Monday, September 10

Taking Care of The Business End of Design, Part I: Show Me the Money...please?

Guest Contributor: Dagmar Jeffrey

Like many folks, I learned my trade from attending a university with a solid design program. One that had award winning industry professionals as part of their administrative staff. To boot, I graduated cum laude, believing that it would give me an additional leg up over the competition when I entered the job hunting market. The purpose of investing a great deal of time, all nighters and finances in my design education was to prepare me for the wonderful, lucrative world of professional design.

Well, I was sure in for a jolt of reality. Although my education did instill a strong creative foundation, what it didn't require was for me to learn the business end of design. It never occurred to me that I would need to learn how to market myself, or to avoid business models that worked on spec. It didn't teach me how to legally protect myself and my creations. The world of business and the world of academia were two completely different motivated beasts. In a way, one can say that because of the distinctions, I ended up feeling as though I were tossed to the corporate wolves with a juicy flank steak tied to my back.

Whether one wants to work for a company or break into the business as an entrepreneur, it's every designer's duty to learn how to market their services. It's not just about having a stellar looking portfolio. It's about presentation, researching the prospective employer's needs and learning how to negotiate for a competitive salary. For example, whenever the sordid topic of coin came up during an interview, more often than not I was asked how much I was looking to make. Savvy move that, putting the pressure on a professional novice. They knew that I would probably end up doing one of three things.

1. Lowball myself. I figured that so long as I got the job, my pay would eventually increase to a more commensurate range. As I painfully learned, a fair share of good businesses practiced employing a revolving door of cheap, inexperienced labor. One of their favorite "parting" shots with designers who finally wised up to this inequity was giving the "you can always be replaced" line. Regardless whether the replacement is sufficiently skilled to do the job, they usually ended up being right.

If it's a small or unknown business, walking away may be the best choice, rather than risk a dead end job scenario. But if it's a desired position in a very good company, one has to sit down and consider whether or not the return will justify the means. For example, let's say the company is a big firm that promises a raise a few months down the line (after a formal review or probation period). Is the risk of not getting what they promise after the time passes worthwhile? Some would argue yes, because if the promise wasn't met for whatever the reason, you can always look for another job, with the prestige of the firm in your resume as leverage for a better paying starting salary elsewhere. The trick here however, is to read the writing on the wall and know when you're not really going anywhere, or making what you should.

2. Put the ball back in their court and let them establish the salary. Makes sense, however the catch here is that whatever figure they toss, even if it's less than what is expected, it's almost immediately accepted. Hey, we were taught to design, not negotiate.

3. Offer a competitive rate. Sounds great eh, to actually say, "Your position's requirements should be worth *this*," expecting the interviewer to nod approvingly. Unfortunately, more often than not, you'll never hear from the prospective employer again, which makes the job hunter feel as though they made a huge miscalculation. The real mistake was lacking the proper salesmanship to engage in negotiations with a counteroffer, nor convince them why making an investment in your talent would ultimately benefit them. Taking a page from professional salesmen and agents, they learned how to turn a tentative "no" into a solid "yes." Considering we have no choice but to sell our own services, it's a vital skill that's worth developing.

I recommend picking up The Savvy Designer's Guide to Success, Ideas and Tactics for a Killer Career, by Jeff Fisher. It offers many useful tidbits and ideas, plus real accounts from successful Designers on their self marketing adventures and tactics. Another book worth perusing is The Business Side of Creativity: The Complete Guide for Running a Graphic Design of Communications Business, by Cameron S. Foote. The site, Creatively Self Employed also offers some other good reading suggestions.

Next Time: Part II

Dagmar Jeffrey has accumulated over ten years of print advertising and graphic communication arts experience through independent design contracting and pre-press production, both through her business Archetype Design Studio and via well established enterprises. She is also a member of the Brainstorming Team at no!spec and is presently collaborating on other projects pertinent to the industry.

During her down time, you can normally find Dagmar actively participating and generally hobnobbing in some of the most well regarded design forums, as well as tending to her design and news blog, ARCHE-BLogGER, a visual exploration inside the Creative Mind.

"For Sale" image source: grow-a-brain


Anonymous said...

Fantastic…what a great wake up call! All I need to do know is find an extra hour in the problem! I applaud your work but struggle to find the forgiveness in the lacklustre education system.

Thanks for the heads up though.

Juggling Jason said...

Wow, what a privilege to have you at the helm of this blog! Looking forward to the other parts of this series.

Archetype Design Studio said...

Thanks again Jason for the opportunity and priviledge of being the first to contribute to your blog. I hope you'll enjoy the other two installments as well.

To be honest, at this stage of our industry's continuing rapid evolution, I too find it difficult to be very understanding of "above average" learning institutions that are still deficient in offering a well-rounded, required design curriculum, considering tuition costs. I also feel it's partly responsible for vultures like contest and logo mills to prey on our "young" who are left to their own devices.