As creatives, designers, and artists, our whole career is about getting our work noticed. That’s the only way to have better clients, have a better job, and feel successful.
But it’s not that simple.
In the beginning, nobody knows your name and you don’t have any projects in your portfolio, but you have to break through among all of the talented people around the world.
Being honest, it doesn’t even get easier later in your career. You may find yourself working for years and realize that you’re stuck in the same place for too long, or that you’re completely burned out, or that you were heading in the wrong direction.
You have to keep fighting for recognition all the time.
This post is not about how to put together your portfolio and to which design gallery you should submit your projects. I want to talk more about what I truly believe lies behind getting our work noticed.
After years of my own mistakes, personal experiences, and conversations with successful designers while studying some of my heroes’ bios, I found some patterns and a common mindset.
I realized that there are actually some easy steps we all can take to help ourselves increase our chances of our work being noticed.
No, it’s not a magic formula, but it can at least turn you in the right direction.
Always do your best work
Whatever you do, even if it’s your first freelance design project (that you underestimated and sold for a $5/hr rate), make sure you do your best work.
I set a simple rule for myself right at the beginning: treat every client’s website like it’s a million dollar project and treat every company you work for like it’s your own business.
If you can’t afford to do your best work because your client’s budget isn’t big enough, don’t take that project. If your job doesn’t excite you or doesn’t allow you to do your best work, change your job.
In other words, we should always try to fully commit ourselves and have the motivation to show our best side every single time.
Sometimes we’re stuck with a client or job that we don’t really like, but we have to do it for the money. If so, find something in that project that challenges you and make it your own personal goal to achieve it.
A lot of my first clients were $500-$1k websites for construction companies. Doing the same kinds of projects over and over again was boring as hell, but I had to do it to make a living. I challenged myself to make some best construction websites in Chicago area.
My websites were never the best, but I had my own personal goal that I was trying to reach aside from money. I spent some time studying other construction websites, listed all good and bad things about them, and I was entirely focused to dominate that niche.
It gave me a little motivation and added some fun to my work. Many of those websites are still out there and I still get referrals from some clients I worked with eight years ago.
A lot of those construction companies got bigger or turned into different businesses. I got at least a couple of $5k-$10k projects as referrals later from those first small construction companies’ websites I made back in the day.
First client projects are always cheap or not exactly what you would dream about, but if you put in 100% of yourself right from the beginning, your hard work will be noticed.
Choose progress over money
I think too many designers have a false perception that they have to take every single project that comes their way or that the more expensive project, the better.
I often had to make a decision if I wanted to work on a project where I could make more money or if I wanted to work on a project where I could develop new skills or it would give me access to better clients.
Whenever possible try to choose progress over money. Treat it like an investment in yourself and your career.
It means that sometimes you should take a project that can help you progress as a designer, even though it pays less. Or that sometimes you should take a job in a company where your salary is less than what you can make as a freelancer, but it gives you more experience, recognition, and connections.
If you feel like it’ll help you jump onto another level and you can afford to do so, go for it.
Explore new areas
I could have kept going with the websites for construction companies and make a living that way, but I knew it wouldn’t take me too far.
I call it ‘easy money’. It’s that moment when we feel too comfortable with what we have and our job stops challenging us. Average clients bring more average clients, and we keep going, project after project.
At some point I had to reject a lot of clients, and shift my focus on other projects that didn’t make me money, but I knew it would bring a better result in a long run. I started working on some of my personal projects and selling some WordPress themes. It all paid off later.
I’m fortunate to have a challenging day job but I tried something new on the side and I shifted more toward teaching design and as a result I published my own ebook.
So, you may want to take clients from a different niche or completely change your pricing. Try to change something and see if you can put your name in other areas where you weren’t before.
If you only offer services, you may want to try to create some products or productize your service (check out more ideas on how to make money with the skills you already have).
There are so many options. Don’t stay too long in one place but explore new areas. Your work may be easily noticed in a place you didn’t even think of before. Give yourself more chances.
Summing up, try to focus only on meaningful projects where you can do your best work and that can help you progress as a designer. Say “no” to everything that doesn’t meet your criteria, unless you really have to… 😉