Specialize as a Graphic Designer
There are many reasons to pick a niche as a creative freelancer. Clients trust experts, word of mouth works better, and your marketing becomes more straightforward. For your inspiration, and to give you a little push to specialize, I interview freelancers who have chosen their niche.
Next out: John Hartwell, sports identity designer.
Hi John, what's your niche?
Sports, primarily identity design for teams, both pro and university.
Why, and when, did you choose sports as your niche?
As I was finishing my illustration and graphic design studies at Atlanta’s Portfolio Center, it occurred to me that sports design lent itself to both skill sets. My first opportunities after school were in the sports market, so I was off and running.
How did you break into sports identity design?
I broke in by hitting the pavement and letting people know sports was what I wanted to do. Good old-fashioned hustle.
The biggest hurdle was coming to grips with the fact that hustle is 24/7. It doesn’t ever stop.
Nowadays, what’s your most successful way of getting clients?
Networking, networking, networking. See above, “Hustle, 24/7.”
Top 3 things clients are looking for in a sports identity designer?
Experience, experience, and experience. Which isn’t all that different from clients in other markets, but there is a definite preference among some sports clients to work with a designer who’s “done this before.” I’ve won work because I had sufficient experience for a particular gig, and I’ve lost work because someone else walked into the room with a bigger portfolio.
I think clients in general, regardless of the specific market, like the assurance that comes with knowing that a service provider “gets” their specific corner of the world. They want to know that the service provider they've hired (be it designer, lawyer, accountant, whatever) understands the peculiarities of their business. To a point, it's certainly understandable, and it's why folks specialize in the first place.
Sports, like any other market, is about relationships. Clients want to work with people who have a proven track record. There's a lot on the line when a team changes its identity. The client wants to be able to say with confidence “I hired the best/an expert/the team with the most experience” when questioned.
What’s your personal USP in sports identity design?
I’d like to think that I’ve developed a reputation for walking clients through a process that is thorough, strategic, and collaborative, delivering creative solutions to their particular business needs.
I approach sports identity with a branding discipline focused on addressing a clients’ challenges. Yeah, we all love sports, we love to live and die with our teams, but sports is very much a business first, one that faces competition from a variety of internal and external concerns.
Good sports design isn’t just about making pretty pictures; it’s about telling a compelling story, creating fan connections, and solving problems.
How important has picking a niche been for your business?
Picking a niche was critical. It was actually a nerve-racking decision. When I went solo full-time, my first inclination was to present myself as a generalist, so as to capture as many opportunities as possible. This actually started to work against me pretty quickly, pushing me towards niche specialization.
Had I not specialized, I’d probably still be running myself ragged chasing a million leads for the sake of chasing them. I’d be really, really, really tired.
In which other ways has choosing a niche affected you as a professional?
It’s simplified my sales and marketing efforts tremendously. It’s so much easier to approach an opportunity as an “expert,” instead of as “some guy who does graphic design stuff.”
Do it. It’ll make your life easier and give you access to opportunities that are the whole reason you’re freelancing in the first place.
If you had to pick another niche than sports today? Why?
Man, I’d probably be in comics. Because comics are cool!
Not figured out what to specialise in yet? Read Finding Your Niche: When Graphic Design Really Pays Off! Go here for more interviews and examples of specialized graphic designers, illustrators and web designers.
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