1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
Well, I didn’t really decide to be a designer. I stumbled into it. I remember wanting to be a cartoonist. I loved Garfield as a kid and my cousins took me to the state fair as a kid, I was probably about 7 or 8 and they threw some darts at some balloons and won a mirror with Garfield on it. So that night I sat on the floor at home and drew Garfield the cat freehand and showed my mom after. She then asked me one question, “Did you trace that?” I said no ma’am and from there my mother encouraged my drawing.
So in my family, it was known that I wanted to be an artist. My small town had a great art program where I learned printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, I had experience in every traditional artform down to carving soapstone. By the time I went to college at Hampton University, I was going for Fashion merchandising but my first day of registration they told me the program was phased out. So I chose Graphic Design. The rest is history. Thank God they phased out Fashion Merchandising.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
My biggest hurdle back then was the same one that many young aspiring designers face today. Money. As you know, Design is a very expensive profession both in terms of time and money. After that first year at Hampton University, I ran out of money and that was even after my grandmother gave me money from her burial fund to go to school. But when you don’t come from money, money is never the first solution.
So in my case, I worked hard and went to financial aid every day to ensure that I could find out information that could help me get the funds to stay in school. After finishing Undergrad I went straight to graduate school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to study Communications Design and I didn’t have my own computer. I had to do my work in all night computer labs or use my friend’s computer at night while she slept to do my work. I walked around New York City six of seven days without a dollar in my pocket. So I’m sure that there are some of the most talented designers ever out there who may ask, can I afford to be a designer? That shouldn’t be.
Money is a big barrier to entering our profession and I would hope that one day we could include designers who come from all socio economic backgrounds who have the talent and are willing to work. That diversity of path would serve the profession, clients and the future of our field in a way that I believe would revolutionize the creative business solutions we see. I hope industry partners like IBM, HP or Microsoft will continue to partner with industry organizations like The American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), The One Club for Creativity and AIGA the professional association for design will continue what they’ve done to support programs that remove cost as a barrier.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
My most successful way of getting clients has evolved. Before Strategy, it was my fear of better options, if I can use the term that Patrick McGinnis coined. This sums up how I got clients because when I sat down to solve their problem, I was never satisfied so I kept looking for solutions that were original or pushed to limit where I looked for solutions to challenge myself to arrive at fresh solutions. I knew there was something better out there so I pushed and searched and tried my best to surpass my best effort last time.
After Strategy, my method is to “think how they think” or to put myself in the shoes of the client, and find the root of the business or marketing problem that may be keeping them up at night. If I can understand the reason I’m in the room and articulate that using the language of business in my role as a creative director. I can increase the trust in a room full of fear. Once the atmosphere in the room can change, then that becomes the basis of my status as a strategic partner. That is a brief premise of my book, Creative Strategy and the Business of Design. Think how they think to do what we do.
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
I believe that all of our clients come to us with various forms of the exact same request, Solve my problem. The problem is that it doesn’t come out that way, it sounds like, I need a mew identity, We need a new website, We need to drive sales. We need to launch this product. I believe if creatives can change the way we listen, then we can move beyond make it pretty and that is how you grow client accounts through repeat business. Learning to speak and understand the language of business is how I land clients, giving them strategic context along with the creative content is the way I keep them.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
I haven’t had that issue for a very long time. I but do remember that early on, the issue helped me arrive at a 40% 30% 30% billing structure. 40% deposit to start the job on budgets above 10K. I don’t lift a finger without a signed contract agreeing to my terms and a check for 40% of the total. 30% check is due during the first milestone/presentation and 30% due the day I deliver the job. Non-negotiable. On budgets below 10K, it’s 50% to start and 50% the day I deliver. I keep it simple.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
My typical day includes meetings in my Uber, approving layouts or giving revisions on my iPhone, a lot strategic thinking and writing presentations, proposals or articles, meeting a range of collaborators I’m partnering with or directing, signing off on a mountain of forms within a sea of emails and as of Friday September 14th, changing my newborn’s diaper.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
Think about how you are using your time. For instance, In January my wife and I found out that we were expecting in September and this also corresponded to a large strategic project that would also be due in September. Both needed to be thought through both needed my time and attention to prepare for.
Therefore I thought through what parts I needed to complete that would require long nights of research, focused attention to articulate my thoughts in writing. And which parts would be production that I could complete from anywhere even with a crying baby. This helped me prioritize what parts of this job needed to happen first and which parts I could complete later. Our baby boy, Jonathan was born this past Friday and while I have significantly less bandwidth, I’m prepared because I planned what I would do in January and have been executing that plan every day. Designers are notoriously organized in their output but their files aren’t always organized.
We are known for OCD or attention to detail and yet are often disorganized in the business side of what we do. Think about your process and use it to create an optimal structured environment to create in. To do that you must pay attention to whether you need a quiet environment or whether you shouldn’t listen to a certain type of music when solving a certain type of problem. Know yourself, think about how you are using your time and design a process to optimize your creative output.
Brooklyn-based Douglas Davis enjoys being one of the variety of voices needed in front of and behind the concept, marketing plan or digital strategy. His approach to creativity combines right-brained creative problem solving with left-brained strategic thinking. This unique mix of creative strategy, integrated marketing and art direction is what Douglas brings into the boardroom or classroom. In addition to client work, Douglas leverages his experience as an Associate Professor and Department Chair of the B.F.A. in Communication Design program at City Tech, on the graduate level in the Branding and Integrated Communications (BIC) program at The City College of New York and digitally as a HOW Design University course contributor.
His digital class, Creative Strategy and the Business of Design has also been published as a book. Douglas has found an international audience through his relationship with HOW, as a judge of The Best Brand Awards and publishing in the European Business Review. In June 2018, Douglas was named co-chair of AIGA’s National Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce. Douglas enjoys interacting with creative people and presents at industry conferences throughout the U.S., Canada, India and Russia. Creative Strategist, Educator & Author, who depends on what day.
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