I’m Back! Working as a Graphic Designer & Answering your Questions

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I was almost ready to be ready. It’s how most people are, when going into business for themselves, I’m told. We convince ourselves that we’ll be confident and ready to start after reading just one more advisory article, one more blog post, one more case study. It all amounts to admirable intent (which adage tells us makes great paving en route to hell), but it’s not good for much else.

At some point, we just have to jump.

So I’m jumping.

I’m a graphic design and creative copywriting contractor again—or to be less verbose, I’m your Wingman and Wordsmith. You should hire me. (If you need convincing, read on. Then hire me.)

Authenticity is better than the best imitation, so I asked people outside of the graphic design industry to ask me anything they wanted to about my job, for this post—I knew real questions would be far more helpful than anything I could imagine on their behalf! (And I thank them for the really good questions below!)

1. What do graphic designers do?

Bizarrely, few people can actually define the title of ‘graphic designer’—even if they are one! This is because ‘graphic design’ is an extraordinarily unhelpful generic term that covers a range of creative disciplines. Web building, illustration, corporate branding, digital photography, and print publishing are all different jobs in their own right—yet they all conceivably, and do, get conscripted under the Graphic Design umbrella. (And those aren’t the only beasts hunkered under there.) Yet you’ll rarely hear of a person skilled in all of them.

Whatever an individual designer’s skill set, graphic design is ultimately about one thing: how people see you. Our business is Perception. (It’s the same purpose as for copywriting, and thus why they work so well together—the two just wear different clothes.) A designer crafts their work to enable your audience to have the perception you desire for your company/product/service, etc.

Economist and theorist in behavioural finance, Richard H. Thaler, acknowledges in his book ‘Nudge’, “People’s choices are pervasively influenced by the design elements selected by choice architects.”

Graphic designers are ‘choice architects’. We create visual input that influences your viewer’s decision-making, whether overtly or subconsciously.

2. What are your particular areas of expertise or skill in this field of work?

GRAPHIC DESIGN: 

The easy way to describe it is: if it’s meant for a tangible product, I likely do it. Magazines, brochures, branding (this includes a logo and rollout products like business cards), billboards, posters… Stuff you can hold in your hands.

I don’t code websites. I don’t shoot or edit video. I don’t build apps.

My personal style and preference is image-heavy (like this). While I can also do minimalist looks (something with lots of clear space and simple shapes) it’s a deliberate discipline—like continuously trying to coax a horse left when he really just wants to go right, for the entire trek.

I have a particular aptitude and enjoyment of photo compositing. (My professional inspiration is Erik Johansson—his image manipulation is amazing, and rightly goes for premium prices.) Practical use of such an activity really only lends itself to image-focused contexts like book covers or posters, so I don’t have opportunity to do them much—especially as they’re time consuming, and client budget constraints typically veto it for that reason.

I also enjoy photo-restoration and retouching.

CREATIVE COPYWRITING (not to be confused with copyrighting!): 

Unlike journalism—which is formally objective and void of personality (which is perceived as bias)—I do creative ‘content writing’ that is is pithy, witty and whetting. If you need an academic report, I’m not your guy. Or gal, whatever. But if you need to convince a domestic shopper from the suburbs that your brand of toilet paper will change their life, call me.

3. Why is good graphic design important to my company/product/service etc? What tangible benefits are there from effective graphic design work?

Its importance is in its purpose: it determines how you are perceived. It may make your brand stronger, or perceived value of your product or service higher, or it gets you higher sales, or it makes you look more appealing than your competition. Usually it’s a mixture of several.

The tangible benefits are the consequences of this perception sculpting. More customers visiting your business. More attendees at your show. More money in your hand.

4. How do you compare one graphic designer to the next? What are the skills/qualities/training/experience to look for?

First, look for some who does work you like the look of. (A designer worth their salt will have samples of previous work they can direct you to, for this purpose. Mine is here. If the designer is new to the industry and hasn’t build a client history yet, they should still have a portfolio of student work or personal projects to direct you to.) If they can create the look you want, it really doesn’t matter whether they studied design for ten years at the University of Opulent Opuses, or whether they were self-taught on a secondhand laptop.

Be mindful that the more experience a designer has, and the more skill resources they can apply to your job—e.g. photography, copywriting, videography, music producers, app developers, or similar—the more they’re worth. If you have no use for an array of cross-disciplines, it may be strategic to approach another designer with the job. There’s no point paying for a bicycle if you only want the bell.

Another important value is how the designer relates to you. How easy are they to talk to? Do you feel comfortable about asking them why they made a particular decision? Can they show you good feedback from previous clients? Choose a designer you think you’ll enjoy working with—that makes the project enjoyable for both of you. And once you find one, be a good client for them—you’ll want them to take you back if you have another project later!

5. Why does graphic design work seem to cost so much? What is the average hourly wage of a graphic designer?

Graphic design can cost a lot because the output is value-based, not labour-based. You’re not paying for your designer to position some pictures, click their mouse a bunch of times, colour things in, and then press Print. You’re paying your designer to craft your perception; to make calculated aesthetic judgements for each design element—including its typography, hierarchy, symbolisms, colour, shape, and technical limitations of the intended product medium—and then combine that knowledge with your directives to create something that is both functionally effective, and that looks good. The designer does a lot of significant development of your project before they even start up their computer.

Designers vary in their pricing methods (especially if you’re comparing contractors with employees), but because of this value-based reality you’ll find we tend not to use an hourly fee only—some jobs take longer than others, independent of their worth to your business. Some designers will charge a flat project rate, but most do a combination.

I’m of the latter. I agree on a flat project rate with you, which covers everything we established in our initial meeting and includes a predetermined number of changes you can get me to make to my design. (The details are determined by us together, in an initial meeting, before they’re drawn up in a contract that keeps us both informed of project scope.) If further work is required beyond the initial scope, I bill this excess at an hourly rate. But really, that has almost never happened—not with the thorough setup process that has us both understand what needs to happen.

For designers that do go by hourly rate, it largely depends on their experience, but also their employment structure. Location doesn’t actually make a discernible difference. In New Zealand the rate can range anywhere from $20 (students/recent graduates) to $80 (veteran industry specialists), but this range is unevenly spread, with the average and most common rate being only about $30, and $50 for overtime. (Salaried positions tend to be between $34–67K, but that’s not relevant to you if you’re looking to hire a contractor, not your own employee.)

(Payment information source: payscale.com, with information as given in 2016)

6. Are graphic designers up to speed on issues of copyright, plagiarism, patent, etc?

They should know the basics—enough to make sure they or their clients aren’t infringing upon anyone else’s rights. We aren’t copyright lawyers, so we don’t know all the nuances ourselves, but if we’re unsure of any applicable legal point, we’ll find it out. The onus is on us to make sure the work we give you can be legally used! (If you’re supplying your designer with images though, it’s your responsibility to ensure you’re allowed to use those images for your intended purpose. Note: just pulling them off Google Images is not allowed.)

As to the rights of the designers themselves with the final design (such as their freedom to display it in their portfolio or not), or the client’s ‘full ownership rights’ vs ‘usage rights’ of the final design (in the latter, you don’t actually own the design you pay for—you’ve only purchased the right to use it), these parameters should be agreed upon at the beginning at your initial meeting, and made clear in the contract.

7. Why should I choose you as my graphic designer?

If I’ve successfully met your standards as described in Question 4, then a partnership between us is best we can reasonably hope for, enabling a simple and streamlined job process with minimal screaming or throwing toasters through windows.

If, however, I don’t fit your preferences, then don’t choose me. Choose somebody who does fit. Nobody climbs a mountain in jandals. Get something with the right fit and form.

8. How do you resolve differences with clients over issues of taste?

Contrary to popular adage, the customer is not always right. But the customer is always the customer, and that should always carry the appropriate weight.

If you resolutely want something that I believe is truly awful, and we haven’t signed or started anything yet, chances are I’ll just politely decline the job—not because I’m a snobby upstart, but because it will be evident that I’m not the right designer for you. And that’s always nice to know sooner rather than later, for both our sakes!

If, however, we find a conflict after the project has started, there are two possible scenarios:

First, we’ll look at the contract. (It’s for moments like these that we have one.) We can both see what was agreed upon at the beginning, and what the goals of the project are. It’s my job to make something that meets those goals. If you want something that will hinder those goals, I’ll explain to you how and why, and give reasons for my choices. (I’ve found that after doing this, a client will usually either rescind, or we’ll negotiate a compromise, and that’s fine too.) If you’re adamant you want it a particular way, and it contradicts the initial contract’s specified goals, we write up a Change Order—essentially, a contract amendment. You pay the appropriate fee for the scope change, and I then fulfil the order according to the amendment.

The second scenario is if your request doesn’t violate our contractual agreement; I just happen to think it will look bad. If this is the case, I will still advise you against it, and give my rationale, but the customer is always the customer—as long as your request doesn’t contradict the directives, I will do it.

Ultimately, I could make what I believe is the most beautiful design in the world, but if in doing so I defy my client and force them to take something they don’t want, that would still make me a bad designer.

9. What sort of customers do you have?

Most of them have been other contractors, or small businesses, or non-profit organisations. This means that I’m usually catering my work to a low or medium budget (which would be why I don’t actually do much photo-manipulation for clients, as I mentioned in my answer to Question 2). Because of this, I frequently design layouts using stock images, as client budgets haven’t had room for a custom photo shoot with a professional photographer.

That said, I have worked for private individuals also. But this tends to be rare, as such clients are understandably hesitant to pay market designer rates if they only want a pretty invitation for their hamster’s baby shower.

10. Who/what needs the assistance of a graphic designer?

You do. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe not today, anyway.

But you need a graphic designer if you need a specific perception crafted, for a specific audience.

11. What media do your designs go on? Paper, vinyl, wooden signs, glass etching, etc.

Any of those and more. Almost any solid surface.

My work has usually gone onto paper stock, just because that’s typically the most affordable and all that’s been necessary to meet my client’s need. (Or because it’s been a magazine or DVD jacket, and paper is just what they’re made of.) But I cater my designs to be appropriate to any desired physical output. My billboards are sometimes on vinyl, or on Corflute, though not limited to either. My exterior building signs have to date been in acrylic or ACM (Aluminium Composite Material). If I’m designing for a specialty output (essentially, anything that’s not paper) I’ll liaise with the material’s producer to find out exactly how they need my design files set up.

Ultimately, I aim to get you exactly what you need.

12. Is it better to hire an independent contractor, or an agency?

It usually depends on who you are and what your project is. Small projects are typically suited to a contractor, whereas large projects, or companies with their own marketing department, often prefer an agency. Let me explain why:

Agencies can offer more skill resources than an individual contractor can; an agency is a collaborating team. Among their staff there may be experts in marketing, SEO stars, branding specialists, web gurus, or super illustrators, and animators. A contractor (also known as a ‘freelancer’, but using that term invites all sort of hazards) may be proficient in several areas, but they’re unlikely to manage all that an agency can offer. It’s probably better to use an agency if you have a project that’s too large in scope for an individual to fulfil.

Note though, that just because an agency has more people, that doesn’t necessarily mean their work will be better than what a contractor will produce. And if a contractor doesn’t have a skill component your project needs, they may still be able to partner with another contractor who does have that skill. Even though a contractor is only one person, we don’t have to work in isolation.

Some clients may prefer to use an agency because they feel it’s more secure. The same consumer laws that govern agency professionals, though, also govern individual professionals—so you have measures of security with both. And agencies often outsource to contractors anyway, so the client would be paying the larger amount of contractor fee plus agency markup. Still, a client may choose an agency for peace of mind, and the simplicity of dealing with only one business or name.

Clients who choose contractors, even for large projects, may do so on account of cost or relationship. Or both. If you’re dealing with the same individual throughout the process, it can feel more personal, and build a stronger designer-client relationship. You’ll also be assured that the person developing your design is the same person you described your directives to in the beginning.

13. Are birthday invitation cards a small project?

Yes, to a designer, invitations are ‘small project’—because they’re one item, for one audience, promoting one occasion.

An example of a large project would be a new business or product rollout—something incorporating a lot of things. Such a project might require a selection of informative pieces (brochures, slideshow presentation, demo video), a website with ecommerce functionality, and a product photo shoot. That would typically be beyond the scope of one person, so would either be handled by an agency, or by a contractor who partners with other contractors to fill skill gaps.

Side note: However, I’ve found when a potential client says they have a “small project”, it usually means something they think won’t take long to do; they might even expect a finished product later that day. This is a potential red light, because when a person unfamiliar with a task tells me how long they expect it will take (which is usually wrong), it tells me they likely undervalue the effort that goes behind it. It’s possibly also client-speak for ‘I’m not prepared to pay for this to be done right,’ which puts the project in a bad place from the start.

14. Do photo manipulations come under the graphic design label or does that just happen to be a side interest of yours and not usually part of that industry?

It’s one of the results that come from where graphic design and photography meet. There’s a lot of overlap in creative industries. I wonder if anyone’s done a Venn diagram of it…

15. If we give you a super specific brief, then what are you actually designing? Haven’t we done most of the work?

I’m so glad to get this question! (If I hadn’t, I probably would have put it in anyway.)

If you tell a baker that you like flavours of vanilla and chocolate, but that you’re allergic to dairy so you can’t have something with that, and that the cake needs to be hexagonal because that’s your favourite shape, and that it needs to have three layers…you still haven’t designed the cake, have you? With his professional acumen, the baker decides how best to make your requirements into a cake that looks good, tastes good, is appropriately adorned, and has the right ingredient compatibilities.

A crude analogy, perhaps, but the gist is there. Detailed project directives don’t stifle me, or do my work for me. On the contrary, they make it better, because I know how to give you what you want, while still achieving aesthetic and practical goals. Giving vague directives is not the same as allowing ‘creative freedom’. All vagueness does is guarantee more dissatisfaction, more revisions, wasted time and wasted money.

“Give me the freedom of a tightly written creative brief.” — Advertising executive David Ogilvy

If you have more questions, please do leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it!

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