Interview with Maece Seirafi

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

I graduated from Otis College of Art and Design in 2005 majoring in Communication Arts. In 2010 focused on my graduate studies California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 2010 majoring in Graphic Design. In the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to have my own practice that focused on the types of projects I found appealing and suitable to my interests.

The type of practice I saw for myself was a combination of freelance work for companies, private client work, and self-initiated projects. In addition to my studio work I also wanted to teach the fundamentals of graphic design. I felt that balance was the perfect fit that allowed for enough variety, experimentation, and areas to challenge myself.

The idea of being on my own became serious after being in a full-time design position for four years. About a year into my job I started taking freelance work on the side to build my client list, I would end my day job at 6pm then start client work at night. This decision was not only to build my client list and income flow but to challenge myself creatively, this was a combination of self-initiated projects and client work. I jumped into another full-time position thinking that would be a more satisfying role, however things did not turn out that way. I realized very quickly that I was not the right fit for the company and left. In 2014 I decided to take my freelance projects seriously and pursue this career path.

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

If it wasn’t for the freelance jobs and private client work I picked up along side my full-time job, I would not have had the confidence to make that jump. I wanted to plan ahead and have at least six months worth of runway as a safety precaution before I made decision. I also started networking with friends in the industry for freelance roles I saw fit. In 2014 my self-initiated projects started to fill up my time and later on started to turn into client work along side freelance work. In that same year I self-initiated a typography exhibit that was co-curated by myself and my colleague called Local/Not Local: Arabic and Iranian Typography Made in California at a local cultural arts center.

A group of friends and colleagues from our art school got together to share to their work in the form of posters, books, animations, typographic sculptures, and textiles. I wanted to build a community of creatives and raise awareness about the type of work they were doing. After that exhibit I started get the types of jobs that I was looking forward to receiving in addition to client relationships that were much more satisfying. This passionate initiative made me think about the power of self-initiated work that gets put out there attracting the type of client you see yourself working with.

My biggest hurdle was balancing my full-time role and my freelance projects on the side. It got to a point were it was unbearable but I had to make sure I had at least six months worth of runway in case things didn’t work out.

From 2014-2016 I was freelancing for companies and clients and I started to get coached about the business of design and was interested in the idea of becoming a business owner. I started to get exposed to the world of integrating creative strategy into my work and operating as a design consultant for my private clients. The shift has been very positive and have seen my business grow in a positive way. I started hiring a small team of designers for larger scale projects, that I would have taken on myself in the past, but choose not to. Learning to let go was another hurdle I had to get over if I wanted to see my business succeed and bring in more projects.

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

I cannot over emphasize the power of self-initiated work and how meaningful the work experience it results. It’s passionately driven projects that come with a self-initiated brief with no time limitations or restraints. It has put me in touch with the type of people I enjoy working with and has created long lasting relationships that have turned into reoccurring business.

My self-initiated exhibit Local/Not Local was one of the most successful ways of attracting the right types of clients I saw myself working with. It landed me jobs with the Qatar Foundation International and The University of North Georgia. The exhibit later on turned into a travelling show that travelled to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan then back to California, to the California State University of Dominguez Hills. The show travelled to three venues for three years.

While I was at my full-time job I illustrated map of Syria to raise awareness about the cause. I thought it would be great and cost effective to screen print this poster on thick cover stock, sell and raise proceeds to specific organizations I was familiar with. I made a run of 15 posters and sold each each poster as a limited edition print at $60 a piece with 20% of proceeds going to charity. That first batch sold out so I order a second batch of 60 posters and sold those too. That poster project started getting attention on Facebook and later organizations started sharing it and contacting me for work. After a few months the UN had reached out for a possible project collaboration as a result of the poster project shared on Facebook.

Word of mouth as been very helpful through my network of friends and professional circles, client testimonials on Linkedin and on my website have also been a great source.
Also speaking engagements through the AIGA community have been very helpful.

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

I make it a point to be visible to my clients on social media, whether it be through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter I’m always sharing my work and providing links to my site of any new projects released. Sending out monthly newsletters has also been a good return as well as sharing self initiated projects currently being working on. I’m currently documenting my mom’s recipes on Instagram from her edible garden.

That has caught the eye of a possible lead who owns a deli in Hermosa Beach, CA wanting to do some branding work. Another lead came from a food photographer in my network, who contacted me for brand identity work. I will be hiring her to photograph ingredients and recipe shots for my mom’s cookbook. The number one thing is providing value to your clients and their business. My biggest lesson in 2016 was integrating strategy sessions into my design practice and having clients see the value in that offering. I also believe that having a few revenue streams is helpful which is why I teach on the side.

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

Luckily I only had one client pay late only because I wasn’t aware of best practices for running a small business prior to 2016. I emailed them twice over the course of three weeks and still no answer. My third and final email was informing them their information and accrued finance charges will be sent to a debt collection agency within the next 48 hours if I did not hear from them.

I thought about cc-ing my lawyer but thought that would be a last resort should things not work in my favor. That last email did get their attention and they finally paid their total balance. After that moment I completely changed my contract and ran it through my lawyer a few times and decided to bill my transactions for projects in three parts:

A first deposit upfront of 50%, a second deposit of 25% three quarters of the way through, and the final 25% upon completion. Never had a late charge ever since.

6. What does your typical work day look like?

  • I wake up at 8am. Wash up, get dressed, and start my day with gratitude and thanks.
  • Have breakfast with my husband while watching the news.
  • At 9am I’m at my desk checking my to-do list with three major goals to achieve that day.
  • Whether it be securing a client contract, putting together a proposal, or putting together a class syllabus.
  • I make sure that I have folders for each project with a creative brief and timeline, look through deadlines, and plan ahead.
  • I leave admin work for mornings between the hours of 9am-1pm.
  • For lunch I make it a point to leave to office and eat outdoors.
  • Creative work is done from 2pm to 7pm if not longer depending on the project.
  • Before ending my day I’ll have tasks to accomplish written down with another set of three goals to accomplish.
  • I used to stress out about things not getting done or assets not being received but I’ve learned to pace myself and work with a timeline to allow for more room to breathe.
  • I’ll use this down time talk to family or see them after work.
  • Or use this time to work on personal projects, draw, sketch, and document on Instagram.

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

If you’re in a full time job make the decision of leaving only after you have a decent amount of client work to supplement yourself.

  • Having six months worth of runway as a safety net before leaving your full-time job allows for peace of mind.
  • Keep an organized schedule with weekly and daily tasks. I try to achieve at least 3 goals a day to not overwhelm myself.
  • Check your monthly calendar regularly to fit in things that are not work related, allowing room for spontaneity galleries, family outings, and trips.
  • Make sure you have a solid contract in place that covers every detail of your business.
  • Be upfront with budgets and your minimum level of engagement early on in the engagement.
  • Be firm about your payment schedule and solidify in writing.
  • Empathize with your clients, build a relationship of trust, and show the value of what you can offer to them. They have invested time and money with you, show them what you’ve got.
  • Know that clients don’t buy into what you’re doing they by into why you’re doing the projects that you do.
  • Try to avoid burning bridges and resolve in a polite manner and attempt to reach a resolution instead. Resolve in person or over the phone not over email.
  • Keep a form of documentation nearby when you’re out. Either a camera, sketchbook, notepad, or diary. I’ve jotted down several ideas I’ve had while on trips or during conversations that have later turned into fruition.
  • Share your work with friends and family online and in person. It’s self gratifying and allows you to practice talking about your ideas openly and clearly to a creative and non-creative audience.
  • Have a community of solopreneurs, creatives entrepreneurs, or business owners to share and get feedback. In addition to all things business advice. My power house for the business of design is The Futur run and operated by Chris Do.
  • Have an accountability partner within that community this helps reach your goals and set them. I also found mine at The Futur Group on Facebook. Luckily we are in the same time zone and city so we do meet up regularly.
  • Give yourself a break and do take part in activities and outings outside of design to allow yourself to room explore and discover 🙂

Maece Seirafi is a passionate creative, with roots in two cultures combining the best of Los Angeles, California inspired by Damascus, Syria. She established a boutique agency that focuses on brand strategy and brand identity targeted specifically for mid-size businesses and creative entrepreneurs.

She also has a deep understanding for brand identity in the cultural markets focusing on hospitality and educational initiatives bridging between the U.S. and the Middle East. She has worked for companies like Snap. Inc, Elle, Elle Decor, Microsoft, and The Qatar Foundation. Her strength and focus is brand strategy and brand identity targeted specifically for mid-size businesses, creative entrepreneurs, and hospitality brands.

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Interview published on: Jan 11, 2018

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