1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
I actually didn’t realize I wanted to be a designer until part way through my first year of design school. Originally, After High School my plan was to go to university and learn how to produce television commercials. Unfortunately I didn’t have the funds to move away so I decided to work for another year while I saved up the money. When I graduated High School in 1989 I won a one year scholarship to our local college, good for any program they offered. Knowing it would be much harder to go back to school after taking a year off I decided to enrol in the graphic design program since it wasn’t going to cost me anything. I figured that I might learn something that would be useful in creating television commercials.
Part way through that first year I fell in love with graphic design and decided to forget about university and complete the three year design program. I graduated with honours at the top of my class and never looked back.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
During my third year of college I had a one month field placement in the design department of a local commercial printer. After graduation, the printer hired me as full time junior designer. The biggest hurdle I overcame was having to step backward in the way I worked. During our last year of college we were taught QuarkXpress, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. This was 1991/1992 and computers were still new to the design industry. The commercial printer where I worked didn’t have any computers. They literally did everything cut and paste.
The most sophisticated equipment they had was a typesetter that only had 10 or so fonts available and a PMT camera (younger designers will have to look those up). My biggest hurdle was trying to convince the owner to invest almost $100,000 on computers, printers, software and networking equipment. It took me close to year of saying things like “this would go so much faster with a computer” or “If we had computers we could do it this way which would be much more efficient.” I eventually wore them down and they invested in the new technology.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
The thing that works best for me is simply creating good relationships with my existing clients. Not just on a business level but on a personal level. I learn about their family, their hobbies, where they go on vacation, whatever information I can about them. Then I use that information when talking to them.
This creates a bond much stronger than simply designer and client. It’s almost like a partnership between us. When that bond happens the clients don’t just refer me when someone is looking for a designer, they become ambassadors for my business and promote my services every chance they get.
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
It’s a combination of forming bonds with them like I mentioned above, and providing good quality work. Whenever I’ve been successful at both of those things the client have stuck around. I have a few clients that have been with me for over 15 years.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
Since I started my own design business in 2005 I’ve had several clients that I had to hunt payments out of. Luckily there have only been three in all that time that I failed to collect from. Two declared bankruptcy before I could collect and the third was convicted of something and I didn’t bother pursuing him.
I’ve found that most of the time clients fail to pay for one of three reasons. They forgot, in which case I usually receive payment shortly after reminding them. They don’t have the funds to pay, in which case I will gladly make arrangements for smaller monthly payments. Or they’ve been avoiding paying for who knows what reason. This last one is the hardest to collect from. I never get angry with a client but I have politely threatened to take them to court if payment wasn’t received promptly. I’ve never had to follow through on that threat.
Interestingly enough, some of the clients that I have allowed to pay me in monthly instalments have since become some of my best and most lucrative clients. They remember how I accommodated them in their time of need and they pay me back with continued work.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
Is this a trick question? I don’t think I have a typical work day. Maybe that’s not entirely true. I work 9 am to 5 pm. I decided when I first started my business that I would not be a slave to the job. I have a family and I like spending time with them. That’s not to say I don’t work late hours on rare occasions but it’s more of an exception than the norm.
I usually write my To-Do list before going to bed so that I don’t have to figure out what I need to do come morning. I start off my day by checking my email and doing anything that needs taking care of right away. Then I quit my email program and hunker down to start working on whatever design project I have on the go. I try to take a break mid morning to check social media but there are many days when lunch rolls around and I realize I never took a break.
After lunch I check my email again and take care of anything that needs doing before quitting it again. I used to leave my email program open all day but I found it too distracting. I’ve become much more efficient since I started checking it on a fixed schedule.
My afternoon looks much like my morning does except I don’t normally forget to take a break. If I start to feel drained from the design work I will take some time towards the end of the day to relax and catch up on blog posts or articles.
Before shutting down at the end of the day I’ll check my email one more time. I usually check it again before going to bed and before I write my To-Do list for the next day, however I will not reply to an email after 5 pm so they wait until morning.
I do all my invoicing and bookkeeping on Friday afternoons. I’ve found that by the time Friday afternoon rolls around I’m not really in a creative mood and it’s the perfect time to do all the mundane business things.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
Treat your clients like equals. I don’t care what a client’s title or status is I always call them by their first name and I expect them to do the same with me. Whenever you are designing for someone you form a brief partnership with them for the duration of that project.
As soon as you start calling them Mr. Miss, or Mrs. you are placing them in a position of authority over you and it will only make your job harder. It doesn’t matter if you are a veteran designer or if you are fresh out of school, you are a professional designer. If you relay that to your clients your job will be much easier and you should have a great relationship with them.
Mark Des Cotes is an established graphic designer, web designer and design podcaster.
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