What Makes a Successful Designer?


What do you feel you need to accomplish to be a success? Perhaps it’s all about the money, or enjoying yourself? Maybe you want to win awards, or go freelance? Maybe you’ll only feel successful once you own your own company?

I got tagged with this by Paul Enderson of Reflections – originally started by Lauren Marie Krause in an effort to gather thoughts from other freelance designers on the topic they love the most – designing!

Thanks Paul, nothing like a little self-reflection in the middle of my day to keep me focused!

I’ve been in the design business for roughly 15 years – which seems like a long time, however the first 5-8 years were strictly amateur hour on my part. I went full-time freelance in 2003 with E.Webscapes, along with our hosting services at Blogs About – I haven’t looked back since and it’s been a great ride with great clients and I’ve met some fantastic people! Being a designer has opened up many doors of opportunity, like writing the WordPress for Dummies books, and the ability to create an online presences for businesses both large and small (and a few other things I have working that I just cannot talk about… yet!) – I really like what I do.

So, on with the questions –

1. How did you get started in the business?
I began building websites back in 1993 when I discovered Microsoft Frontpage, of all things! Around the same time, I also opened up a copy of Paint Shop Pro and began making my own graphics. I think I launched my very first online design studio in 1997 and began giving my services away for free. I offered free downloadable templates which subsequently brought people back, asking for more customization and things just grew from there. I didn’t really start charging for my services for about a year – providing everything for free, just to get my name out there and circulated among my target audience. Once I felt confident enough in my skills and abilities, I started charging and to my surprise, people actually started paying! I was thrilled.

2. What kept you going in those early years?
My interest level kept me going, and wanting to improve my set of skills kept me motivated. When I started, I did not ever expect that I would be doing this as a full time business now, I really just did it as a hobby and something that really interested me. So, money didn’t really entice me, at the time. I think it was just a love for the craft and my own motivation to improve my skills.

3a. Did you ever feel like you weren’t good enough or you would never make it in this industry?
Yes, absolutely there were times that I would think to myself, “Who are you trying to fool?” All of my skills are self-taught, so I don’t have the benefit of a formal design or art education in my background. Quite a few times my husband (then boyfriend) Chris would have to talk me down off the ledge and encourage me and my talents because I would be so down on myself over this, or that. The task of learning new techniques, developing my own style and keeping clients pleased with my work is an ongoing challenge. Being a freelancer is like being a student every single day of my life – constantly learning, researching and trying new things.

3b. How did you work through that?
Lots of coffee, a bit of scotch and a good solid dose of perseverance and determination. I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge or allow something to defeat me until I was sure that I took it to the absolute ‘nth’ degree that I was ever capable of. In the beginning, there was still so much to learn and discover – I knew that I had only scrapped the very tip of the iceberg – so curiosity in my abilities to achieve helped me work through my utter feelings of incompetence.

4. Do you look at others today and think “Wow, I wish I were that good”?
Naturally. Don’t we all do a little compare and contrast no matter what industry we work in? One of the designers who works with me at E.Webscapes, Becca Wei, is an amazing designer and sometimes I look at her stuff and just… Wow. You know – just wow. I strive for that wow factor.

When my business started expanding and I started getting more and more requests for projects – I truly envied how well other freelance designers seemed to be able to juggle their role as designer and business owner at the same time, seemingly without losing their sanity in the process. I’ve since discovered that most other freelancers are as insane as me, and now I don’t feel so bad.

5. How do you measure success?
There are so many ways to measure success. Reputation is a good indicator – when clients have nothing but good things to say about their experience with you, then I would venture a guess that you’ve got some good success going on.

6. By your standard, do you think you are successful?
I used to be a Registered Nurse. It’s not that I don’t like nursing – there are definitely certain aspects of nursing that I loved, and certain aspects that I hated. After several years in that career – the bad started to outweigh the good and I became severely disillusioned with the heath care industry, so much so that it started affecting my day to day work. I began to hate my job – and anyone who has ever been a patient in any type of health care facility, there is nothing worse than being taken care of by a nurse who really doesn’t like what she’s doing. I still am a caregiver – I just had an extremely hard time reconciling the care giving part of the job with the ridiculous politics and bureaucracy that saturates every single second of health care, most often at the expense of patients and their families. I guess the topic of nursing and health care is a topic for another post, hey?

If Chris’ business went under tomorrow, my business would be able to support us without a problem. The fact that I am able to do what I love and make a comfortable living at it, that I love my job and I don’t go to work every day dreading it – I would call that a personal success, yes.

To continue on with this tag frenzy – I extend it to these fine folks:
Becca Wei @ Beccary.com
Char @ Essential Keystrokes
Kathy @ Pink Martinis
Joelle @ Tenth Muse (whenEVER she happens to re-open that blog! Ahem!)
Vivien @ Inspiration Bit

17 thoughts on “What Makes a Successful Designer?”

  1. Here’s to the self-taught web designers of the world! I am also self-taught and frequently wonder if my work could ever be as good as someone who has had formal training.

    Thanks for the tag. I will get on this in the near future.

  2. Huh, I’ve got tagged twice for this, which means I better reply to it soon before I get tagged again 🙂
    Thanks for the tag, btw, it was a very pleasant surprise seeing that it’s coming from you.

    I think you’re one of the first people who realized that by giving your work for free would actually bring you lots of business in a long run.

    Sometimes it looked like you’re speaking what’s on my mind when answering the questions. I completely agree with you on how important it is to love what you do and not dreading to go to work every day.

  3. Self-taught designers – – does that make us STD’s?

    How dreadful! =))

    Well.. I’ll roll with it – STD’s Unite! (*)

  4. Vivien – I would say if you’re tagged twice, you gotta do it twice. Heh.

    Giving my services away for free, in the beginning, was really key for me. I still have clients from way back when who now pay me for my services, but used to be around when they could freely leech. I considered it an internship, of sorts – – I got the experience, and, to me, at the time, was payment enough. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it any different.

  5. Excellent post! Thanks for taking the time to reply. 🙂

    It’s funny how many similarities there are in our backgrounds – from the whole self taught thing (I have just an A-Level in Art – and that only a ‘C’), to the timing of it all…

    There’s probably an interesting study there about the ‘average’ blogger in there somewhere! /:)

  6. I know what it is like to be mostly self taught have worked on computers since 1983 had to type programs in on old atari when I started . Finally found time to take a word class for seinors was smartest person in the class .

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  9. Hey, cool! I’m glad you took the time to reply to my questions 😀 I liked what you said about being a “student” and constantly learning and trying new things. I feel that way too. I’m going back and reading my college textbooks now that I’m out in the real world (never read them the first time!).

    I do have a formal design education, but in my opinion, experience is worth faaaar more. The years in school only give you a slight advantage in skills and maybe make it easier to learn programs (being forced to and all), but my profs never covered the business side, which I think is very important! I wrote a little article about it on Graphic Design Blog. Thanks for participating in the meme!

  10. Lauren – thanks for starting it. It’s been very interesting reading everyones responses to your questions… I think we are all curious as to what makes other freelancers tick and tock 🙂

    Interesting what you said about education versus the real world. It was very much the same with my career in nursing – 80% of what you get taught gets thrown out the window the minute you hit the floor in the hospital your first day – – and you learn more in your first week as a real nurse than you ever did in 4 years of college. lol

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  12. Great story, I am sure many people go through the same agony when they start their own business or go off the beaton track. It is definately a struggle to keep oneself focused on the goal as there are so many distractions and other forces pushing the other way.

  13. Loved reading the tags … I work for C2 Graphics Productivity Solutions in Madison & Milwaukee Wisconsin and we work as both a staffing agency and professional development (training) center for designers. If anyone wants some formal training just let me know or if your freelance work is getting short!

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