Quick: Tell me what you're best at as a designer.
No, you can't say you're really good at print. Can't you narrow it down to packaging or collateral, branding or advertising?
No, you can't say you're really good at creating Web sites. Do you focus on blogs, big dynamic sites with thousands of pages, non-linear Flash experiences, IM chatbots?
This may all sound a little facile, but every designer struggles with how they brand themselves. We know that having a design process can often yield great results, no matter what the tangible deliverable. And as we gain experience, we gain knowledge of more disciplines and tangibles. But we can't master them all.
The above exercise is humbling. And it serves great purpose, because when you're looking for work, clients ask you this sort of question all the time, and in many different ways. They want to know where your sweet spot lies when it comes to tactics. This is something you need to know now, not when you're on the spot.
So, I propose the following simple rule of thumb for working designers: Do three things well, and one thing better than anyone else. At least on paper. We can try to be good at applying design to everything that we see, often with terrific results, but the age of the generalist is slowly waning. We need to prepare for it.
Here's my attempt:
I am okay at logos. And art-directing photo shoots isn't so bad. Doing interaction design for complex UIs, while time consuming, doesn't seem too hard... and... wait... I left a few out. I mean, I don't do just comps of Web pages, stand around at photo shoots, and make logos. Not many people would hire me for that.
See how hard this is? And I did it all wrong, too. Here's why.
When a client says "What are you good at?" and they're interested in hiring you to design a single deliverable, such as a small-scale Web site, they're probably fishing for something along the line of "I'm really good at designing Web sites." These conversations are simple to clinch, and clients usually think they're tactical projects that won't require a lot of heavy lifting. (We know better.)
It's much harder when a big company comes along and says, point-blank, "We're looking for someone to take care of our every need and desire when it comes to marketing services. What are you good at?" This is an entirely different type of question, and you can't spend too much time fishing around to discern exactly what they want out of you. This is when you have to be true to your nature and sell yourself for whom you truly are. Instead of narrowing yourself to tactical deliverables, speak large and be smart, through active listening, as to what they're seeking from you.
"I'm very strong at print work, especially pertaining to helping companies build their brands. As for complimentary competencies, we're also good at crafting user interfaces for enterprise-level sites and short-form motion graphics pieces." You'll want to foreground all of that by noting that you have a comprehensive design process that can be applied to a range of media, etc.
If the client asks you about something that isn't in your sweet spot -- "Have you ever built a Facebook app?" -- you should be honest about the gap and have a strong network of fellow designers and vendors that you can call upon if you really want the work. Saying you know how to do it, or can "learn it while doing it," won't cut it for these kinds of clients. There's only one of you. You can't do it all and not risk failing at something big.
The great thing is, this rule also applies to how clients talk about their products. When was the last time you got an assignment where you were forced to hit upon just one thing about a brand? I have fond memories of receiving lists of eight to ten attributes that a logo design needed to contain in order to meet the client's expectations. What followed the review of that brief was sitting down with the client and crossing five or six words off that list, then starring the one word that truly summed up how their brand needed to be expressed. Talk about a U.S.P.: My soft drink is sweet, sassy, sensitive, soothing, and... snore.
So, let's try this again...
What are you best at as a designer?