The Money Lies In The Solutions

This week I want to talk to you about an important and key change in mindset that will help you make more money as a designer and freelancer. It’s the mindset that real money is found in the solutions, not in the act of creation. Let me explain.

My Experience:

During my college years inspirational websites like Dribbble didn’t exist. Instead, I used to subscribe to Communication Arts, Print, and Web Designer Magazine to get inspired. As a student I spent a ton of money on those subscriptions because back then most of my time was spent on learning the fundamentals of design and how those fundamentals translated to computer software. I used to try replicating any new technique or trend that I found in any of the above magazines to gauge how well I was growing. The better I was at mastering a technique, the better designer I was becoming.

I’ll be completely honest with you. Looking back, I don’t think I entirely appreciated the solutions that I found in those design annuals. I knew they were award-winning projects, but I was always fixated on the level of polish or how complex a solution might have been to create.

As a student designer, I don’t think it was too bad for me to think like that (since I needed something to base my progress and growth around). However, looking back at my early struggles as an independent freelancer and young designer working in the industry, judging the quality of a solution based on whether or not I could recreate it or how polished it was, clearly was not a great idea.

As a young designer working for a large global design firm, I was surrounded by a variety of talented designers and projects. I bounced around on a lot of teams because of my ability to adapt. It was a great time, but I would often find myself frustrated because early on my ideas were not getting picked. I would literally ask myself, “How is that idea better than mine? It looks so simple and generic.” Was it wrong for me to think that way? Maybe not since I didn’t really know any better.

It wasn’t until one day when I was talking to my Creative Director about my frustrations around “nailing” the idea that I started to get a better understanding of my job as a designer. He told me to stop getting frustrated with myself. He also said, “The most valuable solutions are the solutions that are clearly communicated. They don’t always have to be complex to create. The value is in the ideas.” I have to admit, this idea didn’t completely sink in until one day I got to review a proposal this company put together for a potentially new client. What stood out to me the most was the amount of money the client would need to invest for strategy and how little was allocated for actual design time. It was then that I realized the real money lies in the solution, not in the actual creating of the solution. It was both eye-opening and motivating for me.

During the early days of Greenline I still struggled a bit with this notion that the real money lies in the solutions. I would often get frustrated when I would see other companies growing, winning and charging more for projects with “basic” solutions because I felt like we could create that same solution for half the cost. I’d look at a solution and say, “We can do this!” But I’d leave out the fact that this idea had to be dreamt up. It’s one thing to say I could create it. But could I dream it up?

Don’t get me wrong, I do value the time and skills that it takes to create a well-crafted solution, but I’ve also learned that in order to combat the commodity that design is becoming, I need to ensure I’m always focusing on being a designer that solves problems and makes money for my clients.

What I’ve Learned about Solution-Based Design:

It’s not easy to design this way: If creating great design solutions that solve problems were easy, everyone would be doing it. Some days ideas will just flow. Other days you’ll find yourself super frustrated in what you’re creating and will need to rest the creative muscle and come back to it another day.

You’ll make more money: Whether you’re working in the industry or focusing on growing your own business, you’ll make more money as you transition away from being seen as the designer who is great at Photoshop. Once you focus on creating great concepts for your clients and company you’ll become a much more valuable asset to them, vs. being just another designer who can use the latest software to help execute their ideas. Sure, not everyone is looking for this type of designer everyday, but those who are, value it greatly.

Your clients will respect you more: Do you know what a client really wants from a designer? Proactive solutions that change their company and leave it much better than it was when they hired you. To do this, you need to take ownership and make sure you’re focusing on creating solutions that solve their problems. If your ideas work, they’ll value you so much that they’ll keep you around and share your name with another connection who has similar problems that need to be solved. And if your ideas don’t work, they’ll respect that you came to the table with real ideas and tried to make a difference.

The world is against you: The funny thing about focusing on creating solutions that solve problems is that the majority of people view design as the pretty layer that sits on top of a Word document. This is not their fault. This is because everyone feels like they have a design eye. People know what they like or don’t like and many people find it hard to step out of that role and let you do what you’re being asked to do. There is no magic bullet to solve this, but that’s why it’s important to start every project setting the right expectations and to do your best at managing the feedback process. You also might need to constantly remind them that we’re trying to solve a particular problem and is this feedback helping solve the problem or not.

A great solution is a great solution: Whether it took you two hours or twenty hours to come up with a great solution the value to the client is the same. It also doesn’t matter how simple that idea is to execute. As you know, sometimes it’s the simplest of ideas that are the hardest to come up with.

It’s not for everyone: Throughout my career I’ve learned that some designers prefer to utilize their skills to craft designs and focus on the kerning vs. those who prefer to sit in front of a white board all day and take on the responsibility of brainstorming game changing solutions for their clients. I personally think we need both types of designers in the industry. It makes for a great team. However, it’s important to realize which type of designer you are so that you can set the proper expectations for yourself and others up front before beginning any project and marketing yourself to your clients.

My Takeaway:

It’s taken awhile, but I’ve grown from being a designer who focuses on technique, skill and basing the strength of a solution on the basic fundamentals of design, to a designer who’s focused on problem-solving through my designs and judging the strength of a design based on how well it solves a particular problem. I know that everything I design has to solve a problem. Sometimes clients don’t know that and I have to ask them, “What problem are you trying to solve?” Based on that answer, I may (or may not) be able to help them. Today, I earn my money and reputation when I’m painstakingly brainstorming a solution in front of a whiteboard or in my notebook. It took me awhile to realize it, but there’s a reason Creative Directors and Strategists are much higher on the pay scale than a graphic designer.

I’ve also learned that I should never financially penalize myself for growing as a designer. The more I grow as a designer, the quicker I can solve problems for my clients. My client benefits from the solution and I benefit from the efficiency and time saved. It’s a win win for everyone.

In the end if you want to start making more money as a designer (whether that be a freelancer or in-house designer), start focusing on really trying to solve problems with your designs vs. using design solely as aesthetics. Design trends change with time, but great solutions last forever. The similar can be said about a designer. Designers who create great solutions (by solving real problems) will outlast a designer who’s just skilled at using a program to create visually rich graphics.

What’s Next?

Determine whether you’ve been evaluating the strength of a design solution based on it’s aesthetics. If so, start to evaluate design solutions through a different lens. Get in the habit of asking yourself, clients or other designers, “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” When critiquing another designer’s work in person or on Dribbble try to get as much context as you can before you leave a comment. If you can’t get context, base your comment on the problem you think the designer was trying to solve and indicate that in the comments. It’s through this lens that you’ll really start seeing yourself grow into a timeless designer.

I hope you found this lesson valuable. I’d love to hear your thoughts and continue the conversation with you. Are you struggling with designing solutions that solve problems? How can I help?

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