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: It's show time, and every show needs an audience. Seats need to be filled! Jaime Vallés is a New York freelance graphic designer specializing in theatrical advertising and promotional materials.
Hi Jaime, what's your niche?
My usual clients are smaller, non-profit theater companies in New York City. Lately I've been asked to design the branding for two different theater companies, which has been quite fun and a change of pace from my usual fare.
I also do a lot of work for independent performers designing logos, posters and postcards for cabaret shows and other theatrical events.
Why did you pick theatrical advertising as your niche?
I graduated from Cornell University with a B.F.A. concentrating in Painting and Drawing, but I was always involved with theater as an actor and singer.
After college I moved to New York and got cast in musicals produced by Prospect Theater Company. They then learned that I was an artist so they asked me to work on their posters. I did that as a side thing while concentrating on performing as a career, and for twelve years I sang with the chorus of the New York City Opera.
Eventually, I realized I had built up a fairly large portfolio of graphic design consisting mostly of show posters. Then City Opera went bankrupt, and that's when I decided to pursue graphic design as a full-time job.
How did you break into theatrical advertising?
I broke into theatrical advertising simply by doing it, for free at first. I did it enough that other folks started contacting me because they liked a poster or logo I made, and looked me up.
The most important thing that allowed me to grow my business (initially) was making connections with many theater companies. Handing out business cards to producers after going to see plays and musicals in New York, and always adding my name and website somewhere on the poster or postcard.
In my years working as an actor I had made many connections in the theater industry, so it became fairly easy for me to approach them as a graphic artist. I also had a good knowledge of theater and storytelling in general which meant I spoke the same language as a show's director and producer.
I would say that 90% of my business is based on referrals from previous clients.
I don't advertise. It's too expensive to advertise in New York City and be noticed. I have a website where I post samples of my work.
Top 3 things clients are looking for in a designer of theatrical advertising?
Good, fast, cheap. ;)
Theater companies don't have a lot of money, so my main goal is to produce something usable on the first draft, and then do a quick polish based on their feedback. I rarely go into 3rd, 4th or 5th drafts because it takes too much time and money that they simply don't have.
The hardest part is conveying the feel of the show in one image, done in a quick and dirty style. If I'm not on the right track on the first draft, it means I'm in trouble.
What’s your personal USP in this particular niche?
I constantly battle theater producers and directors that want the poster to include every aspect of the story in the image. It's important to use as little text as possible and let the art speak for itself.
What fills those seats? What makes theatrical advertising sell?
Without name actors, it's all about the design. Most of the productions I've worked on don't have big name stars or directors. If I use cast photos in the poster, they have to be compelling despite the fact that the actors are not famous. So I can't really get away with the “floating head” type poster that you see in Hollywood so often. Having Brad Pitt's giant face taking up half the poster sells tickets at the box office.
Also, many of the plays and musicals I've worked on are brand new, so they don't have a built-in audience that knows the premise of the show.
If it's a show with an abstract title, I try to include a tag line in the poster to give a sense of the type of experience the audience will get when they buy a ticket.
Which is the most successful theatrical marketing campaign you been involved in? How did your design contribute to its success?
I think my most successful marketing campaign to date has been the “I Hate F***ing Mexicans” artwork for The Flea Theater. I did that a couple of years ago, and to this date I still get people complimenting me on the design.
It's a bleak and disturbing show dealing with racism and hate crimes, and at first I had no idea how to make artwork for it. I read the play, spoke with the director and discussed some images she liked as inspiration. The concept of the cartoon skeleton wearing a sombrero just felt right for the piece. It was done in only one draft, and the director and producers loved it.
I think it works because the viewer doesn't need to know what the story is about. The title combined with the image captures the ugly, dehumanized stereotype that people see when they look at Mexican immigrants coming into the USA. The image itself is the premise of the show.
Are there any significant disadvantages working in your niche?
The lack of money.
The biggest hurdle has always been getting paid enough for the amount of work involved. When dealing with small, non-profit theater companies, their advertising budgets are stretched to the limit. I have to be able to make the artwork quickly and effectively, so I don't spend weeks tinkering with a design.
This is not a field you get into if you want to get rich quickly. Other than that, I love working on show posters.
How important has choosing a niche been to your business?
Choosing a niche (even one that's not very lucrative) has been incredibly helpful in establishing my business.
I was able to make a decent portfolio quickly, and made a lot of connections that have led to other business opportunities.
In which other ways has choosing a niche affected you as a professional?
Because of my connections in the theater world, I've been able to branch out from graphic design into photography and videography.
Earlier this year I co-founded AJV Media, a video production company specializing in theatrical events. There's a lot more money to be made in video and photo than in graphic design, at least in the world of New York theater.
Choose a niche that you love.
If you pick a niche you dislike simply because you think you'll get work, you might be okay for a few months, but you'll soon hate working on it every day.
If you're not enjoying the work you do, you won't do good work. The last thing you want is to produce work that's not up to par.
If you would pick another design niche than theatrical advertising/promotions?
Can I choose a niche working on Hollywood movie posters? I love movies, but that's probably too close to my current niche to count… ;)
I would say designing book covers would suit me well. Translating a novel into one visual image sounds like a fun challenge. Despite what they say, you absolutely can judge a book by its cover. We all do it, so that cover had better be good.
More interviews with specialized graphic designers, illustrators and web designers.
No idea what you should specialize in? Check out Finding Your Niche: When Graphic Design Really Pays Off!
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