Handling the Business Side of Design

One aspect of The American Dream owns one’s own business. People fantasize about becoming their own boss rather than working for The Man while making their own hours and doing something they love. But just because you love design doesn’t mean you’d be a good business owner. On the flip side, just because you have an MFA and not an MBA doesn’t mean you can’t open up your own design company.

Here are elements to consider when weighing the possibility of starting your own small business. Full article after the jump.


So you went to school and got a degree, a certificate, or at least a lot of training in design. And you’ve become really good at what you do and have a portfolio of fantastic promotional pieces for a variety of mediums.


But as a large number of people responded on graphic artist David Airey’s blog, school doesn’t necessarily prepare designers for real life. Respondents stated that future designers could use a lot more – heck, any! – business training, including

  • More varied coursework in subjects such as calculus, economics, history, and public speaking.
  • Legal issues such as drawing up contracts.
  • How to start a design firm or just survive in a big or small one.
  • Marketing to gain clients.
  • Customer service to gain and keep clients.

If you’re a current design student, then look into business courses, perhaps getting a minor or double major. But if you’re out of school:

  • Explore what your local community college offers in the way of business courses.
  • Contact your chamber of commerce for upcoming seminars that might include business advice or at least offer a networking opportunity.

Human Resources

When you’re a boss – even a self-employed one – you still have to take care of people, whether it’s one or 10 folks. Most brand-new business owners won’t have the capital to hire a person for each of those positions, but there are workarounds.

Hire a freelancer: Lots of bookkeepers work a few hours each at numerous businesses to handle payroll, file taxes, and keep track of benefits.

Outsource human resources: Advertisements for outsourced HR are popping up more and more. Indeed, you can save money twofold: by paying a person or firm by the hour and not even close to full time, as well as by not having to pay them benefits.


The bright side in this down economy is industrious business people have found ways to promote themselves by spending a lot less than in years past. Gone are the days when you needed to hit every expensive media outlet with your advertisement. With social media thriving, making your company known is actually free! And despite claims that computers have made people less social face to face, good old fashioned networking still has a place, too.

Social networking: Facebook and Twitter profiles take moments to build. That’s not to say you shouldn’t spend any time on them, but it’s not a daunting task. For Facebook, make sure you include all your company’s contact information, including links to your website and Twitter page. Upload photos of your products, location and employees to give a sense of personality. Status updates and tweets can include contests, sales, events, and general news.

Don’t get too formal – this is "social", after all – but be professional. And always check your grammar and spelling before you hit the return button – trust me.

Networking: A personal referral can do a lot more than a Yellow Pages ad. With people watching their money more closely these days, they’re looking for recommendations. And the more people you know, the more likely your name will come up. I chatted with a designer recently who said she went to a lot of events, in the industry and not, and always kept business cards on hand. She’d introduce herself to people and hand out her card – not necessarily schmoozing but definitely being friendly. People then recommended her to others, whether they’d actually used her graphic design services or not – her name simply stayed with them. In addition to attending events, patronize your local services.

Chat up your neighborhood barista, shop along your retail boulevards, and strike up a conversation with your postal worker. Buying local doesn’t have to be a fleeting trend – it’s a way to keep the circle of business alive and thriving.


It’s a scary world out there, but one thing that’s come out of the crashing economy and thousands of layoffs is a newfound entrepreneurial spirit. With major companies cutting employees left and right, starting your own business might be less intimidating than going to work for another boss.