1. When did you realize you wanted to be a designer/creator?
The fine arts, drawing and painting, have always been passions of mine. I studied fine art in university and actually have a masters degree in painting not design. That fine art focus as it turns out has been a very formative aspect of my perspective on design. I started off my working career as a fine artist and professor. Design and branding came later. I had finished a teaching stint at the Lacoste School of Art in France and came back to New York City with a lot of monotype prints I had created there. I started a screenprinted T-shirt company and sold that art on apparel in boutiques across the city.
I eventually went to work for a competitor as a designer and soon became an art director managing other designers. It was then that I realized that managing designers was a lot like teaching, but you made a lot more money, were never out of work, and your work was much more visible in the world. In the fashion industry my work was literally walking around on millions of people’s chests. Millions. I’m not exaggerating. I loved it. That’s when I got hooked on “commercial” design as opposed to the fine arts.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
I worked my way up through a few licensed apparel companies and landed at Old Navy right when they were launching. They became the most successful retail brand in history, growing to $1Billion in sales in under 5 years. It was a rocket ship of an experience. My biggest challenges weren’t design related. They were learning how to navigate internal corporate politics, learning about the financial side of managing a business, budgets, resources, and managing very large creative teams.
Luckily I’ve had some really excellent mentors in my career who threw me new challenges and growth opportunities when I was ready for them. When I moved over to the global branding agency side, I had, after 15 years in fashion literally zero idea of formal strategic branding processes. That was a real challenge, getting up to speed on those methodologies while simultaneously driving the success and growth of the agency. But it was a blast. Now I love and live that stuff.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
I’ve developed a really broad network of past colleagues and clients who have continued to move around while developing their own careers. So networking and staying connected is a big part of making client connections. I also do a lot of networking with peers and others in the industry with different skillsets, media people, strategists, copywriters, PR people, animators, managing directors. I bring them opportunities when I can or bring them in to work projects with me when I need their expertise.
What comes around goes around. Give freely with no regard from return and your generosity will come back 10-fold. I also do a lot of content development, in-bound marketing. I have a YouTube channel where I cover branding, design and trend topics. I also publish a newsletter called “brand•muse” and am always actively building my email list. I get most my clients from word of mouth referrals. But recently a lot have been coming in through people engaging with my content.
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
The most important thing to do with your clients is treat their brands as if they were your own. Learn as much as you can about their business and competitive space. Base your work in strategic insights, consumer insights, not just on aesthetics. That is where most designers fall down and what really separates the men from the boys in design: strategy.
Care about their brands and offer ideas about how they can grow and improve. Whether it is work you can do for them or not. Take the initiative and think about opportunities for them. Also, I always provide real value for their investment, and deliver the highest quality work.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
I never have. I have very simple contracts. I used to have super complex ones full of a lot of legalese and clients found them intimidating and when it comes down to it, if people are going to stiff you for your fee they’re going to do it whether you have an iron-clad contract or not.
So I have a simple contract and base my business relationships on trust. I take 50% up front and the balance just before I deliver the final approved files. I am super clear about how this works with the client up front so there are no surprises for anybody.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
I get into my studio by 9:00 at the latest. I spend a half hour hitting email – driving for in-box zero, trashing stuff and marking more important stuff for later. I usually put in 4 hours of solid design or strategy work in the morning when I’m at my sharpest.
I’ll continue for a couple hours after lunch. Then I’ll shift in the later afternoon to content development and marketing my agency or personal brand. Writing articles, scripts for videos, recording or editing, collecting inspiration. As an entrepreneur, often I work in the evening for a couple hours after dinner because I’m passionate about what I’m doing as an owner of my own agency and am having more fun doing it that ever.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
Designers: learn the methodologies that make up true strategic design and branding. Pure design chops and aesthetics will only get you so far in the world today. Your strategic and business brain in combination with your design skills are what is going to give you a competitive advantage.
Never stop learning. Learn finances, budgets, project planning, people management, social skills, business development, how to pitch. Don’t let yourself get pigeonholed as a one-trick-pony. If there was one area I’d say everyone needs to explore these days it’s motion. Video, animation. Static design is an important foundation and you have to be good at it, but the world is increasing being driven by more theatrical media experiences like video, gaming, animation and VR.
Bullet-proof your career by always exploring new horizons and staying current.
Philip VanDusen runs Verhaal Brand Design, a strategic design & brand consultancy. He has over 20 years of experience in strategic branding, graphic design and product development for some of the world’s most successful global retailers and consumer products companies. You can also connect with him on Twitter, his website and YouTube Channel.
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