Interview with David Airey

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

I was 15 when I was introduced to graphic design as something people did for a job. I knew that people drew comics, and created art, but the term graphic designer wasn’t really in my vocabulary.

I’d enrolled on an art and design course at my local college in Northern Ireland. That was shortly after my grades weren’t good enough to carry on at school. I was far from the best student in my college class. Probably one of the weakest. But there was something I loved about visually expressing myself to solve whatever project brief we were given. I remember one project more vividly than the rest — to design a logo for a DJ, distilling of every aspect of the musical brand down to this one, little symbol. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my first taste of my future design specialism.

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

I was nineteen when I moved to Scotland for university. Soon after those uni years, I spent a few months working full-time selling ad space for one of Scotland’s national newspapers. While on the job I got talking to a kind woman who worked in the same building. She knew of a design opening where her friend worked, so I asked her if she could put me in touch. A short interview later and I landed my first full-time role in design employment, for the cancer charity Myeloma UK.

Perhaps a more common route into the profession is working in a creative agency or design studio, but a design company isn’t where a designer should necessarily be. If you’re interested in creativity, if you’re curious, if you’re imaginative, take it anywhere. Work in any company. In the words of Michael Wolff, “in some ways a design company is actually a rather constraining place to be a designer.”

A couple of years into the charity role I got itchy feet, handing in my notice with enough savings to see some of the world. When I returned to Edinburgh my position at the charity hadn’t been filled, so I pitched the idea of taking on my previous employer as my first client. I’d work three days each week, invoicing at the end of the month. In those other days I built a web presence and tried to find new clients. That was the hardest part — bringing in new business. I remember saying “yes” to everything, no matter how small the job, no matter where it was in the world. I knew I needed to build my portfolio, and I knew I needed to earn more money.

I made a lot of mistakes, none bigger than doing the work before getting paid. At the beginning I didn’t have the experience or confidence to ask for a downpayment, and in hindsight it’s no surprise that many clients disappeared without paying. When a client pays a percentage in advance it means there’s a commitment on both sides. The client’s more invested and more likely to value the relationship. And if a project doesn’t go according to plan then at least as a designer you’re not left completely out of pocket.

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

There was never just one thing. Here’s a little advice I’d give on creating a lasting business:

Make your next project better than your last, even if it’s only by a marginal amount. When you have a few projects under your belt you’ll soon notice the difference in quality. Looking at the work of top studios can give you a standard to aim for.

Promote your work so it’s seen by others. What you do is valuable. People in business are looking for you. So don’t be shy about self-promotion.

Treat every client you have like that’s the best client you’ll get. Because your clients can turn into your best salespeople, happily recommending you to their business contacts.

All projects can have an interesting outcome, no matter how stereotypically dull the market. Remember that when someone approaches you, because showing keenness and enthusiasm in a potential client’s business will help win you the job.

Keep writing. A blog post, an article, a book. The words we use are just as important as the visuals. Often more so. When we practice using words we get better at explaining ourselves.

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

The nature of the projects I work on means that clients don’t need to come back to me. I create a mark that’s supposed to work for the duration of the business. But as clients grow they may need a logo for a sub-brand, or an event series, or a merger between businesses. They come back to me because they trust in my ability, my experience, my ideas, my timekeeping, and because I understand the value of client input when it comes to reaching the strongest result.

It comes back to focusing on what’s in front of you. A client on the phone is worth ten that aren’t.

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

It’s rare when I’m paid late because I keep the files I create (and their usage rights) until after final payment. But that wasn’t always how I worked. A long time ago an overseas client refused to pay a final invoice after I sent the design files and despite my client being happy with the work.

Months passed until a man from a commercial print company that was also involved with the project asked if I was having problems getting paid. When I said “yes” he referred me to a debt collection agency — the first and only time when I’ve brought debt collectors on board. A year later, my client unexpectedly got in touch to settle the bill. I then paid thirty percent of what I was owed to the collection agency.

There was no animosity, but I felt uneasy when using the collection agency. I wondered what kind of communication was taking place between the agency and my client, so if you’re ever dealing with debt collectors, ask about their methods, if only for peace of mind.

Ultimately, that taught me not to send files until after payment.

6. What does your typical work day look like?

Usually quite relaxed, I’ll sometimes go for a run, enjoy a good breakfast, shower, then start my computer and go through my inbox. Client work’s the priority when I have a project on the go. When I’m in a quieter spell I’ll work on my websites or read.

It’s hard to predict how busy I’ll be. I’ve been self-employed since 2005 and there’s rarely a middle ground between busy and quiet.

I love what I do, though. There’s a lot of flexibility in how I work, and that lets me devote a lot more time than most people can toward raising kids.

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

There’s often a lot of negativity toward design projects of different kinds — especially within online comment threads.

So, now and again it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s almost impossible to give a balanced critique of another designer’s work without knowing a few things:

  • Details of the design brief
  • The relationship between the client and the designer
  • The relationship between decision-makers on the client side
  • Just how hard the designer tried to sell a preferred yet unused option

Next time a studio completes a project for a high profile client, my first thought will be one of congratulations for achieving consensus on a particular outcome, because getting the decision makers to agree is often a designer’s most difficult task.

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David Airey

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David Airey is a designer of enduring logos and visual identities. He runs an independent graphic design studio in Northern Ireland, collaborating with clients worldwide to grow their businesses through distinctive, meaningful, and emotive design. He’s also an author of the bestselling design books Identity Designed and Logo Design Love.

Interview published on: Aug 2, 2021

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