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How to become a graphic designer

and work with global brands like Cartier

If you believe in learning from someone who has been there and done it. I can teach you how to position yourself as a graphic designer to attract global brands as big a Westfield, Porsche, F1 and Cartier.

From spending 15+ years figuring it out myself, this will give you the knowledge to get you there faster.

This is not a story of having a network already in place or wealthy parents who used their connections or stealing clients from an agency you worked for.

It’s starting from nothing and building up a reputation where your ideal target market are eventually coming to you.

An introduction to advertising

In the early days, it was all about advertising that brought the work in. For me, surprisingly it was Gumtree which was my first attempt at using the right keywords to get found and writing an ad with the right photos to entice people to respond or give me a call.

To start out, it’s essential to have a portfolio of work you can show people. That could be client work or it could be self initiated projects but you have to showcase your skills.

When I look back now, it was so easy to track a return on the investment as people would email back through the platform or they would call and say they saw the ad. Today it’s much harder to track and attribute in B2B.

You have to be prepared to lose money trying to figure this stage out so you need some reserves to experiment with.

Going freelance

I was lucky in the sense I asked for a sabbatical in a permanent role which they gave. I traveled for 9 months, came back for a few months and was made redundant which gave me a pay out to go out alone.

Definitely start with enough funds to last you for 3-6 months to survive. Ideally you need clients before taking the leap but you definitely need a good portfolio and a strategy of how to win new clients.

Marketing yourself

A piece of advice you may have heard is ‘build it and they will come’. It's far from the truth. Build it and then market yourself like crazy and then they are likely to come. Whether that’s showing off your work on social, networking with the right people, cold outreach or advertising. You will need a strategy to get in front of potential clients.

It’s probably the biggest mistake I made in the early days is not being active enough to market myself and ikon. Without marketing, you have less opportunities which means it’s harder to make money, harder to put your rates up and you become too reliant on word of mouth which is just not scalable.

Learn business skills and quickly

Just because you are a good designer doesn’t mean you are good at business. I see a lot of people struggle because of this.

I am not the best designer and I am not the best businessman but having a mix of the two will far outweigh just being technically good.

Read about sales, marketing, brand strategy, copywriting, psychology and study people who you admire and want to be like. Get advice from people who have done what you want to achieve.

It’s the reason I am writing this article, it’s knowledge from experience, not from text books. It’s the same for me now, I am taking advice from people who have built and scaled a graphic design agency.

Your network is your net worth

It really is. When you examine where the best opportunities came from in the past, it’s often through my network.

Westfield came through a friend’s wife who was Marketing Director, Porsche and F1 came through a friend of a friend who worked at a motorsport consultancy dealing with F1 clients.

Just knowing people is still not enough though. Once you get the opportunity, you still have to deliver consistently. The better you can do that, the more likely referrals will come off the back of it. Word of mouth is still the best marketing channel, it’s knowing how to get people you know talking about you.


Always a difficult aspect to master. I heard a pricing strategy recently that mentioned if say 7-8 clients out of 10 don't bat an eyelid with your costs, increase your price.

When you are starting out though, it’s often driven by doing work cheap as you are often dealing with clients who buy on price and not value.

Research the market and see where you fit on the price vs quality scale and what you are happy with. A good strategy can be to win clients cheap on small jobs to show them how good you are and your prices can increase as you build more trust. I still have a client I won from a Gumtree ad 10+ years later.

As you grow, you will want to master selling by value not on time. Clients are paying for a solution to their problems so the deeper you understand what they are trying to solve, the more valuable your become.

Create a stunning portfolio

Your portfolio is everything as a designer. Clients won’t care where you studied, what grades you got. They want to see visually what you are capable of.

If you don’t have enough client work to show, create self initiated projects to showcase your skills.

Remember to not make the biggest mistake of showing too many skills. When I started I said I could do design, photography and illustration. You don’t have long to impress people so chose one and do it exceptionally well.

The importance of positioning

The biggest impact for ikon was going through a positioning exercise to ensure we are speaking to the market we exist to serve.

I know this is easy to say as I used to do anything for anyone just to get experience but write down your dream clients and work out what ties them together with your interests. It may be social impact, sports, fashion, luxury. Whatever it is, have this in mind when tailoring your portfolio.

Show the work you want to attract, not every project you have ever created. I would rather see 2-3 in depth relevant case studies than 20 that are all over the place.

Just go for it

Often the only thing holding you back is yourself and your self belief.

I didn’t think ikon would be attracting some of the most renowned global brands and leads talking to the likes of Pentagram & Collins in the same conversation as ikon but it’s happened through hard work, a bit of luck and perseverance.

Some would argue, there is no thing as luck as you create your own. The only way is doing the work and putting yourself out there.

I get imposter syndrome all the time and it seems like agency owners I respect still feel it. They just manage it better than most.

There is enough room out there for everyone so as long as you are customer focused, forget about what everyone else is doing and make a plan to position yourself as the expert in a particular niche and you will be ahead of 90% of designers out there.

Good luck on your journey.

Interested in getting there quicker? Drop me a note to pre-register for a course I am working on.

This article is written by Alex Colley, Creative Director of ikon | We are a boutique branding & creative agency – but not in the traditional sense. We hand-pick a team from our experienced creatives to suit each project, delivering a personal and bespoke service. Alex is always the lead contact every step of the way and our clients include the likes of Cartier, Westfield, Porsche, & F1.

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