Lessons from 30 years in the design business

Published:  July 15, 2016

SPONSORED CONTENT: This article was produced in collaboration with Swinburne Online. Download a course guide for the Bachelor of Design (Communication Design) degree today.

Shane Nagle is a noted designer and children’s illustrator with dozens of published works. He also lectures on communication design at Swinburne University’s Faculty of Design and Swinburne Online. In his private graphic design practice he prefers to focus on clients who work in the arts and for the environment.

After nearly 30 years in business, Nagle says he still gets a buzz out of making logos and solving communication problems. His interest in drawing and photography have helped make his design services somewhat unique, and he follows the idea that all design disciplines should contribute something useful to the world. (Or, at the very least, aim to not clutter up the landscape with things which are displeasing to the eye.)

desktop asked Nagle about his advice to entrepreneurial students and how owners of new design businesses can get a head start.

Before a young designer takes the first steps to start their freelance or design business, what are the top few things they need to consider first before making that plunge?

Well, I’d say don’t do what I did! I jumped straight into starting my own business myself after about just a year of full-time work. Although I did learn a fair bit in that one year, in retrospect, I don’t think I’d learnt enough previously. I left probably too early and I didn’t have the basic knowledge of business processes – a knowledge someone could gain after three or four years working for someone else. These are things that you don’t learn in university.

What are some of those things?

Well, how to speak to clients, how to contact clients, how to portray oneself in a professional manner, how to quote and prepare a costing and how to manage time.

And then there’s also the bookkeeping process. There’s a fair bit to stay on top of and you can’t pick these things up easily. It takes a lot of mistakes to learn all these steps on your own.

This is something I recommend to my students. I tell them: ‘If you want to go into your own business – and I highly encourage it – I suggest that you try to get two to five years of experience working for another design studio and gain as much knowledge as you can about running a business.’

And do a lot of your students express an interest in starting their own business?

Not all of them. It’s a rare breed. I do come across some of them and they’re mostly the most self-confident and risk-taking type of personalities.

What are the top few things students will need to get done to set up their own business?

Well, they have to have a folio. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a student folio, as long as it’s presented in a professional manner. But, in all honestly, no one will know if a logo design in a folio was a $5 job or a $5000 job. What’s important is to have examples of work that suit the industry in its current times. So things like logo design, website design, brochures… anything they can garner and put together to make themselves as useful and as flexible as possible.

The other important thing I’d say is to not be shy. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and pass on your folios to friends or family members for referrals.

You have to be really hungry and you have to build relationships and look at strategically building those relationships long-term. And start to learn how to understand a client’s business so that you can provide a solution and the right service.

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In a competitive industry, what can new business owners do to start building their client database?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that, except to be creative in your approach in looking for work. I’m in the same position right now. After having about five to six years of regular work from a certain niche of clients, that niche dried up very quickly and very suddenly. And so I’m back to where I was asking myself if I should carve out a similar niche of clients or find a new set of clients. And I do some a lot of time scratching my head; trying to think of how I could do it because I’ve done all the obvious things every designer would do to bring clients in.

For the young designers or students who are setting up their own business, I would tell them to first approach family and friends with their folios for referrals. And just try to get their names out there in many ways as possible. Have an online presence of some fashion where you’re building some kind of a subscriber list. It could be through some form of writing whether it’s articles about yourselves or the industry. This is to attract followers and have some form of engagement going.

And if you had to give a one-line advice to students on surviving the industry, what would that be?

Do good work.

When you do good work, you’re always going to be recognised. And my secondary statement is to try to pick clients that you enjoy. I find it hard to pretend and lie that I like working with people I don’t and I believe that there needs to a good relationship between the client and the designer for professional cocreation, good work that will ultimately help both the client’s and your business.

SPONSORED CONTENT: This article was produced in collaboration with Swinburne Online. Download a course guide for the Bachelor of Design (Communication Design) degree today.

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