1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
I’d had vague notions from a pretty early age that I wanted to do something with drawing. I’ve got a vivid memory of staring at a Quality Street tin when I was around 8 or 9 and thinking, “I want to be the person who puts the pattern on this!”.
Lady luck then intervened. I started secondary school and the new art teacher (Miss Wilson) had a degree in graphic design.One day she pulled a design annual off the shelf and gave it to me to look at. I opened it up and immediately knew that that was what I wanted to do. It looked like a fun job to have. After that I just focused on getting the grades I needed to get myself into art college. I made that my goal and it happened.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
After art college I set myself up with a series of work placements. I spent time at The Yellow Pencil Company, Design House, Smith & Milton. At each agency I’d ask all of the senior designers to write down the names of their friends in other agencies.
Armed with their names I’d work my way through the list, and rather cheekily say “so and so said I should call you, he/she said you’d probably be interested to see my portfolio!” It worked. One name on one of the lists was a Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi Design.
I called up using my line, got an interview and then got a job. It was a case of right place, right time. They’d been reshuffling and there was space at the bottom – I slotted in and stayed for 6 years.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
Was it Woody Allen who said, “80% of success is just showing up”? I wish I had the magic formula for this question. In 14+ years of having my own agency, I have tried a lot of different approaches. And I think Woody is right.
Getting on the train, making the effort, and being there is probably the best way to win new work. It’s a numbers game, not every meeting will yield a new project or a new client, but occasionally one will. You have to develop a thick skin and some strategies to keep going, even when it feels like a waste of time.
It isn’t easy, and anyone who says it is either has very, very good connections or is lying. That’s my experience. 75% of new business for us is referrals – so once you win a new client treat them really well and it will probably lead onto more referrals.
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
Treat them really well, be honest with them about timings and costs. Keep a good level of clear communication going with them. Be realistic about what is and isn’t possible for the projects you’ll work on together. To develop a really good client relationship, one that lasts for years, the magic ingredient is trust. Trust doesn’t get established straight away, it takes time to develop a really trusting relationship. Winning trust on timings, costs and expectations is the first step to getting them to trust your creative advice too. Take it slowly, don’t rush into things too quickly. That should pave the way for repeat projects and a rewarding relationship.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
Never had an issue with this, I guess we’ve been very lucky! We always set out a payment schedule for projects. Usually 50% upfront and then 30% and 20% at agreed mileposts. Cash is king, and it really makes sense to have a healthy cashflow built up to see you through if things go a little quiet.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
I sit down at my desk at 9.30, check email. I then make a herculean effort not to get distracted too quickly with social media! We all know what a rabbit hole that can be! Mid morning we might have a little catch-up on the week’s work, what’s on the schedule, what stages various projects are at. We’ll also discuss new business and what opportunities are coming up. Running a studio requires a fair chunk of admin, and as we’re small that usually falls to me. Not my most favourite part of my work, but it has to be done.
Mixed into all that I’ll be overseeing projects, providing some creative direction where needed, liaising with clients, taking briefs and getting the ball rolling on new work. I like to try and get out most lunchtimes with my camera, stroll the streets of Brighton or down on the seafront trying to get some street photos. I find that a good creative challenge and it stops me from eating lunch in front of my Mac.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
I think whatever stage you’re at in your career it’s important not to take it all too seriously if things aren’t going your way. Nobody ever died of a graphic design-related incident, maybe a few lost finger tips in scalpel accidents, but other than that graphic design isn’t about life and death.
I think we, as designers, can tend to be a little backward at coming forward too. Don’t be afraid to ask for more work from a client. Don’t wait to be invited, invite yourself. Don’t wait for permission to be creative… you’ll be waiting a long time.
Chris Harrison runs the Harrison Agency. They’re a branding agency based in Brighton producing work that’s exciting, memorable and effective. You can also connect with Chris Harrison on twitter.