How to be found by clients

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February 05, 2015
How to be found by clients.
The number one question I always am asked is, “How do I get prospective clients to look at my portfolio?” It comes from newbies and… er… oldies, and practicing professionals alike. These days, there is so much competition. How does one stand out in searches when a business is seeking a designer, illustrator or photographer? Is the answer to swim in the middle of the school with the other fish, or swim alone and hope you draw the right attention?

The way we used to do it

A friend of mine was telling me about his booking a spread in one of the printed directories for illustrators and designers. I was shocked. “Do they still have those?” I asked. “Yup!” he replied, “They’re still expensive and it takes a year to be published.” [pullquote]There was a time where you had to be in every one of these books, every year and with costs of $750 to a few thousand dollars per book[/pullquote] I admit to having not seen one — an ad for one, someone mentioning being in one, or rumor of one still existing — for quite some time. Like many, I thought the internet had put these expensive printed collections out of business. I have been in a few of these directories. There was a time where you had to be in every one of these books, every year and with costs of $750 to a few thousand dollars per book, paid in full a year in advance of it being printed and shipped to thousands of art directors. There were some problems with these books:
  • Some creatives became known, not for their work, but because they paid for multiple pages, to be in every book, every year. It was more familiarity than talent that kept them in the front of the pack.
  • Illustrators and photographers represented by the bigger agents paid 50% to 75% of the page insertion fee to be represented and listed with the agent. You’d pay upwards of seven to ten thousand dollars every year… hoping you’d be with that agent next year!
  • Not all of the art directors stayed in the same agencies the whole time; they moved, retired, or changed careers. The book publishers claimed to keep updating their lists. As a creative director/art director, I never received one book, even when I called to get one from each publisher.
Some books have gone out of business. Some creatives believe that being selected for design award shows is the best way to stand out among other creators. This may be true… or not.

Winning really isn’t everything

Who sees award winners? Winners sit in a ceremony among other creators who mumble aloud to others within earshot that you didn’t deserve it. Or, your winning work is published in a book of winners and honorable mentions, for which you can pay a publishing fee, along with the 20 entry fees you had to pay so you could get that one piece in the show. [pullquote]Prospective clients rarely search, “award + winning + web + designer”[/pullquote] So, other designers shake your hand and you get a little piece of plastic and glass to put on your desk. Do the people who buy creative services care? Does having “award winning design” on your promotional material say to prospects, “I’m too expensive for you,” “I’m too prissy to listen to requests from clients,” “I never defecate due to my holiness,” or “I got lucky with a jury of my peers who don’t know good design from their spilled glasses of wine on the table full of entries for this competition that cost me $100 per entry?” Prospective clients rarely search, “award+winning+web+designer”. Design awards are for those who want to impress other designers: the very people who don’t buy design services and will despise you for thinking you’re better than they are. Sure, Pentagram may be able to wear awards like earrings and charm bracelets but would their clients come to you? Don’t be so depressed. You may be in that position some day. Dazzle them with your talent and ability to work well with a client. A return client is an award in itself. It’s a reward that actually hands you money and doesn’t need to be dusted every week.

Your website and being found

You’ve got a beautiful website! It’s even been spotlighted on the “20 top design websites” on a top design blog. Unfortunately, it’s other designers who will see that article but there’s something in your favor — search terms. If a prospective client searches for “top website designs,” then you’ve got a leg up in being found. If they search “web design” you’ve still got a chance, with only about 986 million other returns for those search terms. There’s the eternal question of “I have a website, but how do I get people to look at it?” The question should be, “How do I get the right people to look at it?” Some people believe they can get enough work from other designers, and that may be true for photographers and illustrators. But, if a designer wants to give you a project, it’s either because you create better logos, build a website faster or it’s a crap job, and they would rather take 10% of the fee (or more, as the case may be) and let someone else deal with the crap. You can place ads in Facebook (hasn’t worked for my friends), LinkedIn (goes to businesses), targeted Adsense or in the right blogs and online publications. That takes a budget... sometimes a large budget! Social media is cheaper or free but how do you connect with the right people? There’s live networking and business cards, joining a LinkedIn group for startup businesses. word-of-mouth, Facebook fan pages, Google+ groups and other websites that will put your URL out there to a blind spread of the population. If you’ve been in a position of buying freelance design, illustration or photography, you will know how you go about finding the right talent and where to look.

Behance, Creative Hotlist, CarbonMade?

Are free portfolio sites a better choice? They are very much a digital talent directory like those expensive books mentioned before. Would someone searching for a creative talent use one of these sites, like flipping through a book? Not exactly. These sites allow for a search that includes specific talents and locations, which could mean competing with your neighbors, rather than the world at large. [pullquote]there are three things that sell a house…location, location, location! The same thing goes for…your portfolio[/pullquote] As an art director, I would pour over directories to find new talent but I also maintained a file of promotional mailers from freelancers, as well as a bookmark file (several, actually) of website portfolios. As these portfolio sites came out, going to the shelf to get unlimited paper cuts from flipping through endless pages of directories became less desirable. As search engines began to find creatives who knew enough about SEO and keywords, it became easier for those who wanted local talent to find it; but with the Internet, “local” includes our planet, and the International Space Station. In a way, the strength of portfolio sites is that the SEO and advertising are largely done by the people who run the site in question. Being a part of it takes you along for the ride. They also minimize many insecurities that designers might have about the design of their portfolio itself. Having a set format and design for all of those who use that site is a somewhat comforting thought for many. It’s the, “we all suck” rationalization. In real estate, they say there are three things that sell a house/business property: location, location, location! The same thing goes for having your portfolio found. Be everywhere! There’s no reason you can’t place your portfolio on each and every portfolio site as well as having your own, independently hosted website. It’s a shotgun approach to hitting everything but as long as you can dedicate yourself to keeping each one updated with new, fresh material.


It’s the purpose of your site that truly demands either one or the other in your choices. It can be both. What many creatives forget about a portfolio, or book, as many call it, is that it needs to read like a story for some people who hire creatives. Most creative directors want to see your thought process, so a portfolio that shows the journey between concept and final approval will impress someone who wants to know how you use your talent. To a business owner, seeing the process will be fascinating. Of course, if someone wants to see more of your work, send them to the portfolio that’s more like a library of your work, or the portfolio of just your logos, or the portfolio of websites. Since you can have as many portfolios as possible, why not use cheap hosting, free portfolio platforms, and even PDFs when necessary? The good thing about free portfolio sites is that you’re not out a dime if they don’t work and you want to delete them, rather than redesign or add more images. Be the first person to have 100 portfolios on the Web. The only thing it’ll cost you is time. Featured image, school of fish image via Shutterstock.

Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. Follow him on Twitter @speider or add him on Google+

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