Marcia's Expert Q+A

When did you first realize you wanted to be a graphic designer?
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a graphic designer until my dad started talking to me about it in my last few years of high school. He figured I wasn’t going to follow my brother into accounting or my sister into languages and teaching, since I spent all my time drawing, painting, and creating – and he didn’t want me to end up sitting along the highway selling my wares. Dad wanted all of us kids to be able to support ourselves, so he searched for a real, practical way I could make a living being creative, and I was fascinated by what he found. I had always been pretty practical myself and didn’t like just doing art for art’s sake – I was always looking for a way to turn my art into a business.

Dad told me there was an artist on staff at the corporation where he worked who actually got paid doing art and layouts for the company’s products – and I couldn’t think of anything more fun. That’s when we started looking at universities with graphic design programs, and that’s when I realized I wanted to be a graphic designer.

I never wavered from my desire to be a designer, until I got my design firm running well and found out there were more talented designers than I was out there. My solution was to hire them, and get my creative kick from running the business. Today, I feed my need for creativity by coaching designers to run their businesses well.

What was your first job in the design field?
My first design job was kind of a fluke, as I was just trying to get an idea of what would be available for after I graduated from the graphic design program at Ohio University. I took my portfolio to a design studio near my home, just to poke in and say hello, during spring break. Although I would never recommend this and I don’t know what I was thinking, I just popped in without an appointment and asked them to look at my portfolio – what gall!

They offered me a job right then and there and didn’t want me to return to school, 4 hours away, for the rest of the semester. Of course I was so excited and jumped at the chance, and my dad was pretty upset that I wouldn’t get my degree after he’d shelled out 4 years of tuition – but I felt the entire objective had been to get a job, right? Who cares about a degree? We compromised – I was able to work something out with the school where I could finish up by correspondence and my work experience would count as credit, and I started within days of the interview. I was the only woman in a firm of five guys, all designers, and we had some very big name corporate clients – super experience for a first job.

This was long ago when the world was dirt, and we actually did everything by hand, so I really learned a craft at this studio. I learned how to render layouts in marker, including how to render type so you could tell if the headline was in Palatino or Times, and how to do beautiful layouts. Our layouts were like pieces of art – they took weeks to complete, and clients often framed them. I also learned how to do the complex math of type specing and fitting, which is really hard, and you just can’t really understand it unless you’ve had to send out for type and then paste it up on a keyline board.

I loved all the tools of the trade: the ruling pens, the rubber cement, the smell of Magic Markers, the precision of cutting ZipATone with a Xacto Knife – it was all heaven to me. Who could have a better first job? I couldn’t imagine it was possible.

Describe your favorite self-promotion. Did it work?
Back in the day, we spearheaded a quarterly journal-style desk calendar for our clients in partnership with 2 other vendors. It was ideal, because the 3 of our companies together had a wide client list. We did the design, there was a typesetter doing the type, and a printer printed it – yes, it used to take a village. It contained promo info at the end about all of us, but mostly it was just a very cool journal type desk calendar. The idea was for clients to actually use it and keep it on their desks for the entire quarter, because it had their notes in it, and because it was so cool. We also did other things throughout the quarter with removable parts and die cuts – useable but fun things, and no one else was doing things like this back then. And it didn’t cost us anything but our time because the other partners picked up their ends of the project.

Did it work? Heck yeah. People loved it and it got a lot of buzz, it spread our name around and elevated us into areas we were not previously known in. People kept those calendars long past the dates they were good for – they were the kind of things you didn’t throw away.

What killed it? Politics. Both the printer and the typesetter had our competitors as clients, and they began to complain about the association. Reluctantly, they backed out after a year or so.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
I don’t consider myself a graphic designer anymore. As my design firm grew, I quickly discovered there were many much more talented designers than I was, and that my skills were better placed in strategy and growing the business. The creativity of growing my firm and making it stable became my passion, and when I decided to sell it to my staff after 25 years, it was because of the continuing comments and questions I got from people about how I had gotten it to that point. I’d heard “How’d you do that?” so often, and had my brain picked too many times by other business owners wanting to do the same thing (to keep terrific team members for 10, 15, and over 20 years, and to keep clients coming back for almost that long).

So when I stopped being a designer, I became a business builder, and a coach – and that’s what I am now. And if I didn’t do either of those things, I’d be making cute little foo foo sweaters for dogs. (I can’t help it.)

Can you tell us a little more about your Conference topic? What personal or professional experiences led you to this topic?
My topic is Skillful Communication with Clients.

As my creative firm grew larger and I realized I was hiring more talented designers than I was myself, I knew the job of keeping the company strong and healthy was where I could contribute the most. So I dedicated myself to learning how to do two things well: one, develop a really strong team that would work together to keep our company strong, and two, develop great relationships with the right clients.

I was in business for over 25 years, which was plenty of time to make all of the mistakes you can make in client communication, and also to learn from them, including dissecting the things that go wrong. I was almost fanatical about this and kept trying things until I found communication methods that work.

There are lots of problems that can arise in the client communication process, if you’re not intentional about how you manage it. Many times creatives take the role of the order taker. We assume the client always wants to be in control.

We want to be of service, yes, but clients are looking for us to offer solutions. Many times clients want you to lead, and many of the best clients are looking for professionals to guide them.

I’ve found that the more you can step up and make recommendations, the more the client will relax and begin to trust you. Blindly following orders puts you in a very subservient position, and not in a strategic, partnering position – which is what creates long-term relationships.