When I first started designing in 2009, 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 dabbling with various design skills in school, I decided to specialize in e-commerce design for small businesses. I worked as a freelance designer for a few years and quickly became an expert on designing online shops and Shopify websites for companies who had outgrown Etsy. I eventually moved to New York where I got hired more and more to design marketing websites and UI for startups. If you know anything about designing UI for startups, you inadvertently become skilled in UX design as well. So, I naturally became a specialist in UI & UX design. Fast forward to December 2014 when I had an epiphany. I had been hired that year to do more branding than anything else! What the hell, when did I become a brand designer? In hindsight, it started after I designed a brand identity for one of my UI clients. Then, through word of mouth, I got hired to design more and more brands. And look at that, without realizing, I had become (dun dun dun) a #generalist.
I grew to love being a generalist because it meant no project was ever alike. Some days I’d be branding, other days would be UX, sometimes I would find myself doing interior design or even designing products. But, shoot fire, 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, the other half was spent designing for corporations, or “The Man” if you will, for the big bucks. Half of my days were spent feeling crappy about the communication and relationship I was having with clients. Many of the clients I was receiving didn’t seek me out because I was the only designer for them. Rather, they were contacting a crap ton of designers and picking the cheapest one. The fact that they didn’t necessarily know who I was or have a genuinely good reason for hiring me meant they didn’t respect me and didn’t trust my design decisions. The entire process of working for these clients was gruesome. The lack of trust was ruining my spirit and in return had a huge effect the quality of my work. Now, pan to my amazing half of clients who loved me, loved my work and they genuinely trusted my judgment. They were excited to work with me, which made me want to impress them all the more. With those clients, my work was slammin’ and everyone was happy.
I had to step back and think how I could reframe my approach to client work to only attract the amazing companies I loved to work for. 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 short answer is yes. I just needed to attract the kinds of companies I loved working for by saying, “I only work for these kinds of companies!” on my website and social media. The hard part was defining what those companies were. That’s when I made up a new term and started calling them “Happy Companies”. To me, a happy company is any business that is working toward making the world a healthier, happier place. That can either be through their product itself, through their company culture, or ideally both. Honing in and specializing in design for a specific type of company would allow me to practice any design skill I wanted. I found a way to be a generalist and a specialist all at once! Cool.
It’s been a whole year exclusively working for happy companies and it has completely changed my life for the better. Here are some ways it works for me, I think they can be applied to your own ideal type of company.
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 and my website they 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!” Blatantly saying, “I only work for these kinds of companies” turns off anyone who doesn’t fall in line with those values. This means companies who are sucky, bummed out lame-o’s aren’t going to contact me. Everyone wins! When I pitch myself and my mission to companies, It’s important that I tell them it’s okay if I’m not the designer for them. Rather, I offer to help them partner with a different designer who might fall in line with their values. This works because: I stay in the good graces of companies that don’t align with my values. It’s always find it important to stay on the good side of all humans, because I never know what good could come out of it down the line. It makes the perfect happy companies respect me even more. Knowing that I’m willing to sacrifice myself to provide them with the best possible design is impressive to them. :shoulder_brush: 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 UI design or sick of solving UX problems. Some weeks are spent honing in on brand strategy while others are spent designing something in a physical space. I get to have fun all day every day. I work for companies who love me doing work I love. What could be better?
It can be really freaking scary shutting the door to a great majority of companies and prospective clients. I get it. But once I did, it actually opened the door to a larger total number of companies. Being specialized in values has made me the #1 person for these companies to hire!