Working as a designer is a career where creativity and original thinking are extremely important. All too often, though, the business side of things gets glossed over, even though you need to be business savvy to enjoy long-term success in this industry.
Everything from pitching work to prospects to figuring out how to work well with in-house teams and stakeholders relates to business acumen.
Ben Moss is a designer from the UK with an impressive list of clients. Through the years, he’s discovered certain insights and tips on how to land bigger clients. We asked him for some of his top tips for landing — and keeping — major clients.
IBM, UBS, even the FBI; Impressive client list! How did you land them?
It’s not solely about the strength of your portfolio. We can’t all be the most inventive art director, the most skillful letterer, the most insightful UXer, but every single one of us can be a conscientious designer.
In my experience, if you do good work, then good clients will seek you out.
Never accept a deadline you can’t meet, always follow best practices, care about inclusivity, validate decisions with real users, and cultivate a reputation as a reliable pair of hands.
How is the process and workflow of working with bigger clients different than, say, working with a small business?
Where there are fewer staff, you’ll frequently be dealing with senior management with full authority over the project. When working for a big client you’re normally working for a project lead who reports to stakeholders further up the hierarchy — that often obfuscates issues and makes some opaque organizations particularly challenging.
The most obvious difference is the scope of the work you’re tasked with. Small companies tend to work on smaller projects, meaning you’re on board from brief to launch. Big companies rarely start anything entirely new. Everything is an iteration of an earlier project, which means you’re expected to work within an inherited set of design choices. The upside is that there should be historic data to work with so design decisions can be at least partially validated.
Less-experienced clients expect you to have design solutions on tap. Experienced clients have learned that design is a process. Of course, not all small companies have inexperienced staff — I’ve encountered plenty of small companies with big-company mentalities.
The FBI project in particular — what specific insights did you learn about how an organization like that works?
My experience of working for the FBI was exactly what you would expect when working for a complex government organization.
I won’t tell you what the project was, but it was a few years ago. A very capable coder at the FBI had been tasked with a project outside of her skill set. She reached out to a colleague for help, who reached out to an agency, who reached out to me.
For obvious reasons, security was very tight — doubly so when they realized I was outside the U.S. In the end, a portion of the project files had to be recreated with all content stripped out before it could be surreptitiously emailed to me.
When you’re asked onto a project like that, you’ll find there’s a lot of red tape. You’re often dealing with assets you wouldn’t choose. You’ll be working with partitioned code — or even a partitioned strategy. You will commonly find there’s a chain of accountability of which you are only partially aware.
The answer is to embrace the experience. It’s healthy to be forced into new ways of working, if only to confirm that your preferred approach is best. It will, in the long run, make you a better designer.
I don’t actually know if the work I did for them made it into the field. Even if it was discarded, as someone who spends most of his days making money for people, it was incredibly rewarding to contribute, in however small a way, to making the world a little safer.
Once you have a project with one of these bigger clients, what approach do you use to keep them happy and thrive while working with them?
Anyone who’s ever run a marathon knows the number-one mistake is going out too hard. It’s the same on a big project. The temptation is to start firing off solutions in an attempt to make progress.
It pays to hold off until you’ve exhausted the problem. A successful solution can always be found by thoroughly exploring the brief. I’ve been in crisis meetings where a simple observation from me has led to a flurry of agreement and consensus on a direction — not because I’m more insightful than the stakeholders, but because I’ve been able to articulate something they already knew but hadn’t previously defined.
When working with complex accountability structures, the best approach to feedback is little and often. Regularly ask for very targeted feedback. No one should ever be surprised by the deliverables you supply.
More often than not, you’re being brought in to fill a specialist gap in an in-house team. Be a team player by taking every opportunity to bring out the best in others. Be quick to give colleagues credit for their work, and slow to take credit for your own.
No one wants a rock-star designer. Be a catalyst for great design within the organization and you’ll make yourself invaluable.
What tips do you have for other designers who want to broaden their client base and get work with bigger names?
Get in the room. Successful teams run on communication, and it is infinitely harder to build relationships remotely. Be a real person, not some half-remembered LinkedIn connection.
Give serious consideration to increasing your pricing. I know very few designers who couldn’t stand to increase their rates by 10–20 percent. You’re not making yourself more competitive by being cheap — you’re giving clients reason to doubt your value.
Find a balance between mirroring the potential client’s culture and being who they expect you to be. I’ve done a lot of work for firms in The City, London’s financial center, where brown shoes are a serious faux pas — utterly ridiculous, I know. One trick I will occasionally employ when pitching to very conservative companies is to smudge a little colored (never black or blue) ink on my hands. It gives the impression I’ve come from a studio, and helps them picture me in a creative role.
The vast majority of your work should come from personal recommendations. If not, you need to have a frank discussion with yourself about why your clients don’t recommend you.
Most important of all, never draw a distinction between big and small clients. Each job you accept deserves your best work — you never know what a project will lead to. To paraphrase some pop wisdom: take care of the startups, and the multinationals will take care of themselves.