4 Business Skills Graphic Designers Need
I learned a long time ago that you should observe people’s faces when you tell them that you are a graphic designer. Some light up and say that their 5 year old does the same thing. Some side-eye you giving the impression that they believe you don’t have a real job. Others ask what Fortune 500 company employs you as if those are the only places that design matters. Then, there are those who view you as a starving artist wondering where is your change cup. In this age of visual noise, design is everywhere: on your phone, on a billboard, on a supermarket cart, on a bus, etc.
The reactions to what I do are always varied. But there is also another title I wear that gets a different response: entrepreneur.
The facial expressions range from ‘you da man’ to ‘much respect bro.’ All of a sudden, I have superpowers even if I have not even proved it.
But this makes sense. Entrepreneurs are viewed positively and as risk takers. They defy the odds, do the impossible, and disrupt whole industries believing that there is a simpler better way to do certain things or use a product.
I started businesses as a kid and failed every time. But as I got older and experimented, I began to intuitively understand certain principles of business. As I increased my knowledge over the years, I learned the technical terms used to describe what I learned experientially. This commentary is for designers and anyone else desiring to operate their own business.
I will use one of my early 1980s childhood stories and weave it throughout the four business skills to illustrate my points:
- Soft Skills: In my native neighborhood North Philly, older people often employed kids like me (10 years old) to run errands to the grocery store. Often times, their apartment was on the top floor (3rd floor) of a rowhouse. I acquired a reputation for being honest, good with math and trustworthy. But how did they know? When I look back, it makes sense. When they were outside, they observed us. Although I was not above making fun of them discreetly, I always responded to their greetings and tried to smile. At other times, I would hold their door or help with groceries. I was always hoping to be paid. Most of the time I wasn’t but I did it anyway. My mother always taught me to respect older people. Now, while I was being cordial, some of my friends were more interested in being juvenile. If you knew my mother, you would know why I always tried to do the right thing. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goldman mentions the ‘four domains of ability’ model: self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship management. These abilities fall under the soft skills category which are necessary when relating to people. Keep in mind that clients like to do business with people that they like and that know how to relate to them. (In all honesty, I struggled in this area during my teens and in my 20s. I was very angry during this period for personal and professional reasons. Fortunately, my mentors taught me how to engage these issues.)
- Organization: When I agreed to shop for them, I had to listen very closely so I could repeat their requests back to them…and do it with a smile. The first runs I did were small, for example, a gallon of milk. But as my memory improved, they started giving me longer grocery lists. (I will never understand to this day why they did not just write down what they wanted. Lol) While running their errands, there were always distractions in my path: friends, cars, bikes, stray cats, etc. My goal was to make sure that I did not forget their list. I made a few mistakes here and there but I had more successes than failures. Sometimes I had to walk for 15-20 minutes to buy what they wanted. I also had to return with a detailed account: number of groceries, total amount spent and the amount of money left. In business, multi-tasking is the norm (even if it doesn’t work for more complex processes.) It is important that clients know that they can trust you to take something complex and simplify the process.
- Project Management: As I became more organized, I acquired a diversity of customers. Sometimes I had to visit multiple stores with different lists. I was starting to get confused. (This was not the era of smartphones.) So, I began to ask if I could run their errands on different days. This limited the number of people but made my little racket more lucrative. I would show up at their homes on those days. My successes bred generosity. Occasionally, I was allowed to buy myself something or I received home cooked food. (Ms. Grace made homemade pickles. I loved pickles! She gave me one and I took a big bite. I am pretty sure my face turned inside out. LOL) Since I also paid attention to store prices, I showed my customers how they could save money. I learned years later that many of them were on fixed incomes. Managing multiple design projects from different personalities is a lot of work. Add in a research component and projects can become time consuming and complex. Today, there are online project management tools that can help. I have developed an Excel time sheet to record the amount of time spent on different parts of a project. This helps me to see where I may be spending too much time, where to adjust my rates and even show a client where they can save time.
- Adaptability: As I demonstrated that I could handle various tasks, they wanted me to do other things. I started buying lottery tickets for a few of them which means I had to learn the language needed to place numbers. A few even sent me to buy alcohol. (By this time, I was 13 years old. All of the stores said no but they allowed me to buy cigarettes for them. This would never happen today.) Adapting to their needs helped them to see other possibilities. This translated into shoveling snow in the winter, sweeping sidewalks in the summer and even tutoring their grandchildren! (I was a horrible tutor. This did not last long. LOL) In business, a good designer should specialize but must also have the ability to move in different directions. The late Steve Jobs said that innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.
Even though I focus on branding, I see other opportunities to segue into other areas such as market/audience research, visual/written content development, digital marketing, app design and mobile marketing. I have designed posters, presentations (print and digital), tshirts, websites, vehicle wraps, publications, signage and books. Keep in mind that these other areas still require design skills and knowledge specific to that medium. In addition, the world of branding can require some knowledge in psychology, sociology, visual culture and writing. It is this multidisciplinary nature of graphic design that I enjoy and sets me apart. Some don’t aspire to this. That is ok.
But if you want to stay gainfully employed in graphic design, this is the direction you need to go. Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to experiment with design aesthetics and businesses are slowly warming up to its possibilities. AI is only going to get better. Add in the low prices for graphic design services created by the global online marketplace along with professionals from other industries crossing over into graphic design and you have a perfect storm brewing. It is important for designers of color to be prepared to be more competitive!
How is it possible to traverse different platforms involving design? Talent? Nope. Notice that talent is not even on my list above.
Talent is a given when you have formal education. (If you don’t have a design degree, it is still possible to be a designer but this approach is the exception, not the rule. So, talent becomes even more important.) Of course, in job interviews, they want to see your portfolio. But a good interviewer will ask you about all 4 business skills above in some form.
Once you work on a project and move beyond talent to produce a desirable outcome, that client will bask in the accolades of their peers and MENTION YOUR NAME! Most of my business comes through friends and clients who experienced my approach…and trust it.
I really believe designers should be exceptional people just like entrepreneurs.. We must win the confidence of clients who put immense trust in us, educate them throughout the process, deliver services that eventually improve their bottom line and gain the attention of the audience we are trying to reach. We do all of this mostly in the background. The moody and self-righteous designer types rarely make it far in this business (unless some form of privilege is activated). I am glad I eventually learned this.
I did not have any business classes while in art school. But I continued honing my entrepreneurial skills from my childhood years into my college years and beyond. Even though the stereotypes of North Philly still live, I learned most of what I know in my neighborhood watching others, trying, testing and failing. This is the part of North Philly that the news hardly reports. Over the next 25 years, I have been fortunate to receive my undergraduate degree, community awards, take classes at UPenn’s Wharton Business School, travel to 3 continents, rub shoulders with SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), receive a Masters degree and have access to respected leaders. I am grateful for that. But what really helps me sleep well at night is working on design projects that are helping others and passing on what I have learned to other minority youth from disadvantaged communities.
I am sure there are other business skills graphic designers need. What do you think?