Interview with Colleen Gratzer

1.When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

Very early on. My parents would always say that I was born with a pencil and drawing tablet in hand. I was always drawing. I was especially big on drawing people’s faces and houses—two completely unrelated things, LOL. It made me think for a second that I might want to be an architect.

There was never enough paper around to keep up with my drawing. My father would bring home the old dot matrix printer paper with the alternating green and white stripes for me to draw on.

When I was 10, he brought home a PC, with the dark green screen from the 1980s. He taught me some stuff in DOS, which I picked up quickly.

In high school, when it was time to think about what I would study in college, it was natural that I would choose graphic design. That merged my love of art and my creative skills with my technical side.

Ironically, I never finished my degree in graphic design. At the time, I was also pursuing a degree in foreign languages (Spanish and French). A mis-guidance counselor in high school erroneously advised me that if I wanted to study art in college, I had to take French because “all the artists are French.” No, they’re not! Plus, my favorite artists at the time were Miró and Dalí—Spanish artists.

I was already taking Spanish and loved it, so I added French in my second year of high school. I never could speak French properly (always with a Spanish accent, LOL), but I enjoyed both and continued studying them all through college, along with graphic design.

I only had a couple graphic design courses left to finish my graphic design degree, but I would have had to stay another year, since they were consecutive courses.

After 4 years and like 120-some credits, I took the foreign language degree and started a job I had lined up as a designer right after graduation. I loved languages and never planned to do anything with them professionally. I do enjoy them though. But I’ve always been an artist and, professionally, always a graphic designer.

2.How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

At my first job out of college, I was the sole designer for a nonprofit, which meant I had no one to ask if I had questions (which was good and bad). I really had no idea about how much I didn’t know until I first sent files to the printer.

Back then (this was the late 90s), I would package the Quark XPress file, images and fonts on a Zip disk and call a courier to pick it up and deliver it the printer—much more work than what we do today, a lot more involved if there was a mistake.

With those first few jobs, the printers would tell me to fix things. Often, it was a clipping path or an issue with a spot color. There was a lot of two-color work in those days, and I did a lot with Photoshop DCS file with spot colors and mixing them.

At that time, there weren’t PDF proofs, and having the printer output a new proof was more costly than today, so there was a lot of pressure to get it perfect the first time. Otherwise, you could cost the organization more money.

The printers would tell me how to fix issues, and I learned so much from that. The best part was that no one at my job even had to know.

So there was a lot of on-the-job learning—quickly!

Until I got much farther along in my career, I didn’t realize I had a huge mindset issue. It unfolded itself bit by bit.

It stemmed from my childhood, a time when I faced a ton of criticism. That eventually led to me putting up with abusive clients, late-paying clients, clients who were difficult to work with, clients who didn’t want to pay my worth, etc.

Years ago, I joined an online community and attended a webinar on boundaries. I realized I hadn’t been enforcing boundaries with clients and not only needed to, but it was my right to do so, even though family and friends (don’t ever ask them for business advice!) kept telling me just to put up with it: “They’re clients, paying you money. You have to put up with them.”

These issues made me miserable. (Turning lemons into lemonade, though, that became fodder for a podcast episode about 6 types of problem clients and how to fire them.)

Then there was a call with a life coach as part of this community. I happened to be the only one on the call, which was the only reason why I’d even have spoken up at that time. She asked me about my title, “graphic designer.” She asked what I did every day, and I told her. She then asked, “That’s not what a ‘graphic designer’ does. You do way more than that, offer so much more value. You’re a creative director and business owner.” She asked where this self-limiting feeling came from, and I was like, “Wow, she’s really hit on something.” It made me think and then I realized it went back to my childhood.

I then took a course and joined a second community. It was all about positioning your business, so you’re not another freelancer, design firm, etc. competing on price. So that really helped with the business side of things.

I started owning—outwardly anyway—my worth as an expert. But I don’t think I fully believed that I was at that time.

Some high-level one-on-one business coaching really changed my mindset for good, though, and helped transform my business. It brought my attention to how my personal baggage had affected my business and how to fix that. It was raw and uncomfortable to make some of these business and mindset changes. But it woke me up! That was the final step in this journey of realization.

So, once I believed my worth and what I have to offer, everything changed both personally and in my business. I stopped putting up with toxic people, I enforced boundaries, and I started stepping up and accepting—and believing—yes, I am an expert! (And darnit, clients need to pay more for that too.)

3.What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

For the most part, thankfully, I’ve always had a lot of client work coming in due to referrals or from colleagues. I was at my first job for two years, and I freelanced in addition to that. When I left there, they didn’t replace me, so they gave the same work I had done for them as an employee but as a freelancer. They also referred other nonprofits to me. I continued to get more work from other nonprofits.

When I left my second job, the people I had worked with sent me work to do on a freelance basis. It just kept snowballing.

I worked a full-time job and freelanced for seven years before going out on my own full time. I made more money freelancing than at my job and I was exhausted from doing both, so I left my job.

Years ago though, I realized even though I was getting a lot of work, it wasn’t necessarily the work I wanted to be doing or it wasn’t with clients I really wanted to work with. As a result, I became more proactive about marketing and more selective with the clients and work I took on.

I’ve also gotten clients as a result of participating on local e-mail lists, answering questions quite often. Demonstrating your expertise like that goes a long way.

I do this on LinkedIn too. I connect with people who could potentially use our services and post articles that I write, which relate to the services we provide.

These efforts have contributed to the business being known for publication design, accessibility and working with nonprofits, and me personally getting known also for mentoring designers.

4.How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

I’ve always had a strong work ethic, and clients notice it. Over the past 22 years, my business/I have been known for doing great design work. We also ensure that the designs we create meet the clients’ objectives and explain that to them when presetting the work. We also have a process in place for checking our work to make sure it’s meticulous. (I often spot mistakes that copy editors missed.)

Clients also know we will get the job done accurately and on time without them needing to babysit.

Also, I ask questions and bring things up that many designers don’t. Clients have said that the questions are like therapy and really help them get focused on what they’re trying to accomplish. I’ve made many of these questions available in a free guide (with email signup) at

5.Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

Ha! Yes, I used to have an issue with this. For years, no one paid me late, then it seemed like everyone was. It was absolutely maddening.

One time, my biggest client, owed me for three invoices at once. They were all past due. They were like $12k. I paid a few bucks to have a collections threat letter sent to them after my calls and emails to them went unanswered—which was bizarre, since this was a monthly publication and we normally had contact with one another a few times a week. But the finance guy wouldn’t return my calls or emails.

When he got the letter, he called to yell at me, about how I “should have known” I would “eventually” be paid, and “how dare” I contact collections agency! You can’t make this stuff up! How dare I? I told them they were fired.

Some designers will think this is nuts, but I actually once fired a client once over a $1 late fee. He was a bully, and I had often thought of firing him. The latest late payment was the last straw. He threatened to not work with me if I went through with the charge and said if I waived it, we’d be good.

I told him, “No, we’re done.” I don’t think I ever actually collected the $1 and change from him. I didn’t care. It was about self-respect.

Creatives put up with so much crap that others don’t put up with. That moment was a huge victory.

Again, this all goes back to the mindset issue I had going on, and that resulted in me allowing this behavior to happen in the first place and not enforcing late fees. Once I put my foot down, I regained respect and control of my business. Clients don’t run my business and they don’t give me ultimatums.

A few years ago, I changed my policies so that 50% was required up front, not just of all new clients, but even larger jobs for existing clients, with the remainder being due when the job is done. I sometimes give exceptions, but never for new clients—only for existing clients and on a case-by-case basis. So that’s helped prevent late fees too.

6.What does your typical work day look like?

After feeding myself and the dogs, I check in with my designer about projects and check e-mail. I set a list of things to get done that day. Oftentimes, I do that the day before, so I’m ready to go.

I manage the clients and the projects. I’ll also switch over to working on the podcast (getting content ready, scheduling guests, editing episodes or promoting one).

7.Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

Yes, absolutely! Where to start?

  • Be the expert, not the order taker. Lead the client through the process, ask a lot of questions up front, present your work and explain your design decisions, and you’ll get more respect.
  • Understand that you’re not selling a thing (a brochure, a logo, a website). Clients aren’t looking for a website for the sake of having a website. They’re not looking for a logo just to have a logo. They’re looking to reach more people, have a professional image, allow people to buy online, whatever it may be.

You’re selling results. Your work should meet their objectives, their goals. When you take this approach, it keeps the design objective, not subjective and open to their personal preferences. Good clients appreciate this and will see your work as an investment, not an expense.

When you focus on the “thing” and not results, you put yourself in the box with all the commoditized designers out there, who are the order takers. And their clients are the ones who think of design as an expense, not an investment.

  • Charge more! Think about what your work does for your clients. Does it help them increase sales or donations? Don’t know? Find out. Ask the client after some time has passed. For instance, a logo and website redesign I did for an animal rescue resulted in a 33% increase in donations in three months. An event I designed for had almost double the revenue.

What is that worth to them? Restating that value should make your fees a no-brainer for them.

  • Get a signed contract and 50% up front with all new clients.
  • Check your work! Most designers do not check their work. They don’t zoom in and check the details (their craftsmanship—bleeds, Photoshop work, etc.), and they don’t check the layout against the client’s original files, especially to make sure they haven’t omitted something by accident.
  • Be the specialist, not the generalist. Specialists get paid more than generalists in any industry. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Do what you do well, and don’t give in to clients who think that you should offer a whole bunch of other services. Just because an uneducated client expects or wants that doesn’t mean it would be good for your business.
  • You shouldn’t have to convince clients to work with you. Instead, demonstrate expertise. If they don’t see the value in that, move on. If you try convincing them, they won’t respect you or value your service.
  • Don’t take on every client. Not all clients or type of work are a good fit. When you take on everyone and everything, you lose focus and risk being unprofitable. And then what’s the point of doing the work in the first place?

Founder of Gratzer Graphics LLC in 2003, Colleen Gratzer is an award-winning designer with 22 years of branding, publication and web expertise. She is a Brand Academy™ Certified Branding Expert and an accessibility consultant, having provided training on accessibility with InDesign to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Through her second business, Creative Boost, Colleen offers design mentoring and hosts the Design Domination podcast for aspiring graphic designers.

Connect with
Colleen Gratzer

More strategies to boost your design career

Interview published on: Aug 23, 2019

Check out these other designers

Ruben Cespedes

Ruben Cespedes

When did you realize you wanted to be a designer? Well, it's quite a journey. Ever since I was a little kid, I was...

Tom Muller

Tom Muller

When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? I knew from very young age I wanted to do *something* creative. Both...

Liz Mosley

Liz Mosley

When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? After studying art at school and thinking I wanted to be a...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.