The following is a paper written as a reflection on a guest speaker in my Introduction to Graphic Design class. The Steve Jobs interview video referenced throughout the paper is linked at the end of the essay:
Anton Weaver of Uptown Studios struck me as an interesting example into the eyes of a professional studio staff position.His experiences were ones that showed me that I have absolutely no interest in working for a studio. From his experiences, it sounds a lot like a factory that pumps out mediocre design work in order to pay bills and keep the lights on. The studio takes on a wide array of work to attract as many clients as possible and serve up utilitarian, yet lifeless solutions. The way that Anton describes how the studio operates only leaves me to think that the culture within the studio is one that is born out of a scarcity mindset. I was shocked that Anton actually said that every project requires a moment to evaluate where you need to “cut corners.” I understand he could have been referring to evaluating aspects of the project that can’t be fully developed as a way to avoid becoming too enveloped in details, but I don’t think that was the case. I know every project can go on forever if you let it, or if you don’t put limitations on it. However, I believe what he said stems from the scarcity mindset with him believing that the ship date is the most important part of the project. This idea of mediocrity was reinforced when he said that his boss came to him and asked him to create “three logos in three hours.” That idea of rapid production may be appealing to some people who are intrigued by working on many different projects, but when I heard this I was disgusted. I had the idea that studios would be far better than freelance designers submitting designs to online contests within hours, but now I’m not so sure. This type of culture is unattractive to me. This type of studio is inherently made up of the same DNA of the freelance designers who beg for any work they can take. This is similar to Anton’s beliefs because he said “[we] should take any work [we] can get” to build our portfolio. I completely disagree with his portfolio building approach, which brings me to an experience I had straight out of high school.
I took a web design class my senior year of high school. I had become really intrigued in creating websites after just a few weeks in the class. My teacher told me about SkillsUSA, which was the school’s vocational skills club, and I joined the web design team. Throughout the school year, we competed in local and state competitions and I thoroughly enjoyed web design. I won first place prizes and even won the silver medal at the 2012 SkillsUSA State Championships in San Diego. At this point, I had developed a passion for web design and at the end of my senior year I had my first client for a website. I had the same thoughts of Anton at this time and I believed I needed to take this job no matter what; I was thinking in a scarcity mindset, and I was willing to work for whatever because I didn’t know if I would get another job. As I poorly negotiated for myself, my client began to realize that I would work for whatever and began to dictate the terms of the agreement. I ended up spending over 50 hours on the website, including updates for just a $100. After that project, I never wanted to do another website again. My passion for web design was crushed because of the naiveté and the unprofessionalism of the scarcity mindset. Of course I lacked basic knowledge that could have prevented that, but I believe this hits at the core of the scarcity mindset. When you’re in this mindset, your professionalism and your own values often come second to gaining a client. After this experience, I began studying a different approach to professionalism that was focused on an idea of abundance in client opportunities.
A mindset focused on abundance flips the situation. Rather than compromising on your values to obtain clientele, you focus on bettering yourself to be able to work to attract clients who want to work with you. This is about positioning yourself as an expert in your field. In this approach, you would attract clients who have a level of respect for you and who are willing to come under your process for your work. By turning down bad clients and spending downtime on self-initiated projects and pro-bono work, you are able to carefully craft a portfolio that attracts work from the people you want to work for. If you just take the random work you can, your work will only attract more of the same. This alternative puts the designer in the driver’s seat of their work and client relationships. This strategy requires a day job to cover the bills in the beginning, because turning down bad clients also means turning down money. You would craft your portfolio in your free time and share your work publically in local settings and the internet. As you get better and have shared your well-crafted portfolio publically, they will begin to reach out to you for your work. With money not being an issue by having the day job, you can be selective with the work you choose and set your own standards for your values and professionalism that the client must adhere to in order to work with you. This works really well with specialties within the design industry, for instance, if you curate a portfolio of icon designs, you will attract clients who want an icon specialist. Once you have attracted a sustainable level of client work, you would no longer need the day job.
I remember it being said in class, after the Steve Jobs video interview on Paul Rand, that you are only able to dictate the terms of the relationship and project if you are “super famous.” I would like to disagree with that statement because it’s deeper and just being “super famous.” Paul Rand was able to set the terms of the relationship with Steve Jobs because he was in a position of leverage. Rand had positioned himself as an expert in the field and clients sought after him, allowing him to set his own process that clients such as Steve Jobs had to come under in order to receive work from him. Rand was not functioning out of a scarcity mindset just to get a high-value client, but rather he positioned his values and personal process above all else. He was able to do this because of the value precedent he set with his previous work that attracted clients who wanted high-quality work, and then he was able to use that interest as a point of leverage to get Jobs to submit to his process. This is the same fundamental approach for all the designers who take this approach to design; it’s about taking the time to build and curate a specific portfolio as an asset to be used as leverage to charge what you’re worth, and to create the type of work you love and are proud of. This method is fundamentally about positioning the designer on the other end of the supply and demand chain. It’s essentially about creating faux demand in the beginning with pro-bono projects until your expertise and craftsmanship eventually align with your mindset, thus attracting real demand which enables the freedom to be selective and charge accordingly. The designer is also able to create limited supply by being selective in the clients they accept. High demand and limited supply in these circumstances tip the scales in the designer’s favor to have the leverage to set the terms that they desire.
This brings me to another point that this design approach addresses: specialization. I mentioned that this approach works very well with specialties, and this is because it is a lot easier to become the best icon designer in your area than it is to become the best graphic designer in your area. After the presentation, I went up to Anton and asked him what he thought about specialization. He thought it’s a good idea because clients will come to you for work, but he said it wasn’t for him because he likes to try a lot of different things. He went on to refer to himself as a “jack of all trades, master of none” and that he was “a mile wide and an inch deep.” This isn’t a very intriguing aspect of design for me. This makes me believe that this is another cause of the scarcity mindset. A general practitioner of design who can do many things at an average level is positioned as a commodity who can be subbed out very easily. On the other hand, an expert in a specialty has some unique advantages. The types of projects will definitely be limited, but by crafting a specific portfolio for a specialty and becoming known for it, you can attract high-valued clients who want the best of a specific type of design. Again, this would give leverage back to the designer. Additionally, the designer does not have to be locked into this one field of design forever. This was one thing that Anton warned me of. He told me I “better be sure” of the thing I’m interested in specializing in, because some of his peers have done that route and become burned-out. I don’t believe this has to be the case. As designers, many of us have multiple interests which we would like to pursue just like Anton. However, I believe it can be done through specialization as well.
Instead of spending your career doing general graphic design for 30 years, you spend it as a specialist of six different trades. For the first five years of your career you could be an icon designer, and on your final year or so, you can begin to develop a portfolio for becoming an illustrator on the side, and save money from client work to make a career transition. The client work will act as the aforementioned day-job that was used to begin a career with an attitude of abundance. The client work savings and portfolio head start makes for a smoother transition into a different field of design. Even though, you would be new to a certain field of design you would be able to quickly surpass the mediocre jack-of-all-trades. Most designers won’t focus on a single pursuit which allows one to rise to the top in a short period of focused work. Plus, you will still be known as an expert in your previous areas of design.
This is not to say that positioning the designer with leverage over the client is a way to act arrogantly to the client. I really do believe you need to “leave your ego at the door,” as Anton said. Although I disagree with a few main points of Anton’s, I do strongly believe you should “never forget who you’re working for, [because] this is a business of relationships.” The relationships with clients are the most valuable assets in the business, and I believe being able to set the terms for the personal and business relationships allows you to foster relationships that will stand the test of time. After all, being able to set the terms is about creating the work you can be proud of, with the clients you’re excited to work with. Through this approach you are able to set a standard for your values and quality that are much higher than the industry standard. You can choose not to sign NDAs, which start off a relationship with the feeling of distrust. You can set your own deadlines and dedicate sufficient time to exceed the quality of the industry standard. This allows you to communicate to clients that you want to create something of much higher value than the industry standard. Once you deliver on your promise, you are able to establish an extraordinary level of trust. You can tell this is true by watching the interview with Steve Jobs on Paul Rand. Jobs goes on and on about how he admired Rand’s professionalism and demeanor. Rand was able to create a strong and impactful relationship with his client by setting his own process, level of quality and standard for a professional relationship.
“Start building your work ethic now,” is what Anton encouraged us to do. I will definitely begin to start building it now; however, I’ll focus on my values first and begin to work my way up to be able to charge for them.