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

I wish I could say ‘I was born with design in my blood!’ but that would be a lie! I’ve always been creative: I adored art and design and technology at school; I actually started a degree at Loughborough University in Product Design but decided that it wasn’t for me about 6 months in. I realised that my real interest is what makes people tick – so I decided to do a degree in Sociology, a masters in Social Research and a lot of my early working life researching why humans do the things they do. Design then became an extension of this: done well, design influences what audiences do, buy and feel, and can drive real change. So I sort of realised I wanted to be a designer at the end of my last day job when my visual communication skills were getting important things done, like securing funding and changing policy. Sounds convoluted, but true!

Health issues meant I was forced to leave my job, and I spent months in bed where I could only watch youtube videos and Skillshare to pass the time. I stumbled across Aaron Draplin’s logo workshops and was so inspired by his personality, focus on simplicity and the power of vectors. I think then was the real lightning bolt of ‘oh my god, I’ve got to get well so I can do what this guy does!’ Although my work doesn’t involve as much branding and logo stuff now, watching other designers share their craft helped me to develop my own sense of style and believe that I could do it.

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

In recovery from those health issues, I knew I needed to follow my newfound passion for design to give me a purpose again. Plus, life is too bloody short to do something you hate! I started volunteering as a graphic designer for a local charity, and they were so impressed with my work that they took me on one day a week as their paid in-house designer. As my work started getting noticed, other clients approached me for projects and I decided to set up my own business – Nifty Fox Creative.

The rest – as they say – is history! My work has definitely changed from when I started out; I used to do a lot of branding projects and more traditional print design, but client demand and the intersection of my design and research skills means that I offer more value to clients by helping them solve problems and engage audiences through visual thinking and visual storytelling.

My biggest hurdle was (and still is!) my mindset. As I don’t have a traditional background in design, I have lacked confidence in my abilities and been afraid to approach clients on some occasions as ‘I don’t think I’m good enough yet’. I’ve overcome this by ignoring my inner critic, and deliberately taking on jobs and approaching clients who seem ‘too much’ for me at that time. I’ve done some of my best work and forged great client relationships on projects where I was sh*t scared the whole time that I was crap!

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

Word of mouth, definitely. Excellent work speaks for itself, and being a great person to work with means clients are more likely to recommend you. Having a consistent and strong online presence and portfolio has helped, but I’d say 70% of my work comes from referrals or repeat business.

Teaming up with other creatives has also boosted my client base and income: offering a full suite of services together adds value for your clients. For example, I’ve teamed up with a local social media consultancy and copywriter to offer comprehensive brand packages for local businesses.

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

Be nice, and be human. I pride myself on being approachable and really getting to know my clients personally and professionally, as it helps create a positive working relationship, and ultimately better work. Also under-promise and over-deliver with your clients; they appreciate transparency and you going the extra mile for them. Following up with them a few months later also shows you care and keeps you top of mind.

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

Luckily, very rarely! I put this down to amazing accounting software that makes it easy to pay by credit and debit card (wave.com); good communication of expectations up front and throughout the project so that payments seem like crucial investments rather than expenses for clients; and not being afraid to talk about money and having a solid contract in place if a late payment issue ever does come up.

6. What does your typical work day look like?

I wish I had one haha! It depends on what projects I have going on at that time. If I have a big mural project, I could be covered in paint and chalk markers and be on site with a client from 9-6. If I have more desk based stuff going on, I tend to do as much creative work in the morning when I’m fresh, and save client meetings and admin tasks for the afternoon. I also run visual thinking and lettering workshops so I could be anywhere around the north slinging sharpies and doodling all over the place!

After regaining my health I’m much more protective of my energy and my time, so balance is so crucial for me to stay on top form. I do not pull long days or weekends as it simply does not work for me, and my clients know that they get more out of me when we both respect each other’s boundaries.

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

Probably a few pieces of advice!

Don’t be afraid to completely mess up sometimes. Mistakes have taught me so much as a business owner and made me a better designer.

Make time to be creative for no purpose other than enjoyment. When I get lost in client work and don’t make time to doodle for myself, I get stale and my ideas are harder to come by.

Do things that absolutely scare the bejesus out of you, as that is when the magic happens! For example, I was terrified to go to big design festivals with all those ‘proper’ and ‘blokey’ designers. But I’m so glad I faced the fear: I got to hang out with Aaron Draplin, made great friends and even got to be interviewed on This Design Life. Funny old world, isn’t it 😉!

Laura Evans is a visual storyteller who helps organisations think visually to think differently. Working with charities, the public sector and businesses to use meaningful pictures that engage audiences, build brands and inspire action. You can connect with Laura on Instagram.