Paradox logo by MineParadox logo designed by Mine™.

Whilst looking through some design portfolios online earlier this month I came across a fantastic poster promoting “Mill Valley Film Festival” by Mine™. It was the perfect Christmas gift for my son (a film student) so I contacted Mine and asked where I could get hold of one. Just five hours later I got this reply; 
“We have some samples here. If you give me your address I’ll send you one.” Slightly stunned, I emailed my address asking if they were sure this was okay, I live in Australia, Mine are based in San Francisco. The postage would not be cheap, so I sort of forgot about the whole thing.

Yesterday, only three weeks later, a courier arrived at my door with a container sent first-class by Christopher Simmons. Inside carefully wrapped in tissue like a special gift were two posters (I’ve paid $35 for an unframed print to be shipped from a gallery in the US and it wasn’t presented like this). Although I’ve never met Christopher, been a client of Mine, or sent clients to them for branding, their message came over loud and clear. Not only do these guys work on creating amazing, innovative, clever and original design, they are actually good people who care about what they do.

So what’s my point? The point is there is no formula to being successful. There is no one way or magic bullet to building a successful design business. You can surf for “how to” links, follow marketing gurus looking for ideas about how to promote your business, and use a ton of great online and offline tools and tactics. Those tools and tactics might help you to interact, but what makes the quality of your interactions, messaging, or promotion is you. Bringing your personality and your humanness (yes, it’s a real word) into your business is what will make it fly.

“There is no map.”
— Seth Godin

The word promotion is defined as a message issued on behalf of some product cause or idea. Promotion then is just a way of signalling the world about what we want the world to believe and ultimately act upon. In many ways it was a heck of a lot easier to be heard in the old days. Although we had fewer channels through which to send our messages to a tiny audience, we also had a lot less noise to compete with.

We’ve gone way beyond the point of no return as far as promotion is concerned. You, the business owner, vendor or artist no longer decides who will listen to your message. People are switching off to the old messaging signals of advertising and selfish look at me tactics. Sure, you can decide how to shout but shouting isn’t going to get you very far. Consumers are now choosing to work with people they trust and not just those who can shout the loudest.

Building trust into messaging is a new way (for some) to reach the ideal audience, client or customer. Earning trust is actually scalable and is built interaction by interaction. Yes, there are a bucket load of tools, apps, communities and networks you can use to do this. The key though is to use them to build connections based on genuine trust. How do you do that?

Find and build an audience that wants to hear from you

Commit time to interacting with people both online and offline. Enable your interactions with people by telling a consistent story that is authentic. Everything about you from your blog comments to your website design and the tone of your emails is part of the story. True stories work best.

Create something people want to talk about

Focus on doing great work. Design things that people love and can’t help sharing. Allow your work to speak for itself. People like you who give form to ideas have the opportunity to be unique. That’s an edge in itself.

Make it easy for people to spread word about you

Consider how people interact with each other. Work out new ways to make it easy for them to spread your work, ideas and designs.

Although there is no map, here’s a short list of potential routes to think about.

  • Help people out where you can.

  • Look for problems to solve.

  • Create an amazing identity for yourself, something worth talking about.

  • Reflect your expertise and values to your potential clients (not just your peers) through your website branding.

  • Write a blog.

  • Connect using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Hashable and on and on.

  • Guest post on other blogs.
Leave valuable comments on blogs you respect.
Send samples.

  • Run a competition.
Become a speaker.
Publish books or ebooks.

  • Share your knowledge.

  • Host a networking group locally for designers.

  • Attend business networking events where you are based.

  • Take a genuine interest in people.

  • Be interesting.

“Find your voice. Inspire others to find their voice.”
— Stephen Covey

How have you made it easier for people to hear about you? How could you do it better?

My sincere thanks to Bernadette for sharing her knowledge these past weeks. It’s been a pleasure having her as a guest.

The full ‘Building your design business’ series:

1. Perceptioning
2. Product
3. Promotion


Another great post Bernadette. Some great points:

“Bringing your personality and your humanness (yes, it’s a real word) into your business is what will make it fly.”

Totally agree. Business has nearly always been about people, not businesses. Most work seems to come from recommendations. When someone moves on from a company often THEY are the link with that business and your link with them is lost. The new people bring in their people.

“Find and build an audience that wants to hear from you

Again totally agree. We dont have a huge amount of people following us on Twitter, but we have quite a few that do are people we find important. Charities, Major supermarkets, CIC’s and small brands like the ones we would love to work with. We use twitter to converse with these people rather than just collecting numbers like a game.

Social media is essentially a game. The amount of followers you have are points. But points don’t always make prizes (sorry Brucie).

“Create something people want to talk about
Again totally agree. It can be a slow burn but it all mounts up and increases over time. People don’t always action things straight away and you can be near the top of the list when an opportunity does come up.

Great stuff Bernadette, as usual. Lots of what you say is relevant for many small businesses, design or otherwise.

This is absolutely superb! And what particularly resonated with me was the importance of “humanness”. It’s so true! The temptation to become a mindless, emotionless link-sharing fiend (as an example) is strong, but it IS important, in social media, in your business, in the way you interact with people in WHATEVER form, to be HUMAN and personable!

A most excellent read, Bernadette. =]

Thanks Lee and Ian,

I’m glad this post resonated with you both.
It’s been a pleasure to write for David’s fantastic audience.

And yes, this applies to any kind of business or interaction either online or offline. People need to get a sense of who you really are before they can trust you.

I just wanted to add that Christopher and the guys at Mine were not aware that they were being featured in this article. Happily for me their generous gift arrived just as I was putting the finishing touches to the post and told the story better than anything I could have written.
As another aside my initial enquiry was sent from my personal email address so there would have been no hint of a WIFM down the track either.
Makes them even more remarkable in my book!

A true and beautiful highly inspiring article for anyone who’s serious about his/her business ventures.

From my own experience, being generous and reflecting good behaviour pared with friendliness and a healthy attitude is a good and genuine way to generate trustfulness, which consequently leads to good clients by word-to-mouth.

Cheers Bernadette for the great article. At the end of the day, I just want to seem like I’m a nice guy…seem?…cut me of in traffic, and the gloves come off LOL

Hi Bernadette,

Excellent piece!

All great ideas. I participate in my local world! Am on committees, work with others to save the things that matter, write letters to the editor, keep my word, treat others with respect, stand up for what I believe.

What goes around comes around. People will remember you if you participate in life! Business is just a small subset of life. Folks often get that backwards.

Thanks, Giulietta

‘Building your design business’ series were great.

‘Maps’, teaching how to get there, are everywhere on the internet. But people like me, that want to run a design business, need those advices you gave on these posts.

Advices that come from people who really understand the meaning of working by yourself in design. People who really knows what you need to know to be get there.

Thank you for the great posts!

Hi Henrique,

It’s great to know that ‘real people’ doing great work have found the posts useful.
The thing I think we all know is that there is no one way to succeed and no one measure of success. As individuals doing business we need to behave like individuals. We forget that sometimes as we try to be like the other guys.

What a great anecdote! Christopher Simmons was my instructor in art school in San Francisco. I’m not surprised at all that he would help you out the way that he did. As an instructor he embodied all three tenets you mention. He communicated well and cared about his students, encouraged our constant exploration for good design, and made efforts to cultivate a good classroom culture. I’ve learned to define my own meaning of holistic success—to have creative and professional integrity.

good article bernadette.
and nice to get confirmation i might not be far off the mark after all – your point about there being no formula to success.
i’ve searched for the ‘how to’ links, and sought advice from marketing gurus, but although it all sounded great, it didn’t feel right for me – like i was forcing things. and i’m sure it showed.
so, i keep coming back to what i’ve always done and what feels comfortable, and that is to just to put a bit extra into everything. if someone needs help or something quick – do it there and then. go a bit further than bog standard when presenting anything – ‘use tissue paper’.
these days it’s nice to deal with, and be treated like, a person, rather than be part of a sausage factory. i always appreciate that sort of thing, and so do all the people who send work my way, again, and again…

Thank you soo much, I have searched the internet for the past 3 years to hear what you summed up in a few paragraphs. I appreciated your insight and wisdom. You have give me inspiration to start a local designer group in my area! I want to be able to interact with other amazing designers! Thanks Again!

Michael R Whitson

Hi Gareth,
Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Sometimes we can meet ourselves coming back just trying to keep up with what we ‘should’ be doing to market our businesses.
I think people find it refreshing to deal with a real caring human being. That was the marketing of the old days and it worked. Sounds like you are making it work for you!

Seth Godin wrote a post just today about ‘cliches’. I like this line.
“Here’s the thing: you can’t stand out if you fit in all the way, and thus the act of deciding which part isn’t going to match is the important innovation.”

This is a perfect post and really hits the nail on the head as far as self-promotion goes. I get fatigued and disheartened by the companies out there that are so slick and have that “look at us, we are the greatest – you NEED us” mentality. There is a lack of humility and understanding that the designer/client relationship is a much more interdependent one. Without valued clients that trust in us, we don’t have much promise for success.

Coming from a perspective of helping people and offering a service that will better their situation is a much more relatable approach. The example of Mine sending the poster embodies this perfectly. There is no attitude of “we have no time for this, we are too busy and important.” In this fast-paced world, the concept of care often falls by the wayside. Knowing I put the utmost care into the work I do for my clients is the utmost satisfaction for me. Doing the best I can for a client to enable them to do their best is really the reason I am in this business.

Thanks for such a great post. I look forward to reading more!

Hi Diane,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and what works for you. I love your business philosophy and I can bet your clients love working with you.

“Doing the best I can for a client to enable them to do their best is really the reason I am in this business.”

Good advice!

I think the number one promotional tool by far is the recommendations by your clients you did work for. If you only get this right, you can forget everything else.

It’s great to read a new take on the classic concept of being good, being prolific, and shipping often.

When I first started in art, I was selling photocopied comic books that I drew from a downtown street corner. three years through Canadian winter & everything!

Hi Sean,


A friend of mine says we come what we can communicate. Our success (however you define it remembering it may not be in $’s) is a reflection of the messages we send out to the world.

Looks like all that hard work paid off for you.

Hi Diane, Thanks for sharing your thoughts and what works for you. I love your business philosophy and I can bet your clients love working with you. “Doing the best I can for a client to enable them to do their best is really the reason I am in this business.”

Hi Jennifer,
Thanks for the kind words on my comment :-). I didn’t always have this design philosophy. When I was younger, I was in it for myself, and it was much more of a struggle. As years have progressed, I have realized that looking beyond myself is not only necessary, but is much more rewarding. Now on those days when I struggle for ideas, I remind myself that it’s not just my success on the line. Doing so really helps in breaking down those mental blocks!

I have one thing to add to your exhaustive to-do list. I’d like to stress on the importance of an online design portfolio. This is the primary thing to focus on these days for every designer, I would say.

While other stuff like writing a blog or promoting your social pages matters a lot, all of that seems quite time-consuming. However, you don’t have to be a coding ninja to create a professionally-looking online design portfolio to present some of your best works. Modern portfolio builders like Format allow you to create a website with stunning galleries and grids in a matter of minutes. Please see here:
Your portfolio website can be a single place for your blog and online shop as well, which will definitely increase your credibility.

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