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How To Specialise

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

This is an incredibly long topic I could talk about until I'm blue in the face. I really try not to specialise too much myself, but I seem to have completely missed the moment where my work went into this sort of 'retro-but-contemporary' look. So now I gotta stick with it, because my entire portfolio confirms this theme.

Every other print designer out there will be screaming right now that this is wrong – but this is because most designers specialised by going into a full time job where, naturally, they had the specific position (textile designer, graphic designer, homeware designer etc) and have missed out on being a graduate trying to figure out what the fuck to do with life because there is no more decent jobs out there.

If you decide you really want to work with big companies - this post isn't for you. There, you will be asked to specialise by media, format and even delivery time. This post is for the new age agile creatives; designers transitioning into digital resources and working for smaller clients.


In university, we divide by media; textile, print, product. But in 2020, when you end up freelancing with smaller companies, chances are the same client that asks you to do print design for their socks, will be asking you to help them with rebranding or do their packaging etc. It's like you defacto become the in house geek for all things Adobe related (I've had clients expect me to do motion design even). Don't say no to this work - it will give you the ability to expand your aesthetic and work into different media as well as a glimpse of what it is like on the other side of the fence.

What you're supposed to do is sell a style or better yet, a story that a portion of the audience (potential clients and customers) can relate to. And don't forget - it needs to be a tinge different from everyone else; just enough to give you an edge and makes you memorable. Take me for an example - I sell retro patterns and illustrations with a contemporary twist, so my client's products will be vintage inspired, but always on trend, relevant and contemporary. I'm slowly building a reputation which is two sided - unfortunately, if someone needs a clean, minimalist product, they won't email me (even though I could do this easily and confidently), but if they want something retro & trendy, I'll possibly be the first person they think of. How can you apply this strategy to your own business?


So the above covers the inspiring part. Now onto the actual facts and numbers that should also influence this decision. We are in the time of lean start ups and yet we somehow do not apply this to creative businesses.

Here's some things to reflect upon:

Where in the timeline of your career are you? Are you a graduate with just student work in your portfolio? Or are you someone with 8 years experience who just got chucked out of their full time job in pretty much the worst time ever? The difference is, if you are just starting out, you still don't know who your client is, so you aren't really aware of what your product is. For this end of the spectrum, I really recommend keeping a wide portfolio of print and illustration that can be applied to a variety of products. Test out what sells and what you like doing (50-50 approach) and go into that direction.

If you're a veteran going from full time to freelance, dip into your knowledge of the market to figure out whether it is worth keeping the specialisation you had at your job (e.g. womenswear sleepwear print) or if it's worth branching out.

How big is the market you are after?

Or more importantly, how many designers are in that business? Fashion print for example is an extraordinarily massive market, particularly because high street is buying artwork in incredible amounts. However, there is also an incredible number of textile print designers out there - literally thousands graduating every year, coming into the industry.

Have a good long think about your market, your clients and your competition. If you are going after, let's say realistic botanical floral prints in fashion, chances are you are going to run into some tough competition, sometimes in the shape of massive, well connected print studios with thousands of artworks. Same goes for the 2019-20 trend of burnt orange minimalist organic shapes.

How much time can you spend not being paid a full salary?

This is a very sad, but realistic point. Specialising in a certain look will take time as you will be getting clients slower - so you're looking at a certain time where you won't be making a full salary or covering your costs. Keep this in mind when you're planning your freelance career - if you really want to do small watercolor geos for life, but really need to pay your bills this month - then maybe that's not for you.


Most designers will tell you follow your heart. I say following your heart is capitalist bullshit trying to sell you the 'dream'. We can't all sit and draw the same thing over and over again and hope someone picks us up and pays us something for our time.

This also has nothing to do with money (yet). At the very base of it, we are designers and the sole point of what we do is to design for people and the community. You painting and moaning about how 'nobody values or understands you' is not helping you. People don't value design they can't relate to or it doesn't give them anything emotionally. It is you, or rather us, that need to learn from feedback and needs of our clients and customers. And lastly, no it's not about money - it's about your survival. You need to make at the very least enough money to cover your bills and hopefully a holiday once a year. The point here isn't to make millions from a design business, but to build a sustainable, smart business. So when you're deciding how to specialise, what style to go with - forget the heart. Think objectively and ask yourself; does the world really need another monstera print with a burnt orange flower? I mean, really?

As always, if you want more helpful posts on how to make $$$ doodling and drawing, subscribe to my email list below! I routinely send out tips, tools, trends and other helpful bits!

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