1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
As a young kid I was always interested in drawing, and reading comic books. Whilst at school, I knew I wanted to do something with art, but I wasn’t sure what exactly.
At high school one of my art teachers used to design book covers in his spare time and I was fascinated by the process that he went through. When I told him I was interested in maybe doing something like that for a job he took the time to show me the basics. That set me on a path of looking at typography and layout and I got hooked.
I knew at that point (I was about 15 old) that graphic design was what I wanted to do and I specifically choose subjects at school that would allow me to go to art college.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
After I left school I studied an HND in Graphic Design at Dundee College. I found it a lot harder than I thought, it wasn’t like school and there were a lot of people who seemed to have more of a natural talent for the subject. My drawing skills have never been very good, and the less said about my life drawing studies, the better 😉
The problem was, that the HND course I was on really pushed for good illustration and drawing. So, in order to compensate I had to excel in other areas like typography, and other areas of graphic design that didn’t require great drawing skills. It was tough going because a few of the lecturers gave me a hard time because of my low grades in life drawing, but I stuck in there and got my HND qualification in Graphic Design.
After gaining my HND, I went on to study an honours Degree in Animation at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) in Dundee. I was fascinated by animation, as much as I was about graphic design. I spent 3 years at DJCAD and graduated with my degree in 1998. I loved the course, but by the end, it basically solidified for me that graphic design was where I wanted to have my career.
Apart from not being great at drawing, I suppose the biggest hurdle was getting a job after finishing university. At University you are told that having a degree will give you an instant boost when it comes to the employment ladder, but from my experience, qualifications really meant very little when it came to getting a job in design. I was constantly told that my portfolio of work wasn’t varied enough and didn’t have the skill set that they were looking for.
Essentially, both the college and university had required us to meet certain criteria to get our grades. This however resulted in a lot of cookie cutter graduates with very similar work.
So what I did was spend a lot of time looking at various design studios, studying their output and created a portfolio of work that I thought they would like. After months of applying to different places I eventually got my first job as a Mac operator in a video production company. This was the foot in the door, and from there I worked in various businesses and design studios before eventually setting up my own business in 2005.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
Up until a couple of years ago pretty much all of my clients came via referral. In the past couple of years though I’ve been implementing the Content Marketing methodology into my business. Essentially content marketing is where you are super helpful to your audience, giving advice and information that helps them to solve their problem – for free. You can do this by writing blogs, creating videos or through podcasting. It is a lot of work and it isn’t something that you will get instant returns on, it takes time. Think in terms of months and years.
I’ve started to see a real uptake in inquiries and brand awareness through my content marketing efforts. One area of content is really starting to work for me, and that’s my YouTube channel. I’m now getting regular enquiries from businesses asking to speak with me about doing design work for them or wanting to hire me for consultation work.
I’m also being asked to do a lot more things like this, interviews. From 2005 when I started my business, up until 2014 I wasn’t once asked to be interviewed.
Since starting in Content Marketing in early 2015 I have appeared in numerous podcasts, webinars and spoken on stage at conferences. This I can track and attribute to content marketing.
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
I don’t really have a method to get clients to continually use me for their design work. I believe that if you do good work and that you make the whole design process fun for both you and the client then they will want to work with you again on future projects.
I’m afraid I don’t have any secret sauce for this other than be respectful, listen and be your best self.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
I’ve only ever had one client that I had to really properly chase for payment and I didn’t work with them again after that.
You need to have a client financially obligate themselves right at the start of a project by having them pay a deposit. This shows commitment to the project from them.
I personally take a 50% deposit up front on all projects before I begin any work. The balance payment is due once the design work is agreed and signed off. I will transfer relevant artwork files and transfer copyright (where applicable) only when the balance has been paid.
If a client requires print materials, this has to be paid up front before I place the print order. Only when a client becomes longer term and builds a history of good credit with me and prompt payment will I think about ordering without payment.
I know a lot of designers who still don’t take a deposit and only charge once the project is completed. This just opens you up to getting screwed over after you’ve put in a lot of time and effort. Also, if the client hasn’t paid any money they are more likely to drag their heels on getting back to you with feedback when you need it.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
I always start the week by filling in my calendar with blocks of time for the major projects I’m working on. This gives me a clearer picture of the space I have available for things like creating videos for my YouTube channel, client calls and the general running of my business.
I am NOT an early riser. Generally I’ll get out of bed at 9am and my working day starts at 10am. This is unless a client needs me earlier than that. I work on creative projects between 10am and 1pm and use the afternoons for things like admin tasks, client calls and meetings. I find that I’m not at my best creatively in the afternoon and so the time is best suited to those other things.
From about 6pm I usually get my second wind of creativeness and I can happily work right through to the wee small hours of the morning. This explains why I don’t get up early!
In terms of structure, each day is pretty much the same. It is the variance in projects that keep things interesting.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
Don’t try to be like other designers and don’t get too caught up in what other designers are doing. That was leads to self-doubt and low confidence as you are constantly judging yourself against others.
You don’t know the journey that someone else has been through to get to where they are at. I’m sure it was filled with many struggles and falls from which they learned and moved on from. 99.9% of the time, you’ll only see the good stuff from others, and because you will inevitably have failures yourself, you’ll judge yourself more harshly because of that.
Take it from someone who’s been there. Constantly comparing and worrying about what others are doing. It is a hard hole to get out of.
Follow your path, be who you want to be. Your clients will appreciate you for it.
Col Gray has a passion for branding that’s as big as his beard!
With 20 years of brand and graphic design experience under his signature baseball cap, it’s safe to say he really knows his stuff. He takes mediocre personal and business brand identities and makes them epic – with awesome logos and on-point marketing materials – creating amazing brands that people remember.