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Designers, kill your labels

Redefine your freelance service offering as a complementary process that delivers your ideal clients the most value.

Labels, labels, label. The roles of a digital designer can be overwhelmed by them. Info architecture, UX design, UX engineering, CX, UI design, web design, interaction design, graphic design, service design, art direction, visual design, brand design, product design, front-end design. The list goes on. It’s made worse by the fact that many of these roles are loosely defined, overlap each other, and are overused or misused by designer and non-designers alike.

I don’t care much for any of them. I just call myself an independent designer.

You don’t have to know everything about UX to do some very valuable UX design work. Maybe you don’t build detailed personas all that often and rarely perform your own user testing or interviews. That won’t stop you from being bad-ass at info architecture, wireframing, and prototyping.

You don’t have to be a master interaction designer or animator to create polished user interfaces. Just because Dribbble is full of animated prototypes doesn’t mean that must be part of your process. There are plenty of other ways to document interactions and transitions.

You don’t have to hand-code all of your designs in the front-end to be a digital designer. I’d strongly advise that you know how to, if you had to, but it doesn’t have to be your core service if that’s not what your client’s need the most.

Finding the right balance of services — and the right terms to describe them — is like putting a puzzle together. Only you get to choose the pieces, and what the final picture looks like. What should it look like? Whatever delivers the best value to your ideal clients. And your ideal clients don’t give a shit about labels and buzzwords. They care about results.

The best designers are business strategists

The old days of “visual design” are long gone. We need to think much broader & deeper to solve today’s design challenges.

What do your ideal client’s need?

You cannot answer that questions until you know exactly who your ideal client are, and what problems they need help with. I’ve outlined a step-by-step process for how to define your ideal freelance clients that will get you started.

Once you have a working definition of who they are and how you can help them, you’re ready to tailor your service offering to provide the right design process that will bring maximum value to those clients.

It’s important to make a distinction here: you want your services to offer the best value to your ideal future clients, not just the clients you have right now. If you keep honing your skills and marketing your services in the exact same way as required for your past and current clients, you’ll only get more of the same.

How to land your dream clients — a step-by-step guide

A proven, proactive, cold-email strategy for freelance creatives that will help you win more meaningful projects, build trusting client relationships, and earn more money.

Web app design

A personal example

I’ve been doing a lot of design work for complex responsive web apps over the past few years. It’s a niche I’ve unintentionally found myself in but I rather enjoy it. The projects are generally long, complex, and very valuable to the clients (it’s usually their entire business, or most of it). As such, there’s a lot riding on the success of the design and user experience, which offers me a huge potential to provide them value.

The clients are generally small enough and early enough in their growth that they don’t yet have their own in-house product designer or design team. So they go looking for an independent designer they can trust to guide them through the process.

These projects all tend to follow a similar trajectory:

  1. I help the client refine their overall digital strategy — filling in the missing pieces they may not have even known they needed.
  2. I sometimes help with branding for the company, or app, or both. This may be as simple as a logo and a few fundamental guidelines. Or it may include the full works of brand collateral.
  3. I might provide some high-level art direction for how they produce photos, illustrations, or other brand marketing materials.
  4. I often help with suggestions for naming, content strategy, copywriting, microcopy, marketing, etc.
  5. I usually create from scratch (or refine from their start) a very detailed info architecture plan and user flow diagram to map out all the user types, features, functions, and user goals within the app.
  6. I wireframe the entire user experience — or at least the most crucial parts — so we have a firm foundation of content and functionality locked down before starting high-fi design.
  7. Sometimes prototyping, user testing, or user interviews occur, usually not performed directly by me directly, but they inform the design process.
  8. I provide UI design for the entire app. Built as a modular design system.
  9. I provide rudimentary prototyping (in InVision) if required by clients who find it more challenging to visualise some interactions.
  10. I provide responsive design examples and guidelines, plus an interaction styleguide to take away all guesswork from front-end devs, ensuring an accurate reproduction of the design and experience. Documentation is key.
  11. Sometimes I do front-end coding.
  12. Sometimes I do back-end dev (for simpler CMS site, not apps like this)
  13. I often go through this entire process again to design their app’s public marketing site.

You’ll notice these skills span across the definition of many traditional designer roles. Parts of this are UX design, parts are branding. Parts are UI design and interactions, while others are strategy. Projects may include front-end or back-end dev, or neither. Art direction, copywriting, info architecture — it may be “the works”.

Product design is probably the best definition for the role I play on these projects, but I never call myself that. Because my clients aren’t searching for a “product designer.”

You’ll also notice that many of these skills fall completely outside the range of most design roles. Don’t underestimate those add-ons! I often have clients who comment on the surprise value they get from me in general business strategy areas. Input they didn’t expect but were pleasantly delighted with.

Lastly, I’m not an expert at all of these things. I’m an expert at UX/UI design, and the rest are complementary skills that make my services a more complete package. I might be good or very good at those other things, but you can’t be an expert in everything, and that’s OK.

How I earned $15,000 last month from freelance design

Hint: there’s no shortcut. I’ve been working at this for 17 years.

Broad skills offer more value to small and medium business or startups

Specialisation may be more valuable when you’re employed at a larger company.

If your a freelancer servicing small to medium businesses, they tend not to have their own in-house design teams. It’s a huge advantage to them to have all their design concerns handled by the same person, rater than having to go out and find multiple specialists to fill smaller specific roles — not mention the extra admin involved in managing and coordinating those extra people. It’s more a efficient and consistent experience for all involved, assuming that single freelancer has the skills and experience to deliver quality work across the full spectrum of skills.

If you’re employed as part of a larger design team — at a tech company for example — you can be more valuable by being specialised and going really deep into a single narrow set of design skills. They’ll have other team members to support the other roles, so they don’t rely on a generalist’s skillset.

I’m talking mostly about freelance design, so in this context I recommend being a generalist. I don’t mean someone that’s mediocre at a number of things but not expert at any of them. I mean someone who’s very good at a number of things, and expert at 1 or 2 of them.

That last part is an extremely important clarification. Without being expert at your core service(s), you become interchangeable. All the other services are their to support your bread and butter. Don’t be a generalist at the expense of being an expert at anything. On the other hand, don’t make the mistake of being perceived as too pigeon-holed into a specific role, when what your best clients really need is someone with broader skills.

Some people call that ideal balance “T” shaped. If you’re expert at multiple different things you might me more like an “M”.

In the example I gave above, those broad skills and experience put me in a good position to handle huge parts of the project on my own. I may do absolutely everything design related until it’s time to hand-over to their in-house dev team. If I was a UX or UI specialist only, I wouldn’t be able to provide such a wholistic service, which means the job is smaller and less lucrative for me. Or they decide to go with someone else entirely — someone with a larger range.

Designers who can code are more valuable

Isn’t that enough reason to put this age-old debate to bed?

The way you talk about your design services matters a lot! Anyone (literally anyone!) can call themselves any of these things, and there’s no formal qualification required to make that claim.

You can differentiate your services by calling them what they really are. What they really mean to your clients.

How I describe my design services

Firstly, I put as much emphasis on my process as I do on skills and experience.This reassures clients they know what to expect, and they feel confident I can guide them through a design system that delivers consistently good results.

Secondly, I describe my services in business terms, not just design terms. A clients wants to know how I can improve their business. That’s the bottom line. They don’t care much about the terminology or technology used to achieve that result.

I’ll still use these labels too, especially on my website where they matter for SEO. My site ranks fairly well for terms like “Auckland UX/UI designer”, and I’ve gotten a number of new client through organic searches like that. So I’m not advising to never use these labels. Use them in the context where they are valuable. Ditch them when they aren’t.

They aren’t so valuable when talking directly to clients, even more so client’s that are less tech-savvy. They don’t care what your job title is. They care that you have a strong portfolio of past work which demonstrates experience in your field. And they care that you have a solid reputation and professionalism that gives them confidence you’ll deliver for their project.

If you call that UX design, product design, UI design, interaction design, it doesn’t really matter. All they hear is “blah blah design buzzword, blah blah”. If you call it “I’ll make your website work a lot easier for your customers”, well now you’re talking their language.

So I describe my services as a process, and as a package that all complement each other. I describe how I can guide a client through a project right from conception all the way to completion, and they see the value in having a single vision and steady hand all the way through that process.

Never ever define your services as software proficiency. My god I will puke the next time I see a designer’s portfolio with a little gauge or slider graphic indicating that they are 90% great at Photoshop, and 75% awesome at Sketch. That is 100% meaningless and does more harm than good. Most people don’t care what software you use to do your work. That would be like a writer expecting to get a job because they are good at operating Microsoft Word. Tools do not make design.

Designing for your clients, or for likes from your peers?

Fancy Dribbble shots, gratuitous animations, tarted-up Behance case studies, and unsolicited redesigns — what do these say about you as a designer?

Is your design service description aligned with where you want to go?

That’s what it comes down to.

If you’re after a specific design role at a big tech firm, you’re going to describe your service a lot differently than you should describe them if you’re a freelancer aiming to land small to medium sized businesses.

Know who your audience is, and speak their language. It might be the difference between languishing in competition with the heard, or landing that big dream client who takes your freelance design career to the next level.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, and Entrepreneurship.