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4 ways designers can survive in a world where “everybody is a designer”

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It seems like everybody now has a copy of Photoshop, Illustrator or some form of design software. The internet has made once exclusive design tools accessible to everyone.

It’s not hard to imagine that people might start to ask themselves why they would pay you to do something they could do at home.

Technology seems to act as the great equalizer.

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If everyone has the same tools to work with, designers have to offer something that people can’t do themselves. Something they don’t have.

With websites offering five dollar logos, and free design software everywhere you look, what is it that will make people come to you?

How can you survive in a world where everybody thinks they are a designer? Here are a few simple suggestions. Add your tips by leaving a comment.

1. Innovate.

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People can get the tools to design for themselves. What they can’t get are your incredible ideas. If you have a portfolio full of thoughtful, well conceived ideas, people will come to you for your creative potential, as well as technical ability.

A note from Preston: I agree. Ideas separate you from monkeys with mouses. (tweet that)

2. Go above and beyond.

Adding value is a quick way to stand out from the competition. For example:

If you’re doing up a logo for someone, send along two or three mock ups near the end.

You could do a corporate identity mock up, or simple one item mock ups.

Something like that might have taken them all day to do up, but only takes you a couple of minutes.

Mock ups are a great way to make things more “real” for clients. It helps them get excited about the work.  When they are excited about it they are more likely to be excepting of your bill.

There are thousands of ways to go above and beyond when working with your clients. What tactics do you use?

3. Be too good to resist.

This doesn’t just mean you have to be good; you have to let people see how good you are as well.

Make sure your portfolio has all of your best and most up to date work in it. Make the portfolio itself beautiful. Choose a theme for your online portfolio that matches your work and your style. Looking at all of your great work reassures clients why they are shelling out their money for a professional designer.

4. Give Back.

Give back to the design community and your clients.

This can mean anything for you like; blogging, uploading freebies, templates and tutorials to your website or a little free design work for charitable causes. All of this helps to make you the first person people think of when they think design.

I want to hear from you!

What do you do to stay relevant and keep people coming back for your design work in a world where “everyone is a designer”?

Leave a comment on this post and let us know how you do it.

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About Ben Brush

Ben Brush is a graphic designer working and living in Nova Scotia. You can view his work on his website. Find more posts by Ben on his graphic design blog Design Puffin or connect with him on twitter.

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  1. Something that has helped me stay ahead of the “monkeys with mouses” is situating myself not only as a designer but as a consultant. Educating the client on methods and concepts relevant to their issue (that is, offer lots of why’s) is a good way to demonstrate that you have the insight to effectively power your tools to lasting results, helping to set you above those with the just the tools alone.

  2. Samantha says:

    Great post! I always had this problem on the back of my mind. The thing I always try to communicate to clients is that what I can offer is a solution to they’re problem.

    For example, most clients who don’t understand design would just want to put up a pretty website for the sake of putting up a website. However, I always ask the client, what is your goal for creating a website. More often than not its to increase sales…so I come up with a game-plan to get those results rather than creating a website just for the sake of doing so. I believe this is one aspect that helps me stand up against the crowd.

    • Thanks for reading!

      Great feedback. Helping a client realize their goals and working from there as a starting point is a lot better then them realizing it once all of the work is done!

  3. All excellent suggestions Ben; as you’ve pointed out, it’s when anybody can enter a market that the real professionals get the chance to prove their worth.

    I don’t think you could emphasise the ‘ideas’ element of design enough. I always make it clear to my clients and colleagues why I’ve done what I’ved done in my designs. Whether it’s a poster, website, flyer or anything else you should be able to rationalise every decision you’ve made (indeed, it should be a decision, rather than something you did ‘because it looks nice’).

    That, to me, is what seperates Designers from the “I’ve got Photoshop”-ers.

    Personally, I’m not going to sweat it too much. I know loads of people who own spanners (wrenches), but I’m always going to take my car to a professional mechanic.

    • Great point Andrew.

      Big difference between having professional tools, and being a professional.

      • Dear Friends,

        Good point!

        This leads me to think how to differentiate a good professional mechanic. One of the answers that comes in my mind is the experience of the professional mechanic, which is proportional to the number of years working in the industry.

        If above is true, can we differentiate a good designer by referring to his/her experience ? I personally feel that design industry seems to be a bit different with other industry such as engineering industry. This is because design industry take creativity as a great factor in success, but engineering may take less. Therefore, it seems people who is not design professional can success if they have great creativity.

        what do you think ? look forward to hear more comments.

  4. While everyone may think they’re a designer and they have access to actually put up their own website, all too often those websites look amateurish, are not up to SEO standards and don’t convert. What people don’t realize is there is a method to the madness. And what they don’t think about – at all – is that if they are putting forth a less than professional image on the internet, that is how they will be perceived.

    • Completely true Theresa.

      Websites that arn’t properly designed for functionality as well as aesthetic simply don’t perform. The image you present is all people have to base opinions of your company on a lot of the time.

      I think a lot of people will also question the security of an sloppy looking website as well, and that can mean a lot of lost business.

  5. Really great post and some good stuff in here. I agree that you need to stand out from the crowd by first and foremost having great work (a really great portfolio) and providing 150% and more to your clients. That means always being there for them in their hour of need and going above and beyond to look after them showing them that they are the most important part of your business.

    There are free website builders and cheap logo design sites popping up everywhere and a lot of people think they are a designer just because they can post on Facebook. These may sound great and possibly work for some folks if you have a technical geeky mind and like getting your hand dirty with this stuff but certainly isn’t suitable for many.

    I have had a couple of clients who have tried these cheap website builders etc and all have failed miserably for them. When you want to take control and do something not in the template or have a technical problem no one wants to know and technical support is extinct! These large faceless sites don’t really care once you have signed up and paid your money!

    I try to seperate myself by offering a strategic complete marketing approach backed up with the best design work I can produce and 20+ years experience in design and marketing and, since going freelance, a much better understanding of business development.

    Add the personal touch by spending some time building relationships with your clients to understand their business and more importantly their customers. Throw in a couple of hours for free and invest in your clients as without them we don’t have a business.

    Most clients do realise you get what you pay for and by coming to an expert you do get more added value and someone you can call on the phone day or night and by working together you can both grow your businesses together.

    If I have a plumbing problem in my home I could probably spend an awful lot of time trying to figure it out and watch a few youtube videos and buy some expensive tools and but still make a pigs ear of trying to fix something. In the end I know I would have to pay a professional to put right so know that this is not my strength and I don’t have the skills or experience to do a good job.

    Sorry to ramble and to sum up I think all of us freelance designers should go above and beyond for our clients and build solid relationships with them. Do the best work you can and back that up with the best customer service you can offer and more and clients will remain loyal and realise they are getting a great service and true bespoke effective design.

    At least they won’t see their competitor with the same website in six months time if they avoid the cheap quick fix.

    • Thanks for the reply Jason!

      Seems to be a pretty common theme here that offering a more well rounded package of designing, consulting and marketing really makes the distinction between people who have photoshop, and professional designers.

  6. Freebies are a great way to keep old clients and attract new ones. The occasional free poster design for a client’s office, an offer to do a free leaflet design. Etc. Has kept me many a client, who have gone on to recommend me to others too.

    • Couldn’t agree more Jaco.

      Making people feel special builds loyalty and certainly cant to any harm when it comes to word of mouth recommendations.

  7. I agree with your comments. However, I think this issue is a pervasive problem. It can be very complex, with many reasons for occurring, from the clients thinking that if they do the part of the “design” they shouldn’t pay as much— to designers not wanting to “collaborate”, or being unclear with the client in the first place.

    If the designer is a really clear communicator, informing the client on what the scope of their participation should be and what services the designer is capable of providing, before the project starts, they are less likely to encounter this. Setting clear, fair boundaries is just as important with a client as it is with a loved one… it has to be done right. And that is a skill worth honing!

  8. What I often tell clients who wave the flag of “I can get it cheaper by hiring my cousin who does design in the evening or on the weekend or s/he knows the programs” is the music is not in the violin—and great designs aren’t guaranteed by even the most sophisticated software.
    What I can offer as a professional designer is excellence in customer service and education of the client as to why I used this color or this type or left this while space or put this information here rather than there.

  9. i’m agree with it, so i think too that you need to have a smile every time and trustfulness in your work, the clients note about this, and if you believe in you, its more easy for people to believe too… =) practicando mi ingles, saludos!

  10. Anni WIldung says:

    In #2 second to last paragraph, did you mean to type “accepting of your bill” instead of “excepting of your bill”?

  11. Even before computers there was that element of “my 14-year old niece has taken a couple of art classes”… etc.). Nothing new there. Graphic design is probably the least respected of all the professions. In any case, I’ve rarely run into any problems with this since one look at what anyone who ‘thinks they can design’ creates – makes it painfully clear that they can’t. Most clients get that.

  12. Knowing how to use Photoshop and Indesign doesn’t make someone a designer, the same way knowing how to use a paintbrush doesn’t make someone an artist. Anyone can use a pencil, but not everyone can produce amazing pencil illustrations. Anyone can use a camera, but not everyone is a photographer. It’s quite silly how people think otherwise.

    It’s NOT about the tool.

  13. Bazil Zieel says:

    Well, when it comes to corporate identity like logos and etc, some other stuffs too. I give my services in a way they can be their own designers.Example: I update them on the process of designing the logo, which I divided into different stages. They have a say in every step of the process. Rather than being a suitable logo I designed for the company, the logo becomes exactly what the client visioned it would be and my job is to consult him in the process and make sure the logo in the end IS GOOD. When I do other work I always give them more than what they want, something extra or something that makes them feel the project is their own creativity and has fingerprint.


    • If you ‘have a fulltime job’ as a designer I agree many potential clients will perceive that you are, in fact, a designer. However if you are intending to build your own design business it will still be very hard to get people to take you seriously. With the safety net of a fulltime job it appears as if you lack either the experience or the confidence to run your own design business.

  15. I couldn’t agree more. If a customer feels as though they are getting value for money, then they are more likely to come back to you for future projects.

    Great Article!

  16. Many of my clients own copies of design software, and in fact more than a few of them have ideas of their own (some are pretty good ideas too). But these people also lack the time to implement them. They’d rather be focused on their own business, making sales etc. Thats where we as designers can step in and take care of what can be a labor intensive task that they simply dont have the time and/or know how to do themselves.

  17. Thank you for this Ben. I have found myself worried about lack of upcoming work this week and frustrated with the few jobs (difficult clients) I am working on! These pointers have given me the encouragement and kick-up-the-pants I need to get my business back on track. Thanks! 🙂

  18. Speed, speed, speed. The best asset I have as a designer is being able to think on the fly, switch gears and still produce great design. I’ve spoiled one I have worked with. The only thing I have to watch out for is burnout. Another excellent skill is being a problem solver. One needs to discover new ways of getting the job done.

  19. We’re have all been at the mercy of those websites that perceive to ‘sell’ design at rock bottom prices – And recently it does indeed seem that freelancers are flooding the market. However, I am a firm believer in selling yourself as a specialist of some sort, no matter how much of a niche you believe it to be. I’m constantly battling the old phrase of ‘But so-and-so can do it cheaper…’ and to be honest I take no notice these days. There are many clients who do not want to pay low prices as they know what they will get – maybe they have been burnt.

    I’m never surprised to see the amount of bad design out there and people who sell themselves as designers. Some of it is truly shocking and there should be a trade description issue in allowing yourself to call yourself a designer but we are in an industry that requires no certification or regulation. All we can do is show our portfolio and trust clients to be able to know good design compared to poor design – and thankfully, on the whole, they can.

    If i may I will add a link to a post I wrote only yesterday addressing the Rise of The Freelancer – It is becoming a far more competitive business than I ever predicted but there is room for all of us, even the bad ones….


    • Jim, that’s a great point about how you don’t need to be certified in order to sell yourself as a designer. Luckily the clients that can see through the riff raff of bad designers are often the ones that are the best to work for anyways!

  20. Danielle says:

    It is so weird how I came across this article, I was just discussing this with my biz partner.Well to be honest it is SUPA DUPA HARD to stay relevant, when someone can do your job for $5.00. Sites like this are causing many designers to lose work. Now I have seen some of the work on these $5 websites and let me tell you, about 80% of the work being done is HORRIBLE. Some of the “designers” and I say that loosely uses templates, clip-art and even stock illustrations.

    For the past 5yrs, we have accepted 1 account each month that we do for free for smaller businesses and startups, referred by friends and family, but lately I have been getting so many emails asking me could I design a logo for 50 bucks, and that It was a lot more than what others are receiving on these $5 sites. That was my 12th one this month. How can I compete with that and stay relevant? We use to compete with the $20 logo and graphic design services, now we have to do the same for $5-unlimited concepts-unlimited revisions-24hr turnaround logos. Our sales are decreasing by the month. I feel the value of graphic design is quickly disappearing, because if “everybody is a designer” nobody will need us!

  21. Mock up? I don’t understand you? Do you mean free work to get the clients attention? If so I am shocked to read this.

    • What I am suggesting is; say you have been hired by a client to design a logo. Once you have done the design work, throw in a couple mock ups of their logo on some products to help them visualize it.

      Just an added bonus to keep clients coming back.

  22. The one thing I almost always make sure is that when a client or potential client needs work done, I always give them a taste of that and a freebie item of there choice. It builds a trusting relationship that I am not here to win a few dollars from you but my company is here to win your branding needs and we only want you to succeed so that we can continue to work for your business. Check us out on Facebook please and send a request in as we get designs started that same day thanks for reading. http://avuendo.com facebook.com/avuendo twitter @avuendo

  23. I’m a designer at a printshop, and I can tell you that of the designs clients deliver maybe 3% are printable. I almost always have to fix something so the artwork will print correctly. Having a tool doesn’t mean you have all the knowledge to output a final product. I’ve seen this with all products whether print, web, or logo.

    As for those $5 logos, they are almost always in process (or RGB) and rarely designed for B&W or even spot color. I’ve had to redo many many logos so they are in spot color. Even if those sites offer logo variations, clients don’t know they need them.

    • I’ve also worked in pre-press and am aware of how artwork needs to be prepared to print properly. Unfortunately these days all may people to is produce a PDF from their final working file and let Adobe take it from there. So many jobs don’t have proper trapping, have white margins around black type that isn’t set to overprint, have dropped fonts, low-res images, etc, etc…

      There used to be a whole pre-press industry that has been decimated by ‘desktop publishing’. That’s why a trained designer should have knowledge of these things.

  24. I’ve spent years coping with amateur designers. From the ‘I can do that at home on my computer’ to the ‘why should I pay you for something my son can knock up at school’ clients, to whom all I can say is OK go and do it, and when it doesn’t work, come back and I’ll do it properly. Everyone now has a powerful laptop armed with good software, but it doesn’t make then a designer. I’ve survived close on 40 years as a designer because I have other skills I can bring into use which makes me extremely cheap when customers find I can play the roll of journalist, photographer, copywriter, designer, art director and production manager as well. I use my experience to run circles round the amateurs by being diverse in what I can offer. I also work in niche markets such a heavy industrial products and with the mundane clients, simply because no one else likes working in these fields. I’ve front ended a bureau, where you really see the amateurs at work! And I’m currently in partnership with a printers where I spend a lot of my time sorting out other people’s files so they can be output to print.Ways to survive, just be different, just be better and ignore the idiots who don’t want to pay for your skill and experience

    • i love this sharing. kinda true.

      sometimes i feel it is unfair to designer, by comparing to other professional industry, like doctor or lawyer. like what you shared, designer sometimes has to offer the other role like “journalist, photographer, copywriter, designer, art director and production manager as well”, and if we look at medical professionals, a dentist is a dentist, they most probably reject other role, such as the consultation request on skin illnesses.

      well, I’m software engineer, and i have mutual feeling towards this too. some company require engineer to perform the role such as business analyst (gather requirement, pre-sale), developer software, tester, customer service and support, database admin, project management, even web designer etc and etc. sigh…

      i think the main reason of this, is because there are too many engineers nowsaday. simple economy theory, supply more than demand. company can easily replace an engineer today compare to 10 years ago. However, other professions like doctor or lawyer seems still not so easy to be replaced, as SUPPLY less than demand. our society are controlling the number of these professions, for instance, there is a quota for each university for medical students. and this quota may be much lesser compare to engineering or other courses (this is how i feel, hopefully i can find the data to support this idea). I feel this way as we always hear student are rejected from taking medical course even though they have good result, at least this is true in my country.

      Therefore i conclude that, in order to let designer to survive better, the SUPPLY must be less than demand.

  25. When someone asks what I do I answer, “I’m a graphic design and marketing consultant.” I say that because it makes them wonder what experience I bring behind the title. After I have them hooked I’m able to explain my diverse experience in both tradiational art, graphic design, and marketing. I’ve found that being able to represent myself as a man who wears many hats has really helped to get the conversation started. From there it falls to personaility, meeting their needs, and knowing when to walk away.

  26. I have been a freelancer for years and found a full time gig. Now I find, although I am the agency designer…I’m competing with departmental secretaries as to why they have me. Ugh. I regularly peruse their work and then produce ideas and styling that is trending…corporately appropriate but edgy and elegant beyond what I see them do. I know the secretaries don’t have the time for cultivating that…. So it keeps me on top of my game… and innovative in the way I vary representing the agency across our many regular publications.


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