It’s all about the clients

I completed my undergraduate studies in 2003. Fresh out of university, I felt prepared and ready to face a professional career. I was pretty confident that I knew what I needed to do to be a ‘good designer’. It was clearly about the clients that I would take on and the type of work I was willing to produce. I knew that I would need to make some compromises. Working with the community sector, which was to be my focus, would mean that my clients were tight on their budget and so the money wouldn’t be that great. This was something I was willing to accept. It is an interesting experience to reflect back now and examine these perceptions and think through how they have changed over time. And more importantly, think through what it was exactly that made me shift my thinking.

Perceptions of 'good design' as a young professional

To get things underway, I decided that working for other agencies would be too much of a compromise for me. So I negotiated with a friend and we decided to set up our own design practice – and so, Ilk Media was formed. We had each come to design as a shift in career and therefore we both came with existing professional experiences. I was heavily influenced by my years of work within the community sector and hoped to combine this with my newfound skills in design to setup a niche practice that satisfied both my professional and personal interests.

Setting up your own thing is common in the design world. That’s one benefit of the profession. All you need is a computer, your software packages and a good coffee shop to meet potential clients in. There are some deep rooted problems that come with this of course. Knowing how to design and use a computer doesn’t necessarily make you a good business person. My university degree had given me the right design skills. Practicing design through Ilk helped  me realise that there was much more to design as an industry than I knew and understood.

Nonetheless, this is where I was – and I started with the client list. I was determined to minimise my corporate clients and saw them as ‘paying the bill’. My focus was to develop a relationship with organisations that I saw as having a positive impact on society. We were lucky enough to work with the ABC as one of our first clients and this paved the way to collaborations with a few big institutions such as the University of NSW and the Queensland University of Technology. We also collaborated with smaller community based organisations such as the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Sydney Environmental Educators Network and Dhimurru.

ABC Exhibition Design

Exhibition design for the ABC

In addition to the importance given to the client, we had an emphasis on the type of work we produced. Our design work was underpinned by appropriate research as we attempted to produce work with longevity. We were also concerned about the modes of production. At this time I believed that good design had to consider the type of resources it utilised. We’d recommend the use of recycled paper and vegetable based inks, believing that this would resolve the issue. The clients always rejected this as an option, citing the price difference as the cause. Believing all this didn’t stop me from including a die cut, scoring and fluorescent ink as part of my first design of a business card for a client.

Over four years of practice, I managed to develop a strong connection with small non government organisations (NGOs). The trouble was that I was more of a social worker at heart than a business person. As my relationships grew with the agencies, I felt compelled to take them on as pro-bono clients. Towards the end the ratio of pro-bono clients to paid clients was something like 80:20. I think I had the numbers right – but just the wrong way around. I knew there was something wrong when I received a call from a farmer who was looking for a website. He was into sustainable farming practices and he was part of a collective that wanted to support other farming community to sustainable farming. I remember the conversation clearly. He explained his needs and then he told me the reason why he was calling me. He’s heard I did design work for free. I was shocked – but not enough to say no. I told him to send me more information, which he never did. A blessing in disguise that was one factor that made me rethink the direction I was heading in.

I didn’t change tact for a while longer. I set up other businesses on the side as a way of gaining more control over what I was producing. Trash Bags was one such venture. A story on its own, I’ll write about the Trash Bags venture in the next entry.

Trash Bags Branding

By this stage of my career, I remember feeling unsure for the first time. The confidence with which I had started with was dissipating. I knew then that it wasn’t about the client list and not getting paid. But I needed a few other experiences to help me expand on my notion of ‘good design’.

Have you had similar experiences? It would be great to hear about moments when your perceptions have been challenged.

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