When I first started designing, I began as a specialist. I was told by instructors and professionals that it’s helpful to pick one thing and get really good at it. After working as a freelance designer for a few years I became an expert on designing e-commerce sites and naturally took that on as my specialty.
Over time, I eventually got hired by more startups to design marketing sites and visual design for their products and, oh snap, my specialty had changed! As my career organically grew, I found myself designing brands and logos for these startups. Again, I needed to rebrand myself as a designer specializing in brand design. It was getting exhausting trying to wedge myself into smaller specialties when I really loved all these kinds of design work. I took a deep breath and decided to be honest with myself— I’m actually a generalist.
I absolutely loved being a generalist, but I still wasn’t 100% satisfied with my client work. I found myself spending half my time working for companies that had values I believed in, but the other half was spent designing for corporations that were pushing values I didn’t share.
Knowing I was advancing the agenda for something that didn’t feel true to myself left me feeling uninspired and unmotivated to make good work. I had to step back and think how I could re-frame my approach to client work to only attract the companies that shared my values. Maybe I was being too much of a generalist by working with any company. Even though I loved being a generalist in skill, could I be a specialist in values? The answer is yes!
Here are the steps I took to become a value-based designer
1. I identified the values I held to be important by listing out the things I value. For me it’s making the world a happier place, creating safe spaces and communities, and lifting others up.
2. I came up with a short term that easily defined the kind of company that shares my values. I coined the term “Happy Companies” to define these future clients.
3. I changed the language on my website to clearly define what kind of companies I work for. Not only do I use the phrase “Happy Companies” all over my website & social media, I also do a great job explaining what that means.
4. I changed my attitude! When I meet with new clients, I’ve started giving them a pitch about myself, my work with happy companies, and what a happy company is. At the end of my pitch I explain how this must be a mutually beneficial relationship. If I’m not the right fit for them, or they don’t feel as though they’re a Happy Company, I’m more than thrilled to put them in touch with a designer who is a perfect fit. This allows me to only work with clients who fit my values, but also allows me to sometimes hand-off great projects to my designer friends!
After 3 years working as a value-based designer, I’ve found these benefits
- When a happy company hears about my values and my mission, they know I’m the only designer for them. When they see my work, social media, and my website and think, “This Meg person is speaking to my company! She’s the only designer I could possibly hire! She’s obviously an expert in designing for my type of company! I trust her! Everything is amazing!”.
- Outwardly saying, “I only work for these kinds of companies” turns off anyone who doesn’t fall in line with those values. This means no more making unfulfilling work for companies that don’t share my values.
- Because I am a generalist in skill and a specialist in values, no two projects are ever alike. This keeps me from getting worn out on brand design or sick of solving UI problems. Some weeks are spent honing in on brand strategy while others are spent designing something in a physical space.
- It can be really scary shutting the door to a majority of companies and prospective clients. But once I did, it actually opened the door to a larger total number of companies interested in working with only me. Being specialized in values has made me the #1 person for these companies to hire.