Finding Work in Unexpected Places

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is, “Where should I look for freelance work?”

“Anywhere and everywhere,” isn’t a satisfying answer, even though it’s true in a very broad sense.

The most helpful answer would have to be specific to the skill level and personality of the person asking the question.

But I find that if you keep your eyes open, you begin to see opportunities for a designer, even though the work may not be as exciting or high-paying as brochures, books, or magalogs.

Let me give you an example.

This summer, while I was on vacation out of state, I went to a small café for breakfast. There are places like this in every town. Seems like just about everyone eats there and everyone knows everyone else’s name.

As I was waiting for someone to take my order, I noticed that I had a “placemat” in front of me. You’ve probably seen something similar … a sheet of paper with ads printed all over it. They’re normally about 14 inches wide and 8.5 inches high. When your food comes, they place it on your placemat. And when you leave and they clear the table, the placemat gets thrown away. So they’ve got a ton of them on hand.

If you’ve got nothing else to do while you’re waiting, you’re probably going to look at that placemat and scan the ads. As soon as I saw the placemat at that café, I knew I wanted to write about it. So I pulled out my mobile phone and snapped a picture of it.

Looking at the photo of the placemat now, as I write this, there’s nothing fancy about it. There are about 20 ads on it (mostly replicas of each company’s business card), and only two colors are used: blue with a red border around each ad. In other words, they went with two-color printing.

This placemat is something just about any beginning designer could put together. I imagine the designer of this one got digital versions of the ads or scanned in the business cards, then arranged them in a layout program. If any of the ads were full-color, the designer would have had to convert them to a single color (blue and tints of blue in this case), and add a red border. After that, off to the printer.

Okay, so let’s say you find yourself in a similar situation – sitting in a café with one of these ad-filled placemats in front of you. You know you can design something at least as good, probably better. You see the opportunity. How do you act on it?

You’d probably want to find out if the owner or manager was around. Small cafés are often locally owned, and if you’re there during a peak time, like breakfast, it’s likely the owner will be there. So ask to speak to him or her.

Say something along the lines of, “This is a clever marketing device. How has the response been from people who are advertising on it?”

Notice that you’re not hitting the owner with a sales pitch right off the bat. Places like this are about relationships (which is why they normally have very loyal customers). So take some time to listen to what the owner has to say and get a good conversation going.

At some point, compliment the layout of the placemat and ask who did the work. Follow that up by giving your business card to the owner and saying something like, “I do design work myself. If for some reason you need another designer in the future, or know someone who does, please give me a call.”

By phrasing it like that, you’re not coming off as someone who is blatantly trying to steal the job away from another designer. You’re simply saying that if there’s a need for a designer in the future, you’d love to get a call.

As I said, there’s not going to be a lot of “design glory” in laying out placemats. But my point is that (a) there are lots of basic design jobs out there, and (b) you need to keep your eyes open for opportunities to use your skills for even the most mundane tasks. This is especially true when you’re starting out and don’t feel you’re ready to tackle larger, more complicated projects.

The work really is out there. It just might not always be where you expect it.

[Ed. Note: Yes, you are a DM designer. But you’ll build credibility, experience, and your portfolio by getting as much experience as possible. This is what Mike’s talking about here. For example, Kristin got her start designing postcards. Then she moved up to calendars, newsletters, and other promotional items. Soon that led to the really lucrative stuff – direct-marketing design. And don’t forget, these “smaller” jobs give you a chance to master your software.]

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Published: January 17, 2008

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