Recap | Homegrown: So you can design it, but can you communicate it?

How important is communication in the realm of design? Extremely, considering design is communication and communication is everywhere. But that is not what we gathered to discuss at this month’s Homegrown. We came to learn about better communicating what we can do for our potential and existing clients.
Heather Allen shared her expertise on customer-focused communication and marketing strategies for visual artists. Heather holds a dual Masters in Global Innovation Management and Business Administration, as well as undergraduate degrees in art, design, and psychology. She has been helping artists and creatives marketing themselves and ultimately earn more for their craft. Her own business has grown solely on word of mouth.

“Get someone else to blow your horn and the sound will carry twice as far.” – Will Rogers

Creative professionals have a unique skillset and story of who they are. Heather helps her clients tell that story to their target markets to show the value of their craft. Heather explains that if you need people to take action, then you need to communicate well what you are offering, let them know what is in it for them. If your sales communications tell exactly what the customer needs to hear, you spend less time explaining, educating, and negotiating and more time creating.
Design is a service, so there is always a client to serve, thus creatives need to cultivate customer service skills. And just like good communication, good customer service begins with being a good listener.
To demonstrate the importance of listening well, Heather lead us in a fun exercise, often seen in improv comedy (she’s taking a class), called “first letter, last letter.” In this exercise we paired off to have a brief conversation in which the first person—in this case the one with shorter hair—spoke first. The second person had to respond starting with a word whose first letter was the same as the last letter of the last word the other person spoke.

“I’m glad to be here today.”
“Yes I am too.”
“Others should be here.”
“Everyone should be here.”

After the exercise Heather asked us how we felt while doing it. Responses included: slightly awkward, rambling, goofy, dumb, weird, uncomfortable, stressed. And one astute attendee declared the purpose of the exercise: to make you pay attention to every word. Heather says we typically don’t really listen to what others are saying. We tend to focus more on what we plan to say and the message we want to get across.
Listening is key in being a good communicator and more importantly when it comes to customer service. You need to hear what your clients are saying (and what they are not saying). Who are they, where are they, what are they looking for, what issues and problems do they face. This is all data you can use to discover their needs and help them.
When meeting with a potential client, start by asking these five questions:

  1. What can I help you with?
  2. Have you worked with someone like me before?
  3. Why is this project important to you?
  4. What is your time frame?
  5. What is your budget?
Communication with your audience

Heather shared examples of artist websites that work in the same genre but have a different audience. She demonstrated how each artist focused their website to speak to their specific audience. One focused on selling to individual buyers, while the other targeted corporate collectors. Each artist knew their target market and made sure their site catered to their prospective buyers.
To get a sense of who your ideal client might be, Heather suggests creating a customer persona chart (see photo). Create a chart with five columns, in the first column, use a descriptive name for persona. In the other columns list brief statements about their persona in the following areas: about them, needs and pain points, motivators, where they find you. Creating a chart like this will help you discover where to focus your marketing efforts and the messages you should be using to attract your ideal clients.

Communication with marketing

Heather advises setting expectations within your marketing communications. Paint a picture of the experience of working together and the process that will follow.. Sell with benefits and educate with features.

Selling features: “I know Java, C++, WordPress, Joomla, PHP, ASP, NET, MySQL, TCP/IP, and custom i07.”
Selling benefits: “I’ll make you a  beautiful website that stands out from the crowd.
The key to getting buy in from prospects is to share and sell the benefits of what you are offering. Let them know that you know what their needs are, tell them how you will meet their needs, how you will do it, and what the expected results are. This is how to approach selling with benefits.

Communication with brand positioning

Do great work and people will talk about it. Word of mouth marketing is the ideal way to generate new business. Leverage the opinions of your satisfied customers, ask them for testimonials to put on your website.

Take advantage of opportunities to elevate your brand. If you’ve received awards for your work, include your accolades on your website. Seek opportunities to be a guest blogger to gain exposure and build credibility as an expert. These are avenues to increasing your income. When your visibility expands, you can charge more. Some options for getting published to a broader audience are:,, and Designer News.

After her presentation, Heather took some questions from the audience. Here is some of the advice she doled out:

If you are transitioning your creative focus and the type of work you do, put together a launch strategy to start building your refocused brand. Build a community around your new focus, hold events and invite people to your space to share what you are working on. As with any business venture, know your numbers, costs, expenditures, and projections.
If you are just starting out, how do you articulate your brand. First you need to decide if your brand will be about you and your personality or if you want to develop a persona to represent your business. This will help you determine your voice and how to speak to your target audience. Get advice from those who know you well on how to position yourself and what your strengths are.
If you want to filter prime prospects from your inquiries, consider putting a base price for services to help weed out people who can’t afford your services. If you are frequently asked the same questions during the intake process, put the answer to those questions on your website to further narrow down prospects. It’s also a good idea to answer questions that potential client should be asking. Give them all the information they need to determine if they could work with you.
Here’s a good question, how do you get people to actually read your FAQs? Heather suggests using a heat mapping tool to see where people are looking on your site. The results may lead you to reposition where you present your FAQs. Look at how users experience your website. How do you lead them through the site. If you’ve created your persona chart, put yourself in the mindset of your various personas as you navigate through your site. Is your site optimally organized to present the information they seek?
Want more great tips from Heather? Visit her website or check out her new book, Let Your Creativity Work for You: How to Turn Artwork into Opportunity. Heather is kindly offering a 10% discount to AIGA members through December 20. Use the code: “AIGA10” to claim your discount.

By Amy Lyons
Published November 13, 2014