Specialize as a Graphic Designer
There are many reasons to pick a niche as a creative freelancer. Clients trust experts, word of mouth works better, and your marketing becomes more straightforward. For your inspiration, and to give you a little push to specialize, I interview freelancers who have chosen their niche.
Next out: Jack Hagley, a London-based freelance graphic designer specialising in infographics and data visualization. His work has appeared in The Times, the Guardian and Wired. Jack tells stories with data and makes them look beautiful.
Hi Jack, what's your niche ?
Infographics. I work for a wide variety of companies; financial, media, charity, recruitment, NGOs. Anyone that has a story that needs to be told with data, pictures and words.
Why did you choose to be an infographics designer?
I didn’t really choose it at all. I just got a chance do to it and went for it as hard as I could. I t kind of chose me. I kept doing it because I like it and people still want to pay me to do it for them.
How did you break into infographics?
The biggest hurdle was getting the right people to see my work. In m y case, the right person was David MacCandless (at Information is Beautiful.) I made an infographic CV and I sent it to them. They were kind enough to offer me a job with them, even thought that was about the only infographic I had made at the time.
Before that the hardest part is the lack of encouragement and the length of time it can take to get opportunities.
Download Jack's latest version of his infographic CV here.
Who should an infographics designer connect with?
I have such a mixture of clients that I really have no idea whether any would be better than any others.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the names of national newspapers on your CV. They don’t pay as well as advertising companies, so some people won’t work for them at all, and because of this sometimes they really need people to come and work for them and will take a chance on someone more junior. Newspapers will be beneficial because they will be adept storytellers, which is a useful thing to soak up, as well as usually being better at planning things. Advertising and media companies in general tend to leave things until the last minute!
Nowadays, what’s your most successful way of getting clients?
Word of mouth I guess? I think a lot of people find me on the Google too. It’s nice when you get passed around from client to client or when a client moves company and brings you over with them.
Top 3 things clients are looking for in an infographics designer?
- Turns up at the right time.
- Has everything needed for work.
- Makes the deadline
This is pretty much the secret of working for anyone, it’s not rocket surgery.
What’s your personal USP in this particular niche?
I really don’t have any idea what my USP might be. I know quite a few infographics designers and they are all brilliant. I couldn’t say that I am better than any of them. I would never ask a client why they chose me over anyone. I might not like the answer — it is probably that asked for the least amount of money!
One thing that I do that is perhaps unusual is that I try with design and illustration to have a ‘transparent’ style. Style transparency means that you try to have no style of your own, but each time you take on a brief you think everything anew to fit the new client. It means that you try to keep your own ego out of the design as much as you can to try and make something that fulfills the requirements.
It makes it really hard to do my own stuff though, because I really don’t know what my stuff looks like anymore! I don’t really consider myself to be an artist anymore anyway, I am much more interested in the technical considerations and the challenge of making something in a particular way than I am with presenting a personal view of the world. I have found that I mostly need an external purpose in order to bother making anything.
Are there any significant disadvantages working in your niche?
The biggest pain I have is collecting and cleaning data. It can be massively boring. I try and stay away from that and stay as much in design and illustration as I am allowed.
There are times when you are solving the same problems for different clients in the same week — it can be challenging to get creative distance from yourself. Also, you can’t even say to any of them about how you are working on another brief that is similar. I sign so many NDAs that I can no longer remember what I am allowed to mention and so I never talk about any client specifically, especially to other clients!
It can be frustrating when you have arrived at an outcome through logic but you are unable to convince the client or they are unwilling to think about: they can unconstructively say ‘I don’t like it’ and that can be the end of the idea. Then you just have to go back and work it all out all over again.
It can be really tough to solve the problem in a new way if you think you already know how it should be solved, but if you follow it through again with an open mind you can sometimes find that the concept can improve massively. I gu ess it’s about letting go of things and thinking that once the idea is no longer in your head that it is separate from you. The best way to think of it is as a dialogue, and at the end of that dialogue with the client together you have made something that is more than the sum of its parts.
How important has picking a niche been for your business?
My business would be nowhere without this particular niche. I might be still doing a regular job!
In which other ways has choosing a niche affected you as a professional?
I get to learn about lots of different things on a daily basis. I truly love the experience of learning, but I hate the process of remembering. This means that I am a part-time expert on all sorts of useless things, and a useless expert on most everything else.
You are the first individual coming up for “infographics designer” in Google. What's your explanation for your good search ranking?
I really don’t recall doing anything in particular! I guess that someone somewhere has linked me up and given me a sprinkle of their Internet Power.
What advice would you give a fellow freelance graphic designer about to choose a niche?
A niche itself can be considered a societal or communal category — ultimately arbitrary with boundaries that may be difficult or impossible to define. How big or small is it? What are the conditions of inclusion/exclusion? Can someone be in more than one at the same time? Are any of them mutually exclusive?
With this consideration I believe it is possible or even necessary to define one’s own niche. This is a round-the-houses way of saying: ’who knows?’. I’m making it all up as I go along and trying to make correct decisions based on the information I currently have. I don’t even have the answers for my own life…
I believe that it is misleading to think that having one particular niche is the way to go. Do lots of things that you are interested in and never think that you have to choose one and only one. Try them all and see if one picks you.
I read somewhere that the things you do when you should be working are the things that you should be doing for work. Graphic designers should make things, so make things, then make things better. Make a niche for yourself if you can.
If you have to pick another niche than infographics today? What would it be?
I guess technical or medical illustration also has a mix of art and science that is attractive. An architect?
I could be doing something else like branding or perhaps I would have taught myself to be a web or app designer. I have been edging slowly towards more technical, programmatic and generative work so I might be doing something with the creative application of tech. Perhaps I will anyway!
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Not figured out what to specialize in yet? Read Finding Your Niche: When Graphic Design Really Pays Off! Click here for more interviews with specialized graphic designers, illustrators and web designers.
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