Taking a buckshot approach to the graphic design business is a sure-fire way to miss your target. Perhaps I should rephrase that. The buckshot approach to the graphic design business is a sure-fire way of making sure you don’t know what business you are in.
You’ve been to “those” websites as you researched creating your own website, where it seemed this small graphic design company had every service under the sun available on their site. They had a “huge” portfolio with average looking work. You weren’t impressed by the creative, to be honest, but you were a little bit baffled how they got the work to begin with. At this point, you wished you at least had their business. Then the thought crossed your mind: maybe by offering a lot of services (like twenty of them!) that I too will get business and have a successful run at getting my freelance graphic designer career off the ground.
I have news for you.
99% of those “graphic design” companies that look like they do everything from mugs to “corporate annual reports” more likely have done a few mugs and zero “corporate annual reports”. On second inspection, something doesn’t seem quite right. Haven’t you seen that layout before? Are those real numbers? What on earth does that “company” in the “annual report” really even sell? And so on.
What a lot of dubious “graphic design” companies do is…absolutely nothing. Many websites are abandoned attempts to get business, and what remains is record of the frenetic attempt that is now riding out the balance of some hosting account, or are simply put out to pasture by some serial website creator who among other things at one time attempted to get a “graphic design” business going. The line of reasoning was something like “I can do this easy business! I’ll get templates or some sucker freelancer to work cheap for me while I rake in the bucks.” Yeah, right. Three months into that gig and he’s onto other great ideas like “I’ll start my own template site” or something else more incredible like a Yahoo store selling customized pens with special pricing “for a limited time only”. Or now he’s selling ebooks on the secrets to designing a website that will attract millions of viewers – guaranteed!
What the shady-types the web is filled with do to well-meaning freelance graphic designers is simply confuse and dishearten them. Stop right now and listen! The web is littered with what seems to be “successful” graphic design business websites, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There are many sites, like the hills of California during the Gold Rush period, that are simply abandoned! You might walk up to any fresh looking miner site at the height of the Gold Rush and think, seeing all the panning contraptions and fresh dirt piles everywhere, that some serious gold has been had by some lucky fortunado. In all reality though, you probably just stumbled on a site that was abandoned a few months back. But it sure looks busy! No, the prospector is either 1) dead or 2) selling moonshine in town or 3) selling maps to the “gold in them thar’ hills.”
So should you focus on a niche? Of course. Pick what you love best and focus on it thoroughly. Don’t offer a service you think will make money, just because it might. Offer it because you really enjoy the work as a freelance graphic designer. If you don’t enjoy the work, the idea of a niche might make you cringe. Now a niche doesn’t have to be so narrow you define yourself right out of work. For instance, you could focus on print design, with a bit of a tight focus on small business brochures. Or you could focus on poster design, or logo design. Your freelance graphic design portfolio should reflect a slightly homogenized style and content matter. Homogenized is not a bad word, especially when we think of diary products. It means to be free from harmful foreign matter, protected from it being introduced and compromising the product. A niched-focused portfolio conveys a very professional sense of self-assuredness. Let reason dictate and keep a tight reign on the scope of your portfolio on the website. That reasoning will shine through and convince clients of the one most important thing a niche could possibly accomplish for you: you are worth hiring because you are consistent, professional, and focused.
So, take the laser-focused approach and define your freelance graphic design portfolio around your actual strengths and not around the buckshot method that tries to please both the “cheap pen” and “corporate annual report” client at the same time. You’ll get neither that way!
How much is enough? How much is too much? How much work you should show in your freelance graphic design portfolio depends on a variety of factors. Let’s examine some of them.
But first, let’s say a few words about the reality of freelancers showing their portfolio. In the “old” days, like several years ago, it used to be that you had to bring a portfolio to an interview. The rules for how many pieces are appropriate for an interview are pretty established. The consensus seems to be 10-15 pieces, depending on the work. If your primary focus was for some reason business cards, a few extra pieces per page of portfolio wouldn’t hurt. On the other hand, if your portfolio presentation was a series of 20 page full-color catalogs, just a few pieces would be fine. In the end, having 10 or 12 pages to flip through at a meeting is more than adequate.
What is the client not doing while you are flipping through these pages? They are not thinking very hard about specifics. They are taking in a general sense of you. Your clothing, breath, personality, body language are probably 80% of what they are taking in. How you flip your pages (fumbling or confident?) and what shape your portfolio is in (dinged up? nice and crisp?) is part of that too. About 20% of their attention is focused on your work. You are package deal, which is the unspoken but pragmatic truth about in-person freelance graphic design portfolio reviews. In all my many years of presenting portfolios, the same one with little change from year to year (my best work is timeless…hehe), I only had one person, who was not principle interviewer, ask me a remotely technical question about what they were seeing. I would say that 95% of the time, the portfolio review was flipping page while I talked in beautifully vague language about my experience working on the piece. For instance “Ah…this piece was a fun one. I got to tour the factory after I met the client and got free Asian frozen meals. The president of that company was…blah blah blah.” Many times I would not even talk directly about the work. And nobody asked. It was like a slide show of my summer vacation, more or less. I got a lot jobs that way.
But let’s get back to the issue at hand, which is namely presenting your work on the web. Once again, the final number for the web is really quite a different number than a live presentation would be for a variety of factors. First, there is no you in the flesh for them to be thinking about. But what replaces the you-factor if someone is perusing your website, sans you? In this case, it is your overall web design and usability that takes that place. How thoughtful have you been in designing the site? Have you nested the categories down inside several layers and clicks with “clever” small type that is hard to click? Did you (please say you didn’t) do a Flash portfolio with some “clever” “advancement” of standard user interface behaviors. If you did, well, all I can say is it’s never too late to change your website. A hard-to-use, overly clever, obliquely usable website is the equivalent of doing your live freelance graphic design portfolio presentation using a sock-puppet and pop-up book that doesn’t quite function correctly to present your work, while at the same time you are mumbling your words, and not to mention you are smelling like onions, lavendar, and fresh hot road tar baking in sun. Not pleasant and also self-defeating. Stop defeating yourself! Your interface is entirely in the way, is what I’m trying to say. You need to rethink your website and make it as easy as possible for a visitor to get to the one thing that matters – your work.