I know the term “personal brand” gets some major eye-rolls, but… If you’re freelancing under your own name, your audience’s connection to you correlates your bills getting paid. Branding is imperative when you are the face of your practice — and your practice is your business. Designers who freelance (or monetize a side project) have a personal brand, whether they accept it or not.
For some, this comes naturally by just using the Internet. Lettering artist Jen Mussari explained in a Working File episode, “I haven’t had to focus on self-promotion in years because I’ve never had a problem expressing myself on the Internet.” Not everyone has the privilege to connect with their audience on their own terms by being their authentic selves. Sometimes we need a little more strategy.
As good designers, we know a brand identity project without a story is just a few vectors and jpgs. It’s our job to educate our clients on the importance of strategy to set up them up for success. Letting that process slip by in your own business is easy when you’re on the grind, busy with projects day in and day out. While you share your work and promote your practice, be sure you aren’t making these missteps.
1. Don’t create for yourself instead of your audience
When it comes to business, even when you are your brand, your message has to resonate with your audience. Think of your favourite artists who developed their brand by creating for themselves. Their work is so popular because their efforts resonate with their audience.
Creating art for a personal practice is not the same as designing to solve a problem for specific users. Your own personal branding should solve a problem for a specific audience as well. Your brand identity should reflect who you are. What will set you apart from others is your audience seeing themselves in your brand’s messaging. Tell your prospective clients the problems you’ll solve for them rather than telling them you design stuff. “Your small business is unique. I help your e-commerce shop get the conversions you deserve.” helps your audience figure out what they need and what you do. “I am a freelance web designer” is about you, not them.
2. Don’t try to please everyone at once
Look at the example headlines above. Apart from the client-focused copy, the other key differentiator is the specific niche. You could get even more specific by replacing “e-commerce shop” with “Shopify store.” There isn’t a problem with being a design generalist, but there’s something to be said about being a master of one trade, at least for your business. While I’m not advocating for TED Talks as the end all be all of expertise, developer and entrepreneur Brennan Dunn makes a fair point when he asks, “Who gives the most interesting TED talks? Generalists, or specialists? In fact, who gives any kind of TED talk?” Even if you don’t think finding a niche is your thing, keep your intended audience in mind. You don’t want to design for everyone in the whole world. Maybe your values drive which projects you’ll accept or turn down. Keeping your brand messages focused will draw in the audience you want to attract (and keep out everyone else).
3. Don’t create one-offs for every touchpoint
This is something we know for our client work, but can sometimes slip up for ourselves. Consistency is key in branding. I’m not saying your social media accounts have to have a rigid and soulless strategy; the “personal” in “personal brand” is what’s most important! But veering off course in your promotional touchpoints can water down your message and confuse your audience. How can you expect a prospective client to recognize you if your tone changes in each post, profile pic, or email? How can you stand out from the competition if each one of your touchpoints lacks a consistent voice?
4. Don’t assume design is everything
We tell our clients having a gorgeous logo by itself isn’t going to make them a million dollars. We steer them in the right direction when they think they’ll have Nike’s success by having an iconic logo mark. We also know to be taken seriously in a market, you have to have an appropriate identity. A good designer will ask the right questions to give the client the right design… only if the client has the right answers to those questions. You have to play both sides of that conversation when branding yourself. Pretty artifacts in your portfolio won’t do it all for you.
“Design thinking” is a cute buzzword in the corporate world over the past few years. People want to replicate the success of “design-first” tech companies like Airbnb, whose cofounders are designers. But design isn’t what makes those “design thinking” companies money. The only brand that make money from Photoshop is Adobe. AirBnB found their fame and profit after years of struggling and pivoting. Their business model was stumbled upon by accident, not by design. (And they’re not a perfect company, anyway.)
Yes, your work will speak for itself.
…If you have case studies to explain it.
…And if it resonates with your audience.
…And if your marketing efforts get people looking at it in the first place.