Except that sales doesn’t go up, and the number of visitors chart barely climbs at all.

So what happens after that?… They start blaming the poor web designer, saying that his/her work was below par… Now that’s really unfair, because the web designer delivered everything according to the client’s instructions… Faulty and misunderstood instructions… The vicious cycle then continues, by engaging other “better” designers… And we all know how it’ll all end…

What the client should have done was to engage in a coordinator, a consultant. Discuss their wants and needs with the consultant, and then leave it to the consultant to coordinate with his team of designers. Of course, the price will be much higher than engaging a specialist designer directly. But would you want to keep repeating the failure cycle indefinitely?… I sure hope not…

And for the love of everything that’s good in life, pay the creative team what they’re worth. Never, never, never skimp on the budget by engaging an amateur to do a professional’s job. If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait till you hire an amateur

So Who’s The Best Candidate To Do Your Design Job – A Specialist Designer, Or A Design Team Entrepreneur?

At the end of the day, all the clients want is to achieve their objectives. More often than not, it’s to spend the minimum amount of money to achieve the maximum amount of returns. But even then, don’t shortchange yourself by engaging a cheaper option than a comprehensive service provider. You’ll end up either :-

(a) paying a higher price only once, for a comprehensive service that will achieve your objectives, or

(b) paying a lower price multiple times, to a specialist designer(s) and still not achieve your objective.

So those are your options. Now go forth and choose wisely…

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