Should designers write?
29 stories, 78K views, 3.6K fans, 1.6K followers, in 6 months. What did I learn?
I’ve always felt teaching, in some capacity, could be in my future. Not teaching bratty school kids, but college level or adult education appeals to me. I like sharing knowledge. I’m quick to offer free advice when someone needs it.
I’ve never been a serious writer (or reader for that matter). For many years I’ve heard the advice that I should have a blog. Designers should write. Everyone should write! That somehow it will magically build new avenues of exposure for me. I subscribe to a few great newsletters from designers I admire, but always dismissed the idea of joining them to write about the industry I love and work in every day.
Six months ago my brain shifted.
About a year before I had sold a side project to make more time and mental room for a new endeavour. I didn’t know what that was going to be yet, but I had lost passion for that old project and knew it wasn’t my future. So I kicked it to the curb (for a decent chunk of change) to create space for what’s next. I just had to figure out what that was.
My desire to teach never left, and I had recently started reading more on Medium and enjoying the type of content I was finding. So it was an easy decision to jump on board as an author and start writing stories of my own. My goal was to write one article per week, and start accumulating content for a new website I would eventually create — a resource aimed and helping freelancers and designers take their careers from good to great.
I had just come off a good period of freelancing, with one of my highest ever month’s earnings and some exciting new clients, which motivated me to start sharing tips for how I achieved it. I reflected on how I had been developing my freelance design business for the past 17 years, and advice started pouring out.
6 months on:
I’ve written 29 stories (I beat my goal of one per week!), amassed around 78K views, 3.6K fans, and 1.6K followers. I don’t know if I should be impressed or disappointed by those numbers, because I’ve never done anything like this before. But I do know that I’m really enjoying the process, and this community.
What have I learned from writing about freelance design?
1. Write what you know
I learned you absolutely must write what you know and love. I had no interest in writing what seemed popular, but plenty of passion for sharing my own personal experience and business advice. This is especially important for anyone who’s not a writer by profession, but someone writing as a second creative outlet on the side. You’ve got very little time for writing, so you better be sure you laser-focus that writing on your unique viewpoint and nothing else.
2. Know your audience and write for the right reasons
I didn’t go into this thinking writing would bring me new design clients. That was never a goal, because that’s not who my audience is. With the exception of an occasional article aimed at my clientele, I’m writing for designers and other independent creatives who want to build an amazing freelance career. That audience has very little overlap with my clients, so I don’t expect my writing to directly attract new work.
It may help me grow my network of potential collaborators. Or I may simply get the satisfaction of knowing my experience is helping others get the most out of their freelance lifestyles. That’s why I’m doing this. Any other fringe benefits are nothing but icing on the cake.
3. Write what you’re inspired about
I kept a list of potential article ideas I dreamed up when I first had this plan to write, but I quickly threw it out the window. Instead, I found that I wanted to write about what was presently affecting my business. If I had an interesting experience with a client or project, I wrote something about that. If I read a particularly inspiring piece by someones else, I may respond with my own take on the subject. If I enjoyed an unusually profitable period of work, I shared why, and how I got there.
It was those moments when the words flowed out effortlessly and my thoughts were most precise. When I tried to force myself to write about anything that was of less immediate relevance, I quickly lost momentum.
4. Refine your unique viewpoint (and pinpoint its greatest value)
Everyone has something valuable to say. Even if you haven’t been doing your thing for decades, you’ve been doing it longer and better than someone, and to them your experience will be helpful. The more experience you gain, the larger your audience grows.
My unique position is that I’ve been both a designer and a freelancer for over 17 years, and I believe I do both quite well.
Design is an industry that’s always in desperate need for advice. Its low barrier of entry and lack of required certifications means the field is always flooded with juniors looking for a way to improve faster than their colleagues. It’s also a field that is continually expanding and merging with business strategy, so all designers must continue evolving to keep pace.
Freelancing (being self-employed) is a rapidly growing way to work, which is also rife with inexperience and bad advice. It’s a game that’s often learned by trial and error. But being ultra-professional gives you a huge leg up on the competition, so any resources that can teach you those lessons faster than you’d learn them on your own are tremendously valuable.
I’m hoping my unique combination of digital design and self-employment experience offers a valuable perspective for designers as well as other independent creatives.
If you want to start writing about the process or business of design, find the viewpoint that makes you most unique.
5. Find your voice, and improve it.
For me this simply means being authentic. I try to write like I think and talk. I never copy someone else’s writing style, or adapt a sensational voice in hopes to attract more attention.
Readers see right through that shit. At least I do. If you want your knowledge to be taken seriously, it’s vital you come across as genuine and professional.
I’ve suffered through countless examples of writers who have some valuable points to make, but their incoherent rambling presents too many hurdles for readers to overcome.
So I practice improving my writing. I look for ways to articular my main points better each time I discuss them. Just like you must improve as a designer to stay relevant, aim to improve your writing with each new story.
6. Writing will help you clarify your ideas
There’s no better way to stress-test and refine your ideas than to put them in words. I’ve found the process of writing about business and design to bring a lot of clarity to my own thinking, which in turn has accelerated the rate of refinement in my business. It’s forced me to clarify my own processes and find ways to create efficiencies and add value. It’s also improved my client communication.
Heck, even if you don’t share your writing publicly, it’s a worthy exercise for this reason alone.
7. Writing can make your clients more confident in you
While it’s unlikely to lead directly to new design clients, demonstrating the way you think through your writing is a good way to establish trust and credibility with potential clients.
I’ve had a number of recent client who said, while they did not discover me through my writing, they read some of my articles while researching me. They liked the way I thought, and that instilled confidence in them that hiring me was the right decision.
Writing is another avenue to improve your reputation.
So, should designers write?
That depends on why you want to write, who for, and what you’ll write about.
If you’re writing for SEO to bring fresh content to your website — forget about it. Blogs are so 5 years ago. Throw-away content is too invaluable to be wasting your precious time with. You need to be passionate about what you’re saying or you’ll lose steam quickly.
If you’re writing as a new source of potential clients — think again. How much can you actually say to that audience that’s unique or interesting? Are you really passionate about what you’d be preaching to them? More often than not, creatives get far more joy by writing about their craft, but that’s an entirely separate audience that won’t often lead directly to new work.
If you’re writing to be famous, chasing stats and likes — rethink why you’re getting into this. Writing isn’t Instagram. It needs to be far deeper to be successful. Metrics like views can only be taken with a grain of salt. It’s the passion and engagement of your followers that really matters, and there’s no shortcut but to continuously create great content.
If you’re writing to sell me something — nothing makes me run away faster than to be treated like a potential customer being pandered to. It’s always a huge disappointment when I come across a seemingly interesting article, only to find it’s superficial fluff followed by a sales pitch and link to some online course or e-book. It’s OK to promote stuff subtly, in context, where it’s genuinely valuable to your reader. But the second you cross that line you’ve alienated most of your audience.
If you’re writing to establish yourself as an expert in your field — that’s a worthy and achievable goal. Just like all designers need to practice self-promotion to make their creative work known, thinkers need to publish their ideas to spread their expertise. Writing will also help you clarify and improve those ideas.
But beware of pretending to be a pro when you don’t have much of value to say. If you fake it, nobody will read it. That’s why I’ve waited until now to start writing — I didn’t feel like I had much value to share when I had less experience.
Now that I am writing and sharing more of my design and business thinking, it’s having the added benefit of giving my potential clients an insight into the way I think, which gives them greater confidence in hiring me.
If you’re writing for the joy of teaching and helping others — now you’ve got the idea! There’s no end to the number of people’s lives you may be able to improve, even if just a little bit, through the wisdom you share. More than views, reads, claps, or comments, it’s the personal messages from designers who’s livelihoods you’ve positively affected that will make your day.
So go forth and write, designers. But do it for the right reasons.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 17 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.