Want new business? Get out of the building.

There are many design entrepreneurs who have set up a design studio and are actively seeking new business by selling the value of design.

The question is how do you get to this stage?

The answer is to behave like an entrepreneur and get out of the building. You meet clients, and their customers. Stop obsessing over pixel perfection in your designs and obsess over client and customer relationships.

Designers can learn how to do this from the Lean Start-up movement. People such as Steve Blank are showing the way – he first used the phrase Get out of the building when explaining his customer development process. He’s also a strong advocate for the business model canvas as a means to rethink a business structure and prepare it for a rapid test in the marketplace. This is the thinking behind the Design Business Model Canvas workshop that shows a process to help a studio rapidly examine the business they have and turn it into the business they want.

The whole idea is that you quickly develop your business model and then you get out and test it with clients.

But my clients just want to see a pdf!
We have allowed the industry to get to a point where many clients don’t want to meet with us. ‘Sorry I’m too busy just send a pdf’.

We need to grab the initiative back. Here’s just a few ways to do it.

Pitch your research
You’ve won the project but the client just wants to see pdf presentations.

This is where you jump in at the beginning and tell the client you want to share with them the insights you gained from talking to their customers during your research phase. Explain that you now understand how potential customers buy, and what terminology they use to describe how the clients’ product or service might solve their problem. And tell your client you have some information about their existing and potential competitors.

Explain to the client you have gathered some ‘artifacts’ as part of your research – competitor or peer materials that work well to reinforce their (the competitors) value proposition.

This is the type of thing you do in your research phase anyway, so why not share it with the client.
What client would pass up on hearing all that?

Your research also gives you the chance to build customer personas. Gather the physical and emotional details of the customer and put together a persona document that you can walk through with the client.

Develop personas that show who buyers are, what they are trying to accomplish, what goals drive their behaviour, how they think, how they buy, and why they make buying decisions.
Use real photographs and explain the:

  • Behavioural drivers – The customers’ goals, what they want to accomplish, their journey to finding your clients product or service.
  • Obstacles to purchasing – Describe the hesitations and concerns the customers have. How they view the product or service and its impact on how much information they need to make a decision?
  • Mindset – Customers come to the buying experience with expectations and preconceived notions. Are they shoppers who want the thrill of the bargain or do they expect a more refined experience? Selling a weight loss program will be more emotionally charged than trying to sell a tape dispenser.

Explain to the client that you have developed these personas as part of your design research and they have a strategic use for the client.

Use the opportunity of being in front of the client to engage them in co-creation. This is why they’ll ask you back next time to meet face-to-face.

As a designer you have a skill they don’t have – you can draw. You can visualise your ideas – and their ideas.
Sketch out the process in front of them much like an explainer video or strategic visualisation orsketchboarding.
Encourage them to add to your sketches.

All of this engages them in the creation process and has them thinking that the face-to-face meeting is preferable to an emailed pdf.

Tell the story

From the earliest days in design school, designers start telling stories to explain their designs.
Polish this skill. Enhance it by using examples of how you’ve succeeded in past project. Give your own name to colours to make them memorable. Personify typefaces to bring them to life.

Stories have a beginning (your research), a middle (the design presentation) and an end (the predicted results). Use this model and take them through the story, leading up to a call to action – what do you think?

Use your storytelling to give them the words they need to respond to the presentation. By naming colours and personifying type you open up for them to respond. Even if they don’t agree with your choice at least you have a starting point for discussion and collaboration.

No matter what I try they won’t meet face-to-face

There is no doubt that many clients see design as a transaction, much like ordering stationery.

These are not the people you want to commit time to. There is a chance you can shift their thinking over time. But that will be an expensive exercise.

The better approach is to segment the clients into those that want to use design as part of their business; those who want ‘relational’ design rather than ‘transactional’ design.

The reality is that the transactional clients only want design at the cheapest price (and quickly as well). You need a few of them to fill in the cashflow but as few as possible.

The first test with a new client is whether they want to meet with you. If they don’t want a face-to-face relationship they should be categorised as transactional.

Put your effort into the relational clients where you can prove that design delivers value. You can also then move them to premium pricing.

I have developed a workshop that will help you change the way that clients see your business. The Building a business model workshop will show you how to get the business you want.


Greg Branson
Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.
Greg has developed a series of processes and tools to help designers manage their business better along with a series of workshops that show designers how to use these tools.