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Understanding Priorities will help grow your design business.

Whether your design business is still new or you’ve been doing this for many years, I'm betting you started it feeling greedy. Meaning you took on any design work that came your way. That's OK. Not many designers just starting their freelance career are picky about the type of work they take on.

I’m not talking pricing. Just because you have a new business isn’t a reason to accept $25 logo jobs. You still have to have your principals after all. What I’m talking about is the type of work you take on; logos, brochures, postcards, websites, banner ads, powerpoint presentation, etc. If you started a web design business and a client asked you for a logo, and the money was good, chances are you took on the project and designed a logo for them, even if it didn’t align with your business model of running a web design business. You have to pay the bills after all, and money is money.

Understanding priorities become essential once the ball is rolling, money is coming in, and your business is out of the infancy stage. At some point, you need to take a measure of what it is you are doing with your design business, compared to what it is you want to be doing with it and ask yourself,

“am I saying yes to stuff I probably shouldn't be saying yes to?”

The answer to that question should come easily once you understand your priorities.

What is important to you?

What type of design business do you want to run? The options are endless.

  • Do you want to be a branding specialist?
  • Do you want to focus your talents on print design?
  • Do you want to create product packages?
  • Is building websites your passion?
  • Or is coming up with the best ways for users to interact with things what excites you?

Whatever direction you want to take your business, you need to streamline your process to match it. Figure out what aspect of the design space you want to focus on and make all future decisions with that goal in mind. Once you know what to focus your choices on, it will become much more transparent and easier for you to see what you should be saying yes to, and what you should be saying no to.

Choosing where to take your design business.

Think of everything you are currently doing in your design business. Of all of those things, what can you clear out? Here’s an exercise in understanding priorities that will help you weed out the yes's and no's for your business. Take out a pad of paper (Post-it notes works great for this) and follow these steps.

Compile your list of tasks.

  1. On each sheet of paper, write out ONE thing you are currently doing with your business. For example, write out all the different types of design jobs you take on (logos, brochures, websites, magazine ads, etc.). Then write out all the peripheral tasks associated with those design jobs. Such as photography, photo editing/manipulation, copywriting etc. Don't' forget to Include things like discovery research, file handling, backups and archiving. Every single thing you do, write each one on a separate piece of paper.
  2. Next, write down all the administrative tasks you do in your design business. Things like invoicing, bookkeeping, client followup, taxes, outreach, marketing etc. Write down as many items as you can on as many sheets of paper or post-it-notes as you need.

Separate your tasks into two piles.

  1. Once you’ve written down everything that you do in your design business, it's time to start separating them into two piles. Look at each note and ask yourself these two questions.
  • Does this bring me joy or Do I like doing this one particular thing?
  • Am I good at this particular thing?

If you answered yes to BOTH questions, put it in pile number one. If you cannot respond yes to both questions, put it into pile number two. Separate your collection into these two piles.

Continue separating.

Now, look at pile one, the tasks you enjoy doing or bring you joy AND that you are good at, and ask yourself one more question.

  • If I continue doing this thing or offering this service, will it help my business grow in the direction I want it to become?

Make two new piles, one pile containing the tasks that will help your business grow and one pile containing the tasks that won’t.

In the end, you will be left with a small pile that:

  1. You enjoy doing or bring you joy.
  2. You are good at doing.
  3. Will help your business grow.

The items in that pile are the things you should prioritise for your business. Those are the things you should be marketing to potential clients. Those are the things you want to hone your skills even further. Those are the things that will let you achieve your business goals.

What about the other piles?

What about the other piles that don't meat all three criteria? It all comes down once again to understanding priorities. Here’s what you do.

The pile with tasks you enjoy doing and are good at, but Don't help your business grow, these are the items and services you continue doing when needed. You don't have to list them under your services but if a client asks if you can do them feel free to say yes. After all, these are things you are good at and enjoy doing, so don’t cut them out just because they don’t help grow your business, just don't prioritise them.

Dividing the rest.

Divide your original second pile, the things that don’t bring you joy or you are not very good at, into two more piles — ones that will help your business grow and the ones that won't.

The pile that will help grow your design business becomes the stuff you offload. Meaning those are the tasks you hire other people to do for you. These are the things that you don’t like doing, or you are not good at, BUT you know they are necessary for your business to grow. Find people who both enjoy doing those things and are good at them and let them help you to build your design business.

Finally, the pile of tasks you don’t like doing, you're no good at and won't help your business grow, stop doing them. They’re a waste of time and resources on your part. They’re not even worth the hassle of farming out. Remember, it’s OK to say no if a client asks you if you offer a particular service you don’t want to do.

Understanding priorities when it comes to your business is the key to its growth. Concentrate on the things that bring you joy, you are good at, and help grow your business, and you will be on your way to success. Once you master this tactic, your business will have nowhere to go but up.

What do you think of this strategy?

Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.

Questions of the Week

Submit your question to be featured in a future episode of the podcast by visiting the feedback page.

This week’s question comes from Greg

Love the podcast, although I'm opting to start from the beginning, so I'm still only about 45 episodes in. I've been running my own design business for a number of years, but I went to school as an opera singer, so I've been in “fake it 'till you make it” mode and it's great to hear about this stuff from someone who actually knows what they're doing!

I had a question for you! I've been doing this now for about 10 years (mostly web design), but it's only been in the last year or so that I've actually started trying to make it a main source of income. I had a decent talent for design, and have become a pretty good web developer over the years, but because I only did it on the side and I wasn't really immersed in the design world, whatever “talent” I had went un-trained and un-refined. As a classical musician I know first-hand that that is never going to get my skill to where I want it to be.

Now that I'm trying to “level up,” as it were, I'm finding that I'm rarely happy with my designs anymore. I dove in to learning about design, which I think has significantly upgraded my taste, but now I look at even my most recent designs and think “Yeah, this is fine but it's not amazing.” It's been hard making money, not because I have any trouble finding clients, but because I don't feel confident about my work and I end up under-charging or “waiting until I'm better” before looking for new clients. In trying to figure out what's wrong, I've come to think that my designs would have been great 10 years ago, but now the “go-to” design aspects that have worked for me for years look dated and un-polished.

At the same time, I get tired of seeing websites that all basically look the same. Menu at the top, hero section with giant photo and CTA overlay, usually three columns below, then some centered content, blah blah… So, my current struggle is figuring out how I can design things that are unique, but still look modern and polished. To some degree I know I just need to practice and learn more, but my question for you is: After all these years of doing what you do, how do you update your “style”? Are there resources you go to that talk about design trends or do you just let yourself evolve as you go, and if so, is it just a matter of trying things until you figure out what you think works? Do you have ways of deciding which styles, techniques, design principles, etc., no longer work well? Are there other aesthetics that you look to, like fashion or music, that help you creatively connect to the modern world?

To find out what I told Greg you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

Resource of the week BNI

BNI is a global networking organisation that helps members increase their business through a structured, positive and professional referral marketing program that enables them to develop long-term, meaningful relationships with quality business professionals. Through weekly meetings and exclusive resources, BNI helps you build a strong network that fuels professional growth.

The best way to find out more about how BNI works is to go to a local chapter meeting and see for yourself what it’s like. To learn more, or to find a chapter near you visit the BNI website.

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I want to help you.

Running a graphic design or web design business all by yourself isn't easy. If there are any struggles you face running your design business, please reach out to me. I'll do my best to help you by addressing your issues in a future blog post or podcast episode here at Resourceful Designer. You can reach me at feedback@resourcefuldesigner.com

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