Beyond the portfolio: why being a great designer isn’t enough

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You know you’re good, the best around perhaps. You know what your design chops will add to the lifetime value of any client’s brand. There’s just one problem. Potential clients find it really hard to differentiate between the ability and services of logo and identity designers purely on the basis of a good portfolio.

Your portfolio alone doesn’t necessarily tell the full story.

During the course of my consulting work I’ve contacted a number of designers about their brand identity services for clients. I did the research online and my initial contact was made on the basis of liking both what I saw and read about the designers. I’ve contacted a range of international designers, from independent freelancers to large established brand identity agencies.

What I discovered

Size isn’t everything

The experience of interacting with a large agency which has been established for decades was a real eye opener. I filled in the contact form on their website, hit submit and was taken to an error message saying their subscription to the service had lapsed. I contacted their senior partner by email with my enquiry and let him know about the form error. Three days later I got a one line email and no thanks, acknowledgement or apology about the email form. Wow! At this point I checked again and the form still wasn’t working. This agency was plainly screaming at me from its’ big corporate rooftops that they didn’t need my business.

Communication matters

Generally, I was sent a blank brief template and a nice generic sounding email within 24 hours of making email contact.

One successful designer emailed by return asking for more information and explained why it would be helpful to me (not her) in the long run to have as much information up front as possible. She also attached a copy of the AIGA Client’s guide to getting the most out of the design process (PDF download). Not only did this make me feel like my business mattered, it told me that she really cares about what she does.

Fees have fuzzy edges

When it came to discussing fee ranges things began to get very fuzzy. Of course clients understand that without a fully defined brief it’s not possible to get a firm quote, however it must be possible to give typical ranges for services as David does in his FAQs

When pressed for a ballpark figure for identity design I was told by one agency that they had worked on projects ranging from $500 to $60,000 in the last 12 months and asked where I thought the project fell in that price range $100s, $1000s or $10,000s? This left me wondering what difference I could expect in the service and end result for a project costing hundreds as opposed to tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s easy to stand out

Try this. Head over to the portfolio page of three freelance identity design websites. Cover the logo on the page header and ask yourself; 
“What’s different about this?” 
If you mixed up those web page headers would you know who was who? Probably not.

Worth thinking about?

Takeaways for designers


Good communication like great design is an art. How you make your potential client feel from the moment they start interacting with you is as important as the work you do for them. That interaction starts the moment they hit your landing page, read your blog, hold your business card, dial your number or fill in your contact form. Timely and transparent communication works.
Every client wants to know that they matter. Making them matter is why your business exists.


Yes, the quality of your work counts. Of course it matters that you can turn out stunning, unforgettable identities.

But generic is as generic does.
Your edge needs to be obvious right away. It needs to be expressed in every single aspect of your business and not limited to your portfolio.

“Don’t try to be the ‘next’. Instead, try to be the other, the changer, the new.”
— Seth Godin

Also by Bernadette Jiwa:
Beyond the logo… “I love this!” moments
Sell what Google can’t optimise

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