Dear Bonnie: May 2018

Hey designers, I know you have burning questions about design jobs, portfolios, and other career conundrums. Email me at DearBonnie@DesignObserver.com for a chance to get my advice, published here each month. Submissions are anonymous, so include as much information about your situation as you can.

Dear Bonnie, 

I’ve been working in the design field for a few years now and lately I’ve been thinking that I’d like to start my own company. I’m not in a huge rush but I have a clear idea of what type of work I want to do. The companies I’ve worked at are relatively large firms so I definitely want to spend a few years working at a small studio. I’ve been going to a lot of events and listening to a lot of podcasts about how people went into business for themselves and started their own studios. The one question I can’t seem to find an answer for is how they funded these ventures and how they obtained clients that would pay enough for them to transition that to full time. I freelance occasionally but it’s always only been a few hundred dollars here and there. I’d love to hear any insight into how to go about finding clients and transitioning your career.

Curious in Connecticut

Dear C., 

My partner at Number Seventeen and I started planning our company when we were 22 years old and didn’t officially open for business until we turned 30. We knew our combined experiences—me at a large entertainment company and her at a small design studio—would give us lots of insight into how the world worked and what we wanted (and didn’t want) to do. 

Which is a long way of saying, I think your instincts are spot on. Get as many different kinds of experiences as you can before you strike out on your own. Maybe you’ll make a discovery that will change your path. When you do work for a smaller studio, express your interest in learning more about its business side. If they are like me, or fellow studio owners I know, they will be as thrilled to share their business theories as their design theories.

Personally, in terms of funding, we never took out a loan (because debt is anathema to me), but rather worked out of my apartment for months while we saved money to pay for a separate space and employees. Borrowing money to open your own shop could create excessive pressures on your fledgling business. It could lead to taking on and pursuing less appealing clients. And, worse case scenario, it could lead to financial difficulties as it turns your business into a sort of gamble. By starting with modest expenditures you can moderate your growth to be proportionate to your income.

And in terms of obtaining clients, we had been freelancing at night for years, so we had a few contacts lined up so that when we started our own firm, we were in a good position to get bigger projects from them. It’s important to remember that when a client hires you for a job, they must be confident in your ability to deliver. In this sense they are sticking their necks out on your behalf. When their jobs are at stake, they are understandably not inclined to take risks. So confidence is key and is best earned by prior experience and a previous relationship. And of course, doing good work will always be the bottom line. 

After 25 years owning my own studio, and seeing first hand how little up and coming designers understand about the business side, I wish that colleges taught it a little more. A little basic knowledge goes a long way. I actually teach a three-day workshop for graduate schools about designer/client relationships to that end.

So keep learning and you’ll know when it’s time. My partner and I learned most of what we needed through experience, including mistakes. It’s a powerful teacher. 


About the author

Bonnie Siegler founded the award-winning design studio Eight and a Half. She has taught at the graduate level for many years at the School of Visual Arts and Yale University, conducted workshops at other schools and judged design competitions all over the place. She has two new books coming out in February: Signs of Resistance which is a visual history of protest in America and Dear Client, which is a book that will (hopefully) help clients work more successfully with creative people.