The two largest and fastest growing markets for graphic designers during the past 20 years have been website design and logo design. Things have changed, and these once highly lucrative markets are no longer the free-flowing fountains of cash they once were. How did this happen? Where does it leave you now? And what can you do about it? These are some of the questions we'll try to answer in this article.
Here's how this problem came to exist
Except for a lucky few who were among the first to get aboard, the invention of the template-based CMS was the worst thing ever to happen for website designers. It's true that a few years back you could make a bit of money designing templates for those systems, but what has happened now is that the landscape for templates has normalized.
What does normalization mean in this context? Well it means that the business community has settled on a certain style of template as the defacto standard, and this is very limiting in terms of what you can do with it.
Compounding this issue is the fact that there are so many millions of templates in existence now, that even if you can create something that would profoundly change this situation for the better, nobody will spend time browsing through all the other templates to find yours.
Those who were making money from template sales will see their earnings fall as this normalization continues to grow and spread. Business owners from other industries tend to be number crunchers, and won't always appreciate the importance of good aesthetics. All that they'll profess to caring about is that they want their site to look professional, like they spent a lot of money on it when really they didn't. And that is really the sole reason why templates exist.
Now, for those who were making money from designing logos and other things of that nature, the landscape has changed as well, and once again it is technology that is to blame. Sites like Fiverr.com and Freelancer.com have sprung up, bringing globalization into your back yard, and the results are not pretty. At least not if you were previously able to set your price at something you could live on in a first world country.
This has set you up in a situation where people are not shopping for the most competent designer, but for the lowest price they can get. So if you want to be part of this market and you want to be competitive in it, you need to sell at a low price, and this means you need to complete a lot more projects to continue earning whatever you previously did.
If you have a bit of self-respect, and you don't want to work harder to make the same money, then you need to resist the temptation to join this marketplace of under-bidders, and be willing to seek out more intelligent clients than those who will entrust the reputation of their brand to somebody who will work for a fiver.
The marketplace as it exists now
Attracting new clients has never been more difficult, because the level of competition has been raised so high. Not only are there more designers for people to choose from, but there are massive variations in price as well, with millions of people offering services at well below what the work is actually worth.
This does not necessarily mean that there is no hope for graphic designers, however. It means that to stay relevant, there may need to be a shift in the way we think about what we do, and to some extent our approach to the work itself.
How to make sure you don't lose relevance as a designer
While it's true that the common market is much harder to sell to, there is a way to still keep making money from doing what you love. The answer shouldn't come as a surprise. It is that you need to be an uncommon designer, and sell at a level above the common market.
This, of course, means you need to also find uncommon clients. How do you do this? The following tips can help you figure out a strategy that will work for you.
Bigger businesses tend to look at the bigger picture, and are more willing to see the true value beyond just the cost. With a small business customer, you may need to walk them along a bit to help them understand how hiring a professional designer will add more value to their brand compared to hiring a mere illustrator.
The important point is to be proactive in pitching, and not wait for a big company to come to you. They'll go to an established agency with a top reputation first every time, unless you get in there and give them a reason to consider you.
Obviously there will be more opportunities available to you from smaller businesses, but they will focus much more on the cost and you'll have a lot of competitors.
For the small business customer, pricing is paramount. Other factors like quality and aesthetics are not really considerations until you make them be. Your client needs a reason to hire you instead of that guy on the Internet who is willing to do the job for five dollars.
The first thing to know is that agencies usually charge for design work by the hour. Small business customers are often afraid of this kind of pricing. They can find it difficult to trust that hourly rates will be fair, and there is justified concern with not knowing up-front what the job will cost. Therefore with small business clients, it's best to quote a flat fee rather than an hourly rate.
Justify your cost by explaining that designers are different from illustrators. Most people don't know the difference. You need to explain that your training in marketing theory and in design principles gives you a solid understanding of brand-building. A non-professional design may save money in the short term, but in the long term it can be more costly because the public is less trusting of brands that don't present a professional image.
How you go about your work has a role to play too. You shouldn't really contribute to your own irrelevance, so make sure you talk with prospective clients about the importance of bespoke design versus off-the-shelf solutions.
Always deliver on that promise of helping the customer to improve their image through the use of your designs. This way you will earn recommendations and you can potentially establish valuable long term relationships with the clients.
As we've seen, many designers are struggling to remain relevant in a world that is looking for quick and cheap solutions, where pre-made templates are the standard, and where the opportunity to create those templates is seriously diminished.
Giving up isn't the answer, nor is working harder. Working smarter is the way to do it. That means chasing down the right kinds of clients, selling value, and giving quality results. Follow these simple principles, and success won't be out of your reach.
header image courtesy of Jord Riekwel