Finding Your Niche: Design Niches NOT to Target

The Bad, the Ugly (and the Good)

Finding Your Niche: Design Niches NOT to Target

Probably the most common way to specialize as freelance web or graphic designer is to target a specific industry. But what industry should you target, especially when you’re starting out? On LinkedIn, I asked a bunch of experienced freelance web & graphic designers for their advice.  ‘

What client industry would you advice a young freelance designer to target?

Except for “agencies,” no one mentioned a specific industry straight up. It turned out it was easier for most to say what industries not to target, so here are…

“The Bad & Ugly:” Stay Out of These Industries

Welcome to the land of designer pains! Industries full of needy, opinionated clients with no design sense. Clients with slim to no budgets. Micro-managing. Client who will nickel and dime you, or try to sway you into accepting high-risk deals involving profit shares or equity. You will meet disrespectful clients with gigantic egos. There will be drama. These industries are not for the faint-hearted.

Yes, the below list of design niches not to target is based on personal opinions. Still, they are based on the opinions of creatives with some or much experience of freelancing under their belts.

Be smart, and do not target the following industries:

  • Some start-ups (the not so well-funded ones)
  • Some consultants (the ego-driven, incompetent and micro-managing ones)
  • Mom & pop shops
  • Mom & pop restaurants
  • Bands and solo musicians
  • Artists
  • Politics

Of course, there are both great clients to be found in all the above industries, and also designers that thrive in them. However, as a general rule, stay out!

Consider yourself warned…

“The Good:” Industries to Target

This distinguishes industries with good potential for freelance business.

It’s a strong industry in your area

"If you are working in a state whose major export is coal, you should target mining companies, freight movers, parts distributors, heavy equipment rental and repair businesses, and lung damage treatment facilities (yikes)." Daymon Allen, Web Designer & Front End Developer

Most designers primarily work with local clients, and each area has its own industries that are strong. Follow the local money trail! What industries are the money makers in your local community?

Matthew Holland, a U.K. graphic designer, gives another example:

“Bath is very fortunate in that it has a lot of printing shops, large format and along these lines of businesses so for someone who works in print it was the perfect place to get into this industry.”

Usually your strong local industry also have supporting industries that also make good targets. For example, Daymon started out designing sites for home builders, hardware distributors, and custom woodwork companies. Targeting closely related businesses made referrals flow easier.

"For the purpose of referrals (the best way to earn new clients) it is very good to work within a network of companies who are dependent on each others products." Daymon Allen quote.

It’s a strong small business sector 

Most freelance creatives work primarily with small- and medium-sized clients. As an alternative to your local leading industry you can target a profitable small business sector.

So, what SMB industries have money to spend?

At the absolutely top? Most often accounting services (accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping and payroll services.) 2014 U.S. small businesses in that particular sector had an average net profit margin of 20%. Otherwise the top is dominated by service-based businesses in health care (physicians, dentists, chiropractors, outpatient care centers) and real estate (agents, brokers, lessors.)

Professional services that need certification and years of training are consistently at the top of the “most profitable industries” lists. These small businesses enjoy consistent demand, low overhead and loyal customers.

To dig a bit deeper in profitable SMB industries to target, check out this 2014 top list (and here are the least profitable). You can search for the most current data for specific industries here.

The industry is a hub for design work

"I prefer to work with agencies that get all kinds of large projects." Andrew Meza, Identity/Logo & Web Designer

Some freelance creatives work primarily through other businesses. Instead of targeting end clients you can target such “design hubs,” for example:

  • Advertising agencies
  • Web design agencies
  • Marketing & branding consultants
  • Business coaches
  • Event Planners

You will find such businesses in every major city.

Conclusion: How to Save Yourself From a Lot of Pain

Kevin Hassall responded to my question “What client industry would you advice a young freelance designer to target?”

"The logical answer is: find the industry available to you with the biggest budgets. In reality, this answer is useless - because nobody gets into a "creative" profession due to a desire to chase money, so no-one will adopt this outlook. So, it's the right advice, but nobody (at the start of their careers) will follow it. ;-)" Kevin Hassal, Agency Mai

Do yourself a favor, even if you don’t feel like it right now, take Kevin’s advice to heart.

If you think about it, it’s likely you’ll find local companies from all the above good industries.

As a general rule target industries

  • strong in your local community,
  • profitable, and/or
  • are hubs for design jobs

For a Los Angeles freelance graphic designer, Hollywood event planners would probably qualify for all three above criteria. But one tick is enough to make a client industry worth to consider.

By all means, try out a few industries before committing. Actually, you definitely should. Try out what kind of people and products that fit well with your interests, talents and previous experience.

But to save yourself from a lot of pain, only probe industries with business potential.

Want more examples of niches actually picked by freelance creatives? Check out these 170+ examples!

Do you have experiences on what client industries or other design niches to target or not? Please share in the comments!

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