As you might have read in my 2019 review, I started 2020 by recreating my solo design studio business. While it was probably the weirdest year of my life, (and not just for me!), my new business model passed the test and gave me a lot of hope for the future.
In 2020, I simply focused on offering high-quality design service, working 1-on-1 with a relatively small group of clients. Additionally, I offered some consulting to design teams and created design tools for designers.
Here’s a description of my business in 2020 in terms of what went well and what didn’t.
The Design Studio
Despite 2020’s tough conditions, I managed to keep busy with quite a few projects. Still, my goal was to stay small as I wanted to maintain the highest quality of work.
In terms of hiring, I wasn’t trying to replace myself this time. In the beginning of 2020, I sent an email to my newsletter subscribers that I was looking for assistants and entry-level designers to help me with some administrative and non-creative work only.
I wanted to work with someone from my audience who knew me and understood the type of work I was doing. It was also an opportunity for me to give back to the online community and help others in this difficult time.
I ended up hiring a couple of contractors. They helped me to do some research, organize design assets, clean up my design files, and create content and social media graphics for some client projects (based on a pre-designed template).
That allowed me to focus 100% on doing work that I’m best at, like communicating with my clients, planning website content strategy, designing the user experience and doing all the creative design work.
It was also very rewarding to mentor other designers and see them grow so much throughout the year. I built some great relationships with people I worked with this year and was very proud seeing them improving their design skills so fast.
(A special shout-out to Jonathan Parra, who worked with me on a number of projects throughout the year. Thank you! )
One of my biggest and most well-known clients in 2020 was Microsoft. I was hired to redesign one of their projects called In Culture. Together with Jason Schuller, we brainstormed some ideas on how to effectively transform the existing design with a massive amount of content to a new home based on WordPress.
I was very happy with the work and the design was well received. It was a great experience working with Microsoft’s team and presenting my work to the company’s management.
I’m hoping to find some time and write a complete case study soon. For now, you can see some screenshots below:
One of my other more exciting projects was a personal website and brand redesign for James Clear, the New York Times bestselling author of Atomic Habits.
James knew exactly what he was looking for, so we focused on creating a minimalistic design that would support his products well.
We put a lot of effort in optimizing his website for speed and were happy to have increased his Google Insights speed score to 97 on a desktop. I also helped James with his social media graphics and other brand design assets to make them all consistent with the new website.
I also continued working very closely with Syed Balkhi and Awesomotive throughout the year. The two biggest projects we worked on were a massive UI/UX redesign for two very popular WordPress plugins: SeedProd and All in One SEO Pack.
There are more projects that we worked on in 2020 that have not launched yet, so I will post some more updates on my social media in the future.
Here’s a complete list of clients I worked with in 2020 both as a creative director, designer, or a consultant (not all of these sites were designed by me or hasn’t launched yet):
- Young Entrepreneur Council
Selling my own design tools and courses is a smaller part of my business, but it’s steadily growing and I’m hoping to focus more on it in the upcoming year.
In 2020, I released my most advanced design tool, called DesignKit. It’s a complete website design starter kit for Figma that includes a style guide, wireframe kit, and a ton of predesigned components and sections.
Everything is designed in such a way so that it’s easy to customize and reuse for your own projects. Go ahead and check out the video below:
I also completely updated my previous product, QuickFrames. The new version got a refreshed design and improved components, so it’s even easier to create quick website flows and sitemaps. See how it works in the video below:
In June, Chris Hufnagel and I started live office hours on YouTube. We recorded 8 episodes on topics around designing websites and working as freelancers. We had a lot of fun doing it and I hope we’ll record some more next year.
Here’s a list of our previous office hours with notes and replays:
- Office Hours 01: Starting a Web Design Freelance Career
- Office Hours 02: Figma to WordPress Process
- Office Hours 03: Scoping and Estimating Website Projects
- Office Hours 04: Website Reviews
- Office Hours 05: Building and Growing Side Projects
- Office Hours 06: How to Get More Clients
- Office Hours 07: The Creative Process
- Office Hours 08: How to Become Unemployable
In August, my 5 year old daughter, Emilia, and I came up with a fun little personal project that ended up in donating $500 to charity.
Emilia loves to draw cats. We picked some of her favorite drawings and decided to turn them into t-shirts. I just wanted to show her the process of importing her pictures into the computer and how we could edit them, change the colors, and finally order the real thing with the printed picture on it from Printful.
When she got her t-shirt, she surprised me with a question by asking if other people could also get t-shirts with her drawings. So, we asked on Twitter if anybody wanted a t-shirt with Emilia’s drawings and that we would donate all of the profits to charity, plus match everyone’s donation.
We got more orders than expected and Emilia worked really hard on her “client projects” the entire weekend. Together we donated $500 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that treats the toughest childhood cancers and pediatric diseases.
I was very proud of my daughter because I saw how hard she worked on it and how much she learned throughout the entire process. That smile on her face when she got her first order was priceless!
We hope to repeat this project next year on a larger scale!
What didn’t work
While my design studio did well in 2020, not everything was perfect and I failed on completing a couple of my personal projects.
I still haven’t finished my own website redesign. I sporadically attended to it throughout the year whenever I found some time to work on it. The website is 90% finished and I’m hoping to find some more time in 2021.
I feel that I worked too hard this year again. I barely took any days off and, as a result, hit mental burnout by the end of the year.
I focused too much on client projects and didn’t spend enough time creating more products and new courses for designers. I think this was also related to the entire uncertain situation in 2020. I was more cautious about taking any risks and wanted to rely more on “safe” client work.
I was hoping to find a better balance, but still the client work was 90% of my income in 2020.
Balance is a tough game – of course I want to work on my own products, but doing so means I have to turn down client projects, and that’s a big investment to make.
I’m also disappointed that I didn’t make more time to regularly update my portfolio and post more often on Dribbble and Instagram. Showing my designs to the world had always been very rewarding and I missed those small celebrations.
Goals for 2021
In 2021, I’m planning to keep focusing on my design studio as I already have some exciting clients booked. As every year, I will increase my prices and try to give myself more time between projects.
I’m planning to keep hiring contractors to help me with administrative and non-creative design work that allows me to slightly scale up my business without sacrificing my quality of work.
Also, I’m hoping to shift my focus more towards products and courses. This means I’ll have to turn down some client work this year and be more careful in how I invest my time.
At the end of 2020, I purchased the uishop.com domain. I have some ideas on how I can turn it into a great resource for all designers and bring more Figma tools and courses into the world.
Finally, I hope to take some more time off in 2021! :)