To Niche or Not to Niche

That is the question many designers face. You are not alone. I’ve heard arguments for both sides of this dilemma. As a designer of 20+ years, I’ve often persuaded myself one is better than the other, only to swing back the other way again. Mostly I have been in the generalist industry camp, but out of geographic need rather than some profound decision. I live in SW Colorado, and have about half of my clients nearby in the region and then others much further away, but I serve numerous industries including outdoor, bicycle specific, tourism, development, restaurant, specialty food and cannabis. Fairly broad in scope. I’ve even had a client in securities! I had always intended to narrow down and niche, but new projects kept popping up and I never committed to one. I’ve had the benefit of being a part of both through colleagues and close friends. Here’s my thinking on each.

Camp Niche

I’ve gone to many bicycle industry trade shows and demo events. I have a few clients in this arena and have worked these shows on their behalf. I have also had the benefit of seeing up close and personal what a tight knit and veryyyy small industry this truly is, and more importantly how challenging it can be to break in to. My beloved has been in this industry practically since he started working and has stayed the course in it for over 25+ years. At this point not only are his many friends those who grew up with him in the industry but they are now running the companies or are the owners of many elite brands. He’s respected, a known entity as it were and his opinions are sought after. It’s humbling to walk through one of the big shows with him and watch how he laughs, shakes hands, jokes around, chats etc etc with someone at almost every booth. He will tell me this gal was PM for this brand then became this for that brand, but she used to work with this guy who is now the CEO of this company. You get the picture. That’s what following your niche does. It creates a close community that you can only get with time. Period. And it’s very cool. I’m always a little combination of inspired and forlorn after these events as it’s a piece of my direction that I truly feel I’ve missed out on. You get to be an expert in the industry and an expert friend to many. Win win. From this advantage, finding work becomes a much easier task. You simply don’t have to work as hard with business development. You have to stay relevant and current, but you have to do this regardless of your business approach.

Focusing your creative efforts in a niche industry creates a close community that you can only get with time.

Camp General

Let’s cross over and look at the other side of this. In my case, living in a remote part of the state and not close to any major urban area, getting started was effectively taking any and everything I could. I met a lot of people and built a solid reputation for being very creative and excellent and what I do. I have used this to push the referral network out further and over the years have touched quite a variety of types of projects and businesses. I know a lot of people in a lot of different industries that don’t necessarily cross over. This is where being a generalist gets interesting. One core value of my work is the unflinching belief that what I learn and do in one industry can feel very fresh in another. You become a mini expert in a lot of interesting fields, maybe a little bit of a know it all. That’s fun, but you also see something working really well over here and wonder why it’s not being done over there. SO you get to bring that to the table. For example, when you are involved in a conversation about driving tourism in a market and you can speak intelligently about events or things that are happening in a market segment that tourism might want to target, that makes you somewhat of a expert from afar. This helps. Because of my work in the bicycle industry, I can speak knowledgeably to the tourism board about what might appeal to this demographic. Like Camp Niche, this too takes time but gives you a different set of skills that are quite valuable as a creative professional. I don’t have the vast network and therefore biz dev can be challenging at times, but I can honestly say to someone that I’ve design identity systems and marketing materials for almost any industry they throw at me, and for some clients this is important to them. We creatives know that the same principles of design for one industry apply to the next and having direct experience in designing a logo for a realtor without having actually done that prior may not be as challenging as thought if you are good at what you do. Yet it’s helpful sometimes to show that you have, or certainly that you have worked in very corporate fields to very trendy fields and can swing either direction. We are natural thespians after all.

One core value of my work is the unflinching belief that what I learn and do in one industry can feel very fresh in another.

I’m certain that I will continue to swing back and forth as long as I hold a mouse and a pen. There are aspect on each side of this that I really love, and now the challenge becomes how to blend the two. If this has hit a chord with you, please share your thoughts. I would love to hear other opinions from a creative professional POV.

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Tugging on the lines at Tradeshows: Prep and Prospecting

In my designer hat I’ve wallowed in and out of tradeshows for many years. Sometimes they are successful and sometimes they’re just fun, which I suppose is a form of success. The reality is, cold calling on people you’re asking for work from is hard. Period. Unless you’re the type that can saunter along and make new best friends left and right, it’s a challenge. Add to this, your “creative” personality, ie. socially awkward, it goes exponential. Currently, I’m getting myself ready for Outdoor Retailer in Denver, which should be fun and with this extra effort rewarding as well. 

Getting ready to head in to Outdoor Retailer, follow the blue bear.

My goal is to build more of my illustration business up. Why do I want to do this? The short answer is that I love illustrating, and have sort of abandoned it these last ten years. There was a time when I did quite a bit more, and really enjoyed the process as well as the end result for my clients. It gets noticed. It’s uniquely your work, and eventually clients will recognize your style. It seemed to have lost favor in exchange for a minimalist approach to graphic design and photography, but it appears to be trending again. The longer answer is that I need a shift in what I do. I have tried for years to entrench myself more and more into the outdoor world, and it’s a small, close knit, lots of good friends in the field, kind of world. It’s been a little tough to break into. To really break into. So with that in mind, I’m going back at it with illustration as my super power, and a focus on the girl-power/female outdoor enthusiasts advertising we’re seeing more and more of. 

Hanna is badged up and ready to roll. Our companion and diversion.

Personally, I have been standing on a soap box for years wondering why women haven’t been marketed directly to more in this outdoor-world. We play too. Honestly, we buy more gear than men, well at least we buy more clothes and accessories, but we do buy the bigger ticket items as well. The point is we are 50% of the audience. Now we’re seeing full page ads in Ski magazine of some female launching off of something, generally shredding and smiling in all her bad-assery glory. I want to illustrate to that! 

So how am I getting ready for this event? 

Identify what it is exactly you’re going to offer up

I’ve found that if you offer creative services that feel less committed to a client, it somehow makes you more approachable. I’m not walking into a booth and saying, hey your design stinks, hire me. I’m saying, I’ve got an idea for you to consider in your female specific marketing that would be fun and make a little splash. Consider illustration.

Identify and narrow down your targets

It’s virtually impossible to hit up every booth in a large show. Even if all you did was run through throw your stuff at them and move to the next, I don’t think you could actually make it through the entire show. So who is going to be interested in what you’re offering? There will be the obvious targets and these are absolutes, but open your mind up a little and see how what you are offering could appeal to someone unexpected. Yes, I can talk with all of the clothing brands, but I think it would be as or more interesting to talk with some of the gear brands about how a wild colorful illustration could be a great idea for their women’s specific skis or bikes. I’ll be sure to have those on my list as well.

What are you handing out?

Business cards are fine, but consider how many they receive. Now when these exhausted people return home and dump out all they have collected, while they were working and actually selling to their customers, do you think they will remember you specifically? Not unless you’re marching around with a mohawk, it’s highly unlikely. (I’ve done that) I’m not mohawk material any more so I’ve decided to put together a small packet, that packs easily in a suitcase with an illustrated mini poster of previously mentioned bad-ass girls getting after it, a business card, and a small CTA on what I do and why illustration is a good idea, closed with an equally cool sticker with my contact on it again. Make it easy, and maybe just maybe one of them will hang it on their wall of cool posters! 

Collect their info. Collect their info. Collect their info.

Because you too will return home, exhausted and it will all have blurred together. Do yourself a favor and get organized right away. Collect business cards, make notes on them, and review your pile of stuff the minute you’re back at your desk while it’s fresh. Then set about to make a list of those that were interested or pretended to be, and those that could be persuaded and follow up


We all learned this in Marketing 101. Frequency is important. We are all busy busy bees, and don’t have the brain capacity to remember everyone we talked with. I don’t. Assume that your potential new client doesn’t either, and help them out. Follow up with them within two weeks, and put it on your calendar to follow up again in another month. You don’t want to be obnoxious, but you also don’t want to disappear and lose the valuable and expensive momentum you have gained. Find a balance and follow up. I’ve been on the other side of this formula working in a booth and I get those stopping by to generate leads. I get it, but I also need someone to follow up with me after the fact. It’s helpful.

Well it caught my eye…

That’s it. Simple right? No it’s not, and it takes effort to make it work, but at the end of the day trade shows are valuable for so many reason, the least of which is generating new business. It’s an opportunity to stay connected, keep your finger on the pulse of trends and stay inspired. I hear rumors of trade shows going the way of the dodo, and this makes me sad. I understand they are expensive and supposedly large brands do better selling in new more innovative ways, but trade shows have the energy and vibe that I believe is beneficial to brand and consumer alike and a valuable piece of what makes the outdoor industries so wonderful would disappear with it. As long as they continue to exist, I will continue to go and do my part to support them.