Getting Clients in Tough Times: Interview with Jason Vaughn, owner of


Getting and growing clients can be difficult for designers at the best of times. But in today's volatile economy, it's feast or famine. One minute you've got swarms of clients, and they're getting under your feet. Next, you're running around town trying to find just one of 'em. Faculty member Jason Vaughn (developer of the Graphic Design Business course) founded in 2001 to give designers tools for the freelance environment. We asked Jason for his tips for client acquisition and the design business in general.

Q. We saw a bumper sticker in California last week that said: "Please God, just one more bubble." In your view, how has the design business changed over the last five years?

Jason: Bubble or no bubble, the design business has just gotten more competitive. Since just about anyone can afford a computer and a Web site, new artists are coming forward faster, so there's lots of strong talent in the marketplace.

The Web's also become the primary venue for designers to find more work and display their talent. There's more demand for designers to either produce more complex projects on their own or contract out parts of a project to other resources such as programmers or other designers.

As the Web business has picked up, print work has slowed down. Print work will never disappear, the Web's low production cost, global environment, and ability to publish current information, makes it the place to be. My print business has dropped dramatically over the years with Web business filling the gap. I still do quite a lot of print work, but mostly with stationary, newspaper, and magazine ads. Nothing much in the area of annual reports or magazines.

Q. How has this affected the marketplace for full-time and freelance design jobs? And which route would you recommend for a design student just starting out?

Jason: The marketplace is moving toward Web and newer technology such as smart phones. Much of the new market is digital and it's still an open area for new talent to make some money. Ultimately, I feel that you must have both Web design skills and print design skills in order to survive financially, whether you're full-time job, freelance, or totally self-employed. Every job that I have had recently has required me to do more than just one type of media.

My recommendation for newbies? If you're just starting out, learn the graphic design discipline first, and branch out later. Graphic design provides the foundation for many different types of media, including print, Web, TV, animation, and more. When you focus on one media, you limit your flexibility; so as you grow, you should always strive to educate yourself in different areas to make yourself more marketable.

But remember to focus primarily on the skills you are best at and then move forward when ready.

Q. Realtors say "location, location, location." You'd say "portfolio, portfolio, portfolio." What are some strategies for beating the competition in the portfolio review process?

Jason: No getting around the portfolio; it says who you are, front and center. It shows a designer's ability to organize a presentation and focus a strategy on certain pieces. With strength should come simplicity. Don't overload your portfolio with every sample you've ever created, only the best ones. A good variety of styles does not hurt either.

Done that already? Bear in mind that having a clean and organized portfolio is only the first impression. A designer must back this up with the ability to discuss and represent his or her artwork either by resume or personal interview. Designer and portfolio go hand-in-hand and should be an integral part of a presentation whether you're applying for a job or trying to obtain freelance work. A designer must be able to speak why the artwork was created and give the explanation of the art direction involved in creating each piece.

Q. After several years of niche design firms, jack-of-all-trades is back in town. How many clients are looking for a soup-to-nuts solution?

Jason: In my experience, clients always look to the designer to be the "be-all-do-all." My clients ask me to do everything from design to printing to programming databases for Web sites or even direct mail.

Now there is a limit of what I can do based on my resources. So I handle each client request by evaluating how much I can do on my own. If it's mostly design then no problem, that's my niche. If the client needs programming, I contract out that task to my programmer. I usually let the client know that these additional services are contracted out to my resource partners. The client must understand that I will manage the project from start to finish and make sure his project is done correctly and to his satisfaction.

One reason that I let clients know when I contract out some of my work is that my design partners may need to attend client meetings. If the project is small and quick to accomplish, I'll handle meetings myself. But on big projects that last 2-3 months or more, clients will need to know those involved, because they will be spending a great deal of time with them.

If the project's a bear, just be honest about your strengths and limitations. A client will always respect you more if you are straight with them. Also make sure your resource partners are honest and don't try to steal your clients! You may wish to ask them to sign a non-compete agreement or work-for-hire contract before they do work for you.

Q. Let's talk about diversification, the art of keeping several irons in the fire. You have your own design agency in addition to Is having multiple lines of business important?

Jason: It can be tremendously important. My design firm gives me the creditability to run and operate, and allows me to showcase my skills to attract new design business. In the past I also owned a restaurant that I designed and which I was able to use as a showcase for my design firm.

And the flip side? Over time having too many irons in the fire can burn you out. Nowadays, I try to streamline my affairs and work on what makes me the most money with the fewest headaches. Having too many projects on the boil keeps you from performing your best at what you are best at. My best area is design and when I have to attend board meetings or other business affairs, I neglect what really brings in the cash.

One should always be prepared to evaluate a job list and decide what comes first and when to take certain irons out of the fire.

Q. Once you've plugged your rolodex for the nth time, it's tempting to give up. How do you keep finding clients given the current economic climate?

Jason: No doubt about it, it's hard these days. I generally rely on word of mouth or repeat business from current clients, but sometimes you have to get out of your studio and do it the old-fashioned way: pound the streets, cold call, knock on doors, and break out the dusty yellow pages to make some calls to local area businesses.

Bottom line is that people are still spending the money, just not as frequently as they were a couple of years ago. So making the call will eventually find these paying jobs. Another way to drum up business is to place small ads in the local coupon savers papers or other classified papers. Small expenses are associated with this, but as the old saying goes, "you have to spend money to make money." A third way to find work is to look at online talent agencies such as or Many of the jobs you get on these sites will be small and low-paying, but when times are tight, these jobs help make the car payment.

Q. Independent designers sometimes need to walk the big agency walk. How do you instil big company confidence when you're really a one-person shop?

Jason: My resources and my portfolio prove to the client that I can handle the job as well as any large agency can. I always run a client through my print samples and Web sites and showcase not just what I have done but also what my resource partners can do.

Pricing plays a big part in a client's decision as well. Many agencies will charge 4 to 6 times the amount I would charge, and they create a lesser product. Many times I have won clients who initially decided against hiring my services, hiring an agency to do the job instead. Eventually, those same clients came back to me. I fixed their project and listened (with a sympathetic ear) to how badly they were treated and how much money they spent with the agency. Everyone felt that it was not worth the extra expense to hire the so-called big agency.

Fundamentally, my reputation is what makes me successful. Honesty and the ability to produce complex projects keep my clients or future clients believing that I can do the job.

Q. Can a one-person shop beat an established agency in a project pitch? Give us a David and Goliath story.

Jason: Sure thing. Truthfully, a one-person shop can stomp the heck out of an agency project pitch. Here's my story:

I recently contacted a local print shop about its Web site. I have done business with these guys for many years and noticed they were using an agency that has about 8 staff members and 3 designers. This agency had done such a terrible job on the client's site and print collateral that I asked my sales representative if I could do some spec work and place a bid. Normally I don't do spec work, but I wanted to prove my point that I would be about 15% lower on price and could stomp the heck out of any work the agency has produced for them or any other client. So, I made my case and presented a Web site home page that knocked the ink off the press.

Needless to say, the client is in the process of firing the agency and contracting me on a regular basis. It's a slow process to wean a client from an expensive vendor, but I was able to convince the client that the small-time design firm can compete on the same level with (or even outdo) many agencies.

Q. Marketing on a small budget requires creativity. Any quick tips for small agencies and freelance designers?

Jason: One of the most effective and free ways to get your name out there is Web site marketing. Get your Web site set up with proper meta-tags and keywords. Then, go to several news groups and post your information about your site and services. This helps increase your link popularity in Google and will enable you to have a better chance of someone finding your Web site in a search.

Another great free marketing tip is to sign-up for as many Web site awards as possible. This brings credibility to your services and also helps bring your site higher up on search engine rankings. To find these award sites, just type in "Design Awards" at and start applying for them.

Last but not least, find a resume distribution site or job placement site. Post your profiles and resume online and if possible, post your portfolio. Many employers looking for freelancers search these places as well as message boards.