Carving out your niche

Published:  July 6, 2011
Carving out your niche

The Anglerfish belongs to the teleost order of Lophiiformes, (mandatory unpronounceable Latin). These mad looking ‘Piscis’ have developed an ingenious and unusual mode of predation, which involves dangling an illuminated lure from the top of their heads in front of their ferocious teeth.

The Anglerfish then floats almost motionless in the deep, cold and very dark abyss; where almost nothing else can survive. Its glowing lure attracts the curiosity of unsuspecting passing prey, which are quickly snapped up. This inventive method of survival is born out of necessity in a harsh and competitive environment. In ‘David Attenborough’ speak, the Anglerfish has become a specialist and has carved out a niche for itself in the market place.

Working in the design business is a bit like being an Anglerfish – it’s a harsh and competitive environment. According to a survey commissioned by Design Victoria (Designing our Future, 2009) there were 21,232 students enrolled in design courses in 2007 (a 28% growth from 2002 – 2007). Employment of graphic design graduates sat around 69% in 2008, pre-global financial crisis.

However, just being a fish and swimming around is not enough to ensure your survival. Sure, you will require some good general fish skills; swimming and breathing under water would be a great start. But you are going to need to discover your area of speciality or niche. Align your branding and your passion with a special skill set. Specialists and experts quickly become the ‘Go-to Guru’.

We all like to seek out the services of an expert and have confidence and pride in doing so. We boast to our friends that we have discovered somebody really good. By association with excellence we are also saying that we are discerning and appreciate the difference. Your clients will become evangelistic about whatever special services you are the master of. They won’t go anywhere else and will enthusiastically refer you to their network.

Because you offer something that no one else can. In marketing jargon, you have a unique selling point (USP). It’s no longer about being the cheapest, quickest or nearest. This is the essence of brand equity.

As consumers we like to map out pigeonholes for everything. Your area of expertise, is much more memorable than being just okay at a bunch of things. Think about all the really great brands out there. I have never driven a BMW, but am confident that they make very nice motorcars. Everyone says so. It’s somehow reassuring to know this, even though I have no desire to actually own one. Inversely, when a brand tries to diversify, it confuses us. I have never understood Yamaha pianos or Mitsubishi electric pencil sharpeners.

I recently read a story of a sign writer who had developed a passion for hand painting bicycles with pinstripes and hand lettering. He learned his craft from the last of the retiring freehand bicycle pinstripers. He now has an international reputation and a peloton of eager customers who are happy to pay him handsomely for his unique service.

Generalists are perceived to have lesser passion and ability than specialists, who have honed their skills to the highest possible level of perfection. There is not much to get excited about with a mediocre all rounder. As such we avoid their services in favour of an expert. And the perception is, if you are an expert, then you also have a broad general skill base.

But clients who prefer to employ a generalist do so due to budget constraints. So if your USP is being the cheapest designer in town, then prepare yourself to also being the busiest and poorest. And because the client doesn’t really trust or respect you, they will interfere with your design judgment. This flawed strategy is frequently used by fresh graduates.

Post-global financial crisis, a trend began for employers to request a broader skill set from their designers. Job descriptions are getting longer and longer. Sure, having a ‘swiss army knife’ in your tool kit has its advantages, but have you ever tried using the can opener?

It would be foolish to abandon having a solid base skill, but in order to gain a point of difference, follow your passion, become the master of that niche and your reputation will spread.

Like the Anglerfish, working as a creative can be a solitary business. And sometimes trying to find a market for your USP can feel as deep, dark and sparsely inhabited as the ocean floor. But think of your passion and commitment to your craft as that dangling illuminated lure – and ensure the survival of your species.

9 Responses

  1. I think I’ll start a creative studio and name is Anglerfish… great article!

  2. Dan

    thanks for writing an article that shows a realistic attitude about the design industry.
    unfortunately these days, our success lies completely on our passion and drive, if for one split second you doubt either… thats it.

    • Self doubt can be very debilitating. But if you specialise, then your clients will trust you more. If you believe in yourself then so will everyone around you. And accept it’s OK to make a few mistakes. If you punish yourself for your errors, your confidence will crumble and your creativity will dry up… Easier said than done however. I always enjoy interviews with David Carson. He always looks as if he does not care what people might think about him.

  3. Flyn

    Great article Simon, it’s highlights to me that not only do you have to understand and market your USP. But you also need to establish one to begin with. I think Milton Glasser talks more about his view on having a niche skill/branding/trade marking oneself here if anyones interested.

    • Thanks Flyn, I think I have seen it. He is doing a live Skype interview with some Melbourne creatives for the state of design festival. Sadly I missed out on a ticket. Hopefully they will record it.

  4. Neil

    Great article. While there may be certain advantages to having a broad skillset, we just don’t have long enough lives to be good at everything. The world is trending towards seeking out specialist in the most incredibly varied fields.

  5. Neil, I have also noticed a trend in job ads for a very general and broad skill set. I think that this is unrealistic – it’s just a wish-list by employers.

    I really like your point that we just don’t live long enough to be good at everything. My advise is just apply for a job, even if they require an impossibly long and hopeful skill set. One can always grow into a position and pick up skills as required.

    Many people, including myself have blagged their way into a position and had a rapid ‘baptism by fire’ experience for the first month or so.

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