1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
You know, I honestly didn’t know design existed as a career until my Junior year in College. In high school, I was obsessed with photography. I had my sights on being a photographer with a studio in NYC, shooting and traveling. Ansel Adams was my north star. But honestly, digital cameras came along in a big way and disrupted the magic of it for me.
I think I was originally attracted to photography because I’d always been creative, but I struggled with creating things from within. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. Art seemed foreign to me because I didn’t feel the need to express anything, haha! Executionally, I was pretty good with a pencil and pad, but the idea — that original thought — eluded me. I was instantly drawn to photography because it was less about creating and more about capturing. I was confident there. I think design is very similar. The content, the idea, the box you work in comes from the client. I thrive in that space.
I bounced around colleges and degree programs, eventually landing in a New Media track at USC. There, I was introduced to design as a profession when I blindly stumbled into an internship opportunity in the art department of a local agency. Design and I immediately clicked.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
I’d say I got my start at that internship. I was a design intern at a company called Post No Bills. We crafted promotions for big entertainment clients like Dreamworks, Paramount Pictures, AMC, TNT, TBS and more. I’d wager to say I learned everything I know now about design from that internship, and an amazing creative director, Carol Smith.
Biggest hurdle? I showed up to the first interview at this super-chill agency wearing a full suit with no portfolio. I had no idea what I was doing, haha! Carol gave me a second chance and told me to come back the next day with a portfolio. She probably wasn’t expecting me to show – but I did. I was up for 24 hours putting together a portfolio of work — all fake/imaginary/made up projects, mind you. The work was horrible… and I mean HORRIBLE. But the work ethic, the hustle, got me the spot.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
The literal million-dollar question. For me and my practice, it has been in-person, non-spammy, hard-core networking. It’s cliche, probably half of you just groaned, but it’s true. And I’ll tell you why it works for me. I’m not the best designer. And I’m definitely not the best salesperson. But my strength, my rock, is my work ethic. Pair a crucial work ethic with an upstanding, eagle-scout interpersonal relationship mentality, and I have attracted the attention of some great clients to work with. I go to the ends of the earth for my clients – and they know it.
The way I look at finding new clients is a combination of width and depth. Width signifies how many people know you. What’s your reputation? What is your network span? How many people know that you and your company even exist? Depth signifies the literal depth of the relationship. How well do your people know you? How much do they value your relationship. And the ultimate question: How much value do they get from knowing you?
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
This one makes me angry. And you don’t want to make me angry.
I kid, but seriously. If your clients aren’t staying with you, the only conclusion that I can come to is that you suck to work with. Either the work sucks, your communication sucks, or your project management flow sucks. One of those things is happening.
Why my clients have been insanely loyal:
1. The work is good. The end result is what they wanted.
2. I communicate well, and I’m awesomely nice to people.
3. I have clear approaches and processes for different types of jobs. These templates get rinsed and reused successfully all the time. This makes good work predictable.
What it boils down to is a simple question: are you providing an equal or greater value to your client than they are paying you? If so, they’re going to stick around for a long, long time.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
Rarely. Many of my clients were on retainer, so if there was no prepayment, there was no work. And if I charged a flat project fee, I required 50% of the total up front. I structured my engagements for success. Policy is a powerful word. Use it.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
I get into the office at about 10, do about an hour on the email hamster wheel, then sit down with the team. We go over the day’s goals and milestones and prep for the day’s work. Between then and lunch, I’m in full project management mode: reviewing dailies, creative direction, etc. Sometimes I have to put together an email blast or social media post. Lunch is usually at Tender Greens – the tuna nicoise salad is the bomb.
After lunch, I try to sit down and do something thought intensive, like writing a blog post, front-end work on The Futur’s site, or preparing for a YouTube episode. We take a company-wide break at 5:00, and I use that time to catch up on social media and have a snack. The rest of the evening is spent doing something a little less thought-intensive, like editing video, laying out graphics for a deck, or taking meetings. I typically leave the office around 7.
But that’s not all!
After about three hours of family time, I hop back on the computer at home and start digging in to the creative side of projects. I’ll work on The Futur collateral or website, or spend time on an edit for my personal channel, work on my personal brand. Typically I’m working until about 1 AM. Recently I’ve been running around this time – so if you see a big bearded dude trucking down the streets of El Segundo around midnight, it’s probably me.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
Specialize. Seriously. It doesn’t matter what you pick. It could be hand-lettering for the French-speaking Brazilian wedding cake industry. But pick something to specialize in. A jack of all trades is a master of none. Your marketing, your career, your future depends on it.
That being said, specialization doesn’t mean you have to walk away from all other creative work! Take on that weird website project if you want to, even though you’re a logo designer. Just curate your portfolio to reflect your specialty. And make sure that your skill level is crazy deep on that one thing. Remember, the world doesn’t need another multi-disciplinary designer.
More about Ben Burns
Ben Burns is a brand strategist, an award-winning designer, and the Digital Director of Blind, where he oversees the intersection of design and technology in all client work.
Prior to joining the team at Blind, Ben founded Burnt Creative, a brand experience agency in Richmond, Virginia. He also served on the executive board of the Richmond AIGA chapter as Vice President.
He received his BA in Media Arts with a focus on New Media from the University of South Carolina and a Masters Certificate in Cyber Security from Armstrong Atlantic University. Since then, Ben has enjoyed working with brands like DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, AMC, TBS, (Olympic) Team USA, Laika, and Hyatt among several exciting startups.
Ben is a veteran, serving five years in the Army National Guard, earning the rank of Sergeant. In a brief intermission from the creative sphere, he also spent a few years chasing drug dealers as a Narcotics Agent with a multi-jurisdictional narcotics agency.