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To succeed as a designer, you no longer have to be in New York or London or San Francisco—or anyplace in particular. But, in addition to doing great work, you do have to invest in a well-thought-out marketing strategy and spend significant time making things happen. A design firm or agency with a big budget can easily make an impression, but there are plenty of innovative ways for small firms to get their work noticed. There’s no one secret recipe, but the following strategies have proved highly effec­tive in helping graphic designers secure the kind of work they want.

I first “met” Jane Tilka in 2010 on a transatlantic flight. No, not sitting next to me, but on page 49 of an airline magazine, right between Karrass Negotiating Seminars and Las Vegas hotels, in a full-page, long-copy ad. 

A full-page ad for a graphic designer? “Designers can really learn from the adver­tising industry,” Tilka explains. “Ads are not directly tied to getting work, but they build awareness and get you noticed. The design community shouldn’t shy away from advertising.” The Minneapolis-based Tilka Design mixes tradi­tional ads with a targeted e-communications campaign. “You have to have a multifaceted strategy that covers all the bases,” Tilka says. Her firm sends out a bimonthly e-mail to more than 800 influencers via MailChimp. The e-mail introduces new work and links directly to tilka.com, where recipients can learn about each project in detail and peruse other work. Each e-blast results in 75 to 100 replies, Tilka reports. “This is a long-term, disciplined process. On the website, we demonstrate our capabilities and provide a video peek into our office and how we work. Thus, potential clients are engaged in a whole arc of communications, not a single event. And it works,” she says. “Our average open rate for an e-blast is 50 percent. According to MailChimp, the industry average open rate is only 20 percent.” 

When Adam Zolis and David Adams went into business together in 2014, they kept it mum for a year. Their new firm, Art & Mechanical (A&M), is located in Toronto, a highly competitive market. Zolis acknowledges that even with considerable experience at ad agencies and design studios, it’s difficult to establish yourself with key decision-makers—CEOs, business founders and owners—and get considered for the kind of projects that can put a new entity on the map. So he and Adams spent an entire year developing their brand, brainstorming and hatching their plan. 

The partners launched A&M with a surprisingly dark, expletive-filled, seven-minute video titled “Souls of Sin,” which tells the story of a gang-style execution that’s called off when the killers receive a well-designed promotional package in support of the victim. Produced with a full team of writers, actors, director and cinematographer, it required an investment of many thousands of dollars as well as bartered services. A&M distributed the video via social media as well as through a traditional PR campaign that included press releases sent to trade, business and creative publi­ca­tions, all timed to coincide with the launch of its new website. “The film created a buzz and gave us credibility,” Zolis says. “It shows that we can create experiences that are emotionally relevant and that can inspire change, motivate people to feel something, to do something. The film gave us more traction than launching with the site alone, but both were critical. And now we’re busy with projects for beverages, restaurants and financial service firms.”

The partners’ plan includes doing something just as ambitious and surprising every year. “Stay tuned,” Zolis warns.

New York City–based Adventure House creates websites and digital marketing for such powerhouses as Citibank and Scholastic—big operations with many decision-makers, all in different office locations and on separate teams. Agency president Alexander Acker’s strategy is to create and send out functional, meaningful promotions that, in his words, “are designed to keep us ‘sticky’ with clients who have the means to refer us to others within their large organizations.” The most successful by far has been the iTowel, a beach towel designed to look like an iPhone with summer-themed parody app icons. Last June, Adventure House mailed the towels in specially designed cartons with personal notes to 150 current clients. “We ran the numbers on sales-by-client per month and had near-triple billings from six of our largest clients 30 days after we sent out the iTowel,” Acker reports.

“The buzz factor was huge, too,” he adds. The iTowel popped up on hundreds of tech blogs and a CNET video. “Clients were calling us up and sending us e-mails, asking for more towels to give to family and friends,” Acker says. And, perhaps more to the point, requests for app designs spiked.

Slovakia is a small Eastern European country of about 5.5 million people—not exactly a design hotspot. From there, Victor Novak runs a fifteen-person design firm, Higher Brand Experience Agency, with a global clientele, built mainly through online content marketing. Novak says he gets big returns by leveraging free web channels, particularly Behance.

The firm’s projects have been viewed more than 1.1 million times on the Behance Network. Higher Brand Experience has 123,000 followers and nearly 80,000 appreciations, and the exposure has led to projects large and small from more than 20 countries, primarily in Europe, but also in Africa, the Middle East and China.

The secret to getting that kind of attention on Behance, according to Novak, is creating a case study that tells the project story in an eye-catching way that best suits the Behance format. “This is a time-consuming process,” he stresses. “Creating visuals for a good story can take two designers up to four weeks.” But these high-quality case studies get the attention of Behance’s editorial team, which often features Higher Brand Experience’s projects on the homepage. From there, the case studies get picked up by design blogs worldwide. This online attention increases the loyalty of current clients and attracts new ones. “By the time potential clients call us, they have seen our projects in many different places, which gives us huge additional validity,” Novak says.


Swiss designer Felix Pfaeffli’s attitude toward marketing seems, at first, almost lackadaisical. “I am never the guy searching for clients,” he says. “I am always searching for something I would like to do. When I was in Peru, for example, it was finding a good spot to surf. Maybe I will work with somebody from there, but it will not be because I asked him. It will be because we had a good time together. If you find people who think like you, they understand and respect you, and that’s a good starting point for collaboration.”

By choosing what he likes, Pfaeffli proactively creates the kind of jobs he wants. When a local radio station asked him to design a low-budget newspaper ad—which didn’t interest him—Pfaeffli came up with a poster campaign featuring an illustration of a complex urban roofscape full of different scenes that promote individual programs on the station; for example, a scene of a naked man waking up surrounded by bottles promotes a Sunday-morning show dedicated to people recovering from hangovers. Since the client had a budget of “maybe a hundred bucks,” Pfaeffli funded the design, printing and distribution by selling ad space to Swiss corporations, offering to put their logos on billboards on the roof­tops depicted in the posters. Both he and the radio station made money, and the campaign got national media coverage. And he did the newspaper ad after all, by excerpting details from the poster. 

“A job is never just a job,” he says. “Change it, make it bigger, create unexpected stuff. If something seems boring, start thinking about how to make it interesting. Then, if it turns out really interesting, the interviews and magazine articles will start happening. They will have a reason to write about you, and the reason is, of course, your work.”

“I’m always the designer without new business cards,” admits Sallie Reynolds Allen, owner and creative director of Studio 32 North in San Diego. She says that her best marketing tool is her network of relationships, with her clients as well as the many designers, art directors, writers, illustrators and photographers she’s worked with over the years. “It’s those relationships that allow me to do my best work,” Allen says, “and that’s what gets you noticed.”

When relationships aren’t enough, something tangible can seal the deal: awards. “When it comes to promoting my work, I’ve found that a number of potential clients look at the work featured in award shows,” she says. “They know they need to stand out, and that’s not easy in fast-growing, competitive categories like food and beverage packaging. So to me, accolades from Communication ArtsGraphis and the Type Directors Club—as well as sites like lovelypackage.com—are key business tools. And, of course, they validate good design.” ca

How do you market your work? Tweet us @CommArts to share your tips and insights.

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.

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