Design Domination Podcast Episode #64: Brutally Honest Business Advice With Emily Cohen

Emily Cohen joins me to dish out some brutally honest design business advice, including some things that hold creatives back in business, why the solopreneur model is usually unsustainable, specialization, misconceptions designers have about their websites, how to reach out to prospects and more.

Emily Cohen.A brutally honest consultant, Emily Cohen has been honored to consult and work with many leading design firms across the country. Through these experiences, she has developed, tested and curated key business insights and strategies that have helped firms become more effective, profitable and fun to work at. Emily conducts strategic business planning retreats and provides confidential, best-practice insights and advice on staff, client and process-management strategies.

She loves sharing her expertise through speaking engagements, guest posts, her courses on LinkedIn Learning/ and Skillshare, her industry activism, and, most recently, in her new business book for creatives, Brutally Honest: No-bullshit business strategies to evolve your creative business.

Emily Cohen is also fast-talker, a designer by degree, an avid reader, a trend-spotter, a connector and her client’s advocate. She can be found at

Getting to Know Emily Cohen

Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Emily. I’m so excited to talk to you today.

Emily Cohen: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to talk to you as well.

Colleen: So I thought we’d start off with some fun, get-to-know-you questions. Do you have a secret talent?

Emily: Ooh, uh, being a nag. I think that would be my secret talent. Maybe it’s an overt talent. I don’t know. But I don’t think I have a secret talent that I know of.

Colleen: Well, my husband might say that would be my secret talent too.

If you could choose your age forever, what particular age would you choose and why?

Emily: Oh, that’s interesting. I mean, I actually kind of loved every age of my life. Every age is different. I would say it would be my mid-to-late 20s, before I met my husband. Just because I loved the single life, not having any kind of commitments. I loved that none of my friends had moved yet. I had just started my consulting practice. That was doing really well. I think that moment in time was kind of my favorite if I had one.

Colleen: Well, I love your book. I agree with all of what I’ve read so far. A lot of what you write in there is stuff that I say on the podcast as well. So I’m really excited to talk to you about some of this stuff.

Emily: Great. Thank you. Yeah, I’m excited. I love my book. I’m very proud of it. So I’m glad you liked it.

Colleen: Now you have a design degree, and you were a designer. So I’d love to hear about how you got to the point of being there to being a business consultant.

Emily: Oh, yeah, that’s always a good story. So I went to design school and I was a decent student. Then I became a designer. I worked at the Pottery Barn in house, I worked at a magazine and I worked in design studio. When I was working at the design studio about four to five years out of college.

I realized pretty quickly that there were so many people that were better than me as designers. They just were more passionate and so talented. I knew I didn’t have that passion. I’m super ambitious. I always be the best at what I want to do and I was struggling with did I choose the right career path, right.

So I just asked everybody I knew and so at that time, I was very involved in AIGA. I still am, though maybe not so much recently… I just knew everybody in New York and so I just asked everybody—my clients and my friends and industry friends, just everybody—“Well, what should I do?” I don’t know what to do because that’s all I knew is design.

I love the design community. I love designers in general and I didn’t want to leave design. I just basically asked everybody. I had two mentors at the time, one who worked for Milton Glaser and another woman who worked for Future Brand. They were sort of my mentors and just women who I admired and became friends and would have wine with every once in a while.

So a combination of all these people, the general message was I’m really good at kicking people’s ass, and that’s what I should do. I’m like, “I don’t know what that means.”

Then I looked deeper. Basically, what they’re saying is that I’m really just good at managing and organizing and talking to people. Right?

I went to a bunch of design studios in Manhattan. Back then, when I started my career, in the business of design, there was really no business of design, right? So the firm owners were more creative. They didn’t have project managers or even account managers. Account managers more existed in advertising, but less so in the design world. Now, it’s much more common, but when I first started my career, there was no such thing as project managers, right.

I just went to a bunch of design studios, about seven in one week just to say, “Hey, this is what I can do. Do you need me?”

Every single one of those studios offered me a job. Not because I’m awesome. I mean, I am awesome. But it’s because no one knew design but also wanted to do these other things, right.

They thought, that’s kind of an interesting thing. Then I got… It was really funny. A lot of the companies offered me very entry-level, like receptionist level, salaries for that role. I’m like, “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” Then I just took the highest salary, which was a very generous salary. I basically ran a studio that was five people when I joined. Then I grew them to about 25 to 30 people. We moved twice.

I have a lot of experience with managing teams and projects and clients. For a long time, I managed the clients, but then I managed the project managers who managed the clients and hired everybody and wrote all the proposals and was an all the new business meetings, and I was really good at it.

So the word spread, because New York’s community is quite incestuous. We all know each other, as we were talking about before we got on the podcast. We even know the same people.

Colleen: Yeah.

Emily: Just a very little small world. A lot of us know each other. Back then, the New York community was much tighter than it is now, I think, because it was smaller. So I started building up a freelance practice just helping people out nights and weekends. At some point, I met my husband and he said, “Hey, you’re working 40 hours on this freelance business. You should start your own company.” I was working 80 hours—40 hours at my full-time job and then 40 hours consulting.

Colleen: I get that!

Emily: So I’ve been consulting for 30 years. My husband encouraged me to do it and I quit and started my practice and was successful right off the bat. It’s been amazing and I got some amazing clients. I was lucky enough to work with some pretty famous clients early in my career.

Because other famous people know other famous people, I’ve sort of got a niche for working with well-established, kind of premier design firms. That’s been awesome. I get to work with amazing people and still stay in the design practice. I get kind of the best of both worlds.

Colleen: Why do you think that design schools don’t teach business principles and dealing with contracts and clients and marketing and all of that?

Emily: Some of them do. I teach at Tyler School of Art and I teach a business of design class. I taught one at FIT, that used to have one. I think Parsons has one. There are some schools that do.

But I actually think they shouldn’t.

Colleen: Really?

Emily: There’s so much that they have to learn in school already, between the technical analogies that they have to learn. There’s so many more technologies and we had to learn, right? And typography, I think that the students are coming out with not even the basic skills sometimes.

I think it’s sort of a luxury to have business. I think that’s better for the master’s programs and/or you can learn that in the real world. But I do think there should be an academic requirement. I think they should have great writing skills and have taken business classes or some sort of academic classes that support the creative.

When I went to design school, I also had an academic curriculum. It wasn’t all design curriculum.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: I still came out with understanding how to write, which is a critical skill. Look, I love teaching my undergraduates but I’m not sure how much they retain afterwards.

I stay in touch with a lot of them and they sort of sometimes remember the retention is… They’re young and mostly what they’re concerned about is designing really cool stuff. They’re not as concerned about the business. So the retention or the stickiness of what I’m giving them is a little overwhelming for them. But they love the class, I think, so I just think there’s so much to teach, right?

Either you have to start teaching design in six years, or you have to cut back things, because I think there’s some core skills that are being lost.

What Holds Back Creatives

Colleen: Interesting.

Emily: Yeah.

Colleen: What do you think are some of the main things that hold back creatives from really growing their business, and by “growing,” I don’t necessarily mean the number of people but at least revenue?

Emily: Themselves. I think it’s usually themselves. That’s what’s holding them back.

Colleen: Yeah.

Emily: They either don’t have the… A lot of people start their own business. Not everybody. There’s going to be exceptions to everything I’m saying.

But a lot of them start the business because they’re stick of working for other people and they want to control which clients they want to work for. They want to basically do cool stuff. They want to just be able to direct themselves. So they get into it for the creative side, not for the business side. They sometimes come into the business, not realizing or not willing to do things that are more important.

When you own your own business, your job is not to design, in my opinion. Your job is to run the business: to get the clients to make sure the business is profitable and that you have a vision for the business. I think the one skill that is definitely missing is—not a skill but—attention to the vision of a company.

Most most companies—design firms—might have a moment in time—or a few years in time—when they’re successful. But it’s usually based on referral-based business. They’re like, “Oh, I’m doing really well because I have all these great clients that are just coming in.”

But, to me, that’s not a sign of a good business necessarily. Because you’re not in control of the business. You’re letting the clients and your relationships control the direction of your business.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: I think the firms that are more successful are the ones that have the reins of the business, who know exactly who they are and who they want to work for, can say no to the clients that are coming in that maybe aren’t quite right for their firm and also go after—actually go after—the clients that they want to work for, not just simply rely on referrals alone.

Obviously, referrals are 75% of 80% of our new business. But there should be a good 10% to 20% of your time that you spend really trying to reach out to the kind of clients you want to work for and to direct your own business rather than allowing your clients or even your staff to direct the business.

Why the Solopreneur Model Is Usually Unsustainable

Colleen: Yeah, I think that a lot of designers want to sit back and just get work and do the work, but they don’t want to do the selling and the marketing.

Emily: Yeah, exactly.

Colleen: What you say in your book is that solopreneur-based models are unsustainable—

Emily: Yes.

Colleen: Or that it’s rare that they are.

Emily: Yes.

Colleen: So can you talk a little bit about that?

Emily: Yeah, so this is where everybody’s gonna hate me, and I stand by this. When I say “unsustainable,” it doesn’t mean you can’t still run a solopreneur business. It’s just at some point you flatline, which means you don’t make any more money. You can’t expand the kind of clients or work you do. It’s usually within three to five years of running your own business.

At some point, you just continue to make the same money you do. Every once in a while there’s an exception where you get a gorilla client or an unusual client. But for the most part, it’s kind of an unsustainable model simply because, as a business owner, and I said this earlier, you have a lot of hats to wear—a lot of hats—and one of the hats that you should be letting go of is the design part—actual hands-on design. You can creative direct, but solopreneurs are staying solopreneurs because they want to be designers.

That’s why a lot of them stay as one-person firms because they just want to design, which is great. That’s fine, but that’s not, to me, sustainable for the long term. It’s good and you’ll just make a certain amount of money.

Look, I’m a solopreneur, right? So I am a one-person firm, but I know that I have level set. I will never… I don’t want to grow just to make money. I’m not after making a million dollars a year. I’ve chosen that intentionally. That’s great, right, but I choose not to.

So I don’t work with solopreneurs for the most part, simply because you need staff to help you focus on the parts of the business that really will help you grow, be more profitable, control your business. You need to direct it a little bit. A lot of times when I work with solopreneurs—and I do make exceptions—but I do work with solopreneurs that are ready to grow and are committed to growing.

That usually means… I ask them that they have to hire one full-time person, and it’s not usually a contractor or freelancer. Because until you’re really ready to do that, you need to get out of the weeds so that you could focus on your business.

Colleen: The other thing too is that a lot of designers that are solopreneurs are also in the position of being more order taker versus the expert. In your book, you say “executional versus strategic.”

Emily: Mm hmm.

Colleen: So they’re in this reactive position all the time. They’re not in a proactive position of approaching clients. Like you said, they’re on the receiving end. The work is coming in, and they’re just taking it. They don’t take a stance and say, “Here’s what I’m going to say no to, and here’s what I’m going to say yes to.”

They’re taking on work a lot of times that they don’t know how to do, or they’re not good at or that they even hate doing.

Emily: Right. I think that applies to actually firms of all sizes too. though. It’s hard to make global generalizations because there’s some solopreneurs that are a more strategic level. That’s great. I’m just saying it’s not sustainable.

So when I talk about executional versus strategic firms, I don’t usually ascribe that to a size of a firm because I think there are a lot of firms that are executional. What I mean by “executional” is, like you said, “reactive.” They are pretty much request driven. The client says, “Hey, I need this.” You go do it.

It’s usually around kind of churn and burn. It’s a lot of quantity over quality. There’s a ton of work in that space, and most so the work out there is in that space. You can make a lot of money that way.

There are firms that are in that model. But if you’re in that model, you should do the best you possibly can. But then there’s strategic firms that are much more like “I don’t do the stuff I’ll give you the brand guidelines. I’ll give you the strategy. But I’m not going to design the stuff, the stuff you need, get somebody else to do. I’m going to create the systems and the strategy and the tools for you to then either do in house or hire other people to do.”

The thing is that a lot of people think they’re both. They want to be strategists and they want to be executional. It’s hard to do both. The reason why is that requires different types of staff, different skills, different kinds of clients, different types of pricing.

What I tell people is you kind of have to land in one of those two spaces. It’s really hard, and there are firms that do both well, but they usually struggle. They’re much more heavily executional than strategic. They’ll do every once in a while, a strategic project, but, for the most part, they’re mostly doing executional.

Business Issues Face by Creatives

Colleen: Why do you think so many creatives, whether a firm or a solopreneur, feel the need to be everything to everyone and take on any work or client that comes up their way, even putting up with bad clients? I call that pimping yourself out for the money, which I did for many years.

Emily: Yeah. I think it’s because they, first of all, they always see the good in people. They don’t pay attention to the red flags that are staring them in the face.

Colleen: Yeah.

Emily: Because they’re so excited about the project or the opportunity—

Colleen: Yeah.

Emily: … or that they simply are liked. Creatives are like, like people and are people pleasers, for the most part. So when somebody likes them and wants to work with them. They’re just like, “Oh, they want to work with me. I’m so happy!”

Colleen: Right.

Emily: Saying no is a very hard skill for many creatives. They just don’t have that in them. That’s a learned skill. It’s also because they don’t have a vision. So they don’t know how to say no, because they don’t know when to say no. They don’t know what is the right way.

Those are the things I help my clients define—is what their vision is so that they can go after the clients they want and say no more often.

I think that’s the reason. I think creatives just don’t have… Some of them are desperate for money, and they have to pay the bills. We make decisions based on purely financial decisions. But it’s mostly creatives make decisions simply because they’re so excited that somebody wants to work with them.

Colleen: Right, right. I see all of those in some designers as well. Yeah, that’s like that. And I’ve been in that situation too.

Emily: Yeah. Yeah, we don’t want to… Especially those red flags.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: Sort of extra work. I do some proposals as well. When they talk to me about the opportunity, I’ll be like, “That’s a red flag. That’s a red flag. That’s a red flag.” They’re like, “Oh, really?” Yeah. They don’t even see it. They’re just sort of waving it off as a one-time situation, but it isn’t.

Colleen: Oh, yeah. I did that for years. Yes.

Emily: Yeah.

Designers’ Objections to Specialization

Colleen: Well, you say in your book, every expert out there says to specialize. I agree with that. You hear all kinds of objections from creatives about why they shouldn’t specialize. I thought this was a really funny part in your book because I’ve said these things myself. I’ve heard other people say them. So could you get into some of these objections?

Emily: Yes, I can. In the book, one of the things I do—pretty much in a lot of the chapters—is I start every chapter with all the excuses that I hear. Designers always have excuses. I hear the same ones every time. They all think they’re so unique, and they really aren’t.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: This one, especially because I’m a big believer in specialization, as is every expert. There’s a reason why we all agree on that one thing.

But here’s what I hear from creatives. I hear this so much. “I’m naturally curious and always want to learn.” Basically, they want to do cool stuff, right?

Look, I know designers can design anything they want. They put their heart into it. I get that. Clients don’t get that.

Designers say they don’t want to specialize because they want to have the opportunity to do things that they never did before. But that is not specialization, and that clients don’t get.

I hear that they don’t want to be limited by one particular focus or type of work, they might get bored, they’ll be held back. They can’t change. They just want to design cool stuff.

They want to and can design, like I said, they can design anything. They have a variety of skills and good design is good design, no matter what the deliverable is, or who it’s done for.

All that’s true, but clients don’t get it. Or they want long-term relationships with clients. They think clients will consider you for all kinds of great work because they love you and intuitively understand you can do anything, which isn’t really true.

I think clients want to hire you for one thing. They’re looking for websites. They don’t really think of you… If you start designing their website, they might not think you’re good at brands.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: If we start executing, like we just do an email blast as a favor, they’re not going to use you for their website, because it’s a much more strategic project. Clients really put people in little certain boxes.

The other thing I love about specialization is I think you can always change your specialization, but you should try to take land on a space because what happens is… And this is why I tell people to specialize mainly. Because they’re generalists, and, look, 99% of design firms are generalists. No, maybe 95.

They do this for all those reasons, but the problem is they don’t do new business. The reason why they don’t go out and get new clients is because they can do anything, so they don’t know where to start.

If you’re specialized, then you know exactly where you start. You start going after the community of people that you’re going after. “I have a niche. My niche is small-to-mid-size design firms that do really kick ass work.”

I don’t work with just anybody. I’m sort of a design snob, and I have worked with a firm of three person to 30-person firms. That’s my niche, right?

Some of my clients only work with professional services like law firms and consultants. I have another client—my favorite specialization… I just started working with this client that does anything running. The two owners of the firm are runners, their passion is running. They used to work in the running space. Their specialization is running.

What that means is they work with retail stores that sell sneakers and running things. They work with companies that manufacture sneakers and things like that. They work for companies that do races. A lot of the business is around races, so they’ll do the graphics for races. That’s a very unique specialization. But within that, they have three different types of target clients. It’s a passion of theirs and they know everything about racing. They use the language of racing and so it’s easy to specialize.

When you specialize, you know who to go after, you travel and communicate in the same circles as your clients.

My client that specializes in law firms is involved in an organization called the Legal Marketing Association, which is exactly where all her prospects gather. They’re all marketing people within the law space. Those are the people that hire designers. She’s very involved in what’s called the LMA, and it’s very well known. That’s pretty much where all our clients come from.

If we know who we are and what kinds of clients we want to work for, we know the communities they gather in and we can reach out to them. But if we are generalists, we don’t know where to start.

We’re like, “We work with anybody.” Then we also have a larger field of competitors.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: If you’re a generalist, you’re competing against all those 95% of other firms that are generalists. But if you’re a specialist, you’re really only competing against other specialists, or some generalists. It’s easy to compete against generalists if you’re a specialist because you can talk about how you’re specialized and why you’re unique. Also, the other thing is you can command higher fees when you’re a specialist.

Colleen: Yeah.

Emily: There’s a lot of benefits that people just try to avoid. I’m a big believer in specializing.

Colleen: I think it makes you more memorable too. It’s much clearer to clients and prospects what you’re doing or who you’re serving. I think that makes it so much easier for them to, like you said, put you in a box and then remember all of that.

Emily: Yes, exactly.

Colleen: And like you said, they’re willing to pay more. Think about the general practitioner versus a heart surgeon or something.

Emily: Yes, exactly.

Misconceptions Designers Have About Their Websites

Colleen: Speaking of specializing, in your book, you even say, and I’ve seen this myself in real life too, that even the copy on most creatives’ websites says all the same thing.

Emily: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. I’m actually collecting these now because I’m doing a three-hour positioning workshop. So I’ve been for the last months collecting all these generic ones that sound beautiful, but they say nothing.

There’s so many of them out there. They all sound great and they’re crafted beautifully, but they all mean nothing like:

  • “We build brands that lead and inspire.”
  • “We are conceptual strategists, visual crafts people and creative wordsmiths.”
  • “We work at the intersection of culture and brands.”
  • “We live at the intersection of brand purpose and culture.”
  • “We transform brands from the inside out.”

They all sound the same.

Colleen: I don’t think clients will really understand some of that.

Emily: No. Your website is for your clients, not for you. Designers have a tendency to design beautiful sites that are for designers, but are not for their clients.

Colleen: And then what else do you think they’re looking for on the site? To see that you’re understanding their problems and using their language and that you do some kind of good work. I mean, there’s people that don’t do that great a work and they’re still getting tons of clients.

Emily: Yep.

I don’t believe your website is a marketing tool. You shouldn’t be getting your business through SEO.

I don’t really care about SEO. I think that the clients that come through your website are usually unqualified anyway. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a good website that supports your new business efforts, because prospects that you’ve reached out to will definitely still check you out on your social media and on your website. So it should still have messages that reinforce what you’re saying to them one on one.

But it shouldn’t be used as a tool… You shouldn’t be using words just to simply get more eyeballs on your site. I don’t believe in that. I think it doesn’t work.

Some of my clients have great SEO—amazing. They spent money on it. They’ve amazing SEO, but their clients are completely unqualified. They spend all their time vetting unqualified business. That’s just such a waste of time.

There’s a few things I recommend. But one of the things I strongly recommend is having case studies. All these designers have beautiful photography and lifestyle imagery, and words that say things like, “We chose this typeface because of blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Clients don’t really care about that stuff. What they care about is how did you move the needle. I hate using clichés, but what is the ROI? How did you impact your clients businesses?

I’m a big believer in having case studies, with success metrics with actual quantifiable data that proves your value.

  • How did you increase brand recognition?
  • How did you help them raise funds?
  • How did you increase attendance at their event?

There’s lots of ways to find metrics. There’s a whole chapter in my book around success metrics because I think it’s that important. Very few designers get that data. They don’t ask for it. They’re afraid to ask for it, or they never asked for it. So many design firms don’t have that data on their site.

I think clients really that’s what resonates with them. I’m sorry to tell you this, it’s not about doing good work at all. It’s about being a good human being and being likable.

The main reason clients choose designers is because they trust them. It’s not because they do great work, because, honestly, great work is subjective in a lot of ways.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: Unless you can prove your value, so it’s through metrics, they don’t understand it. What they really want to know is were you referred? That’s trust. They see you speak. That’s trust. Are you an expert in their in their industry? That’s trust.

I think as much as your website can reiterate that trust, that you’re an expert, that you work with their peers, that you come referred by all these well-known firms and clients.

For a while, I worked with Google and, to be honest, they weren’t the greatest client. I didn’t love working with them. But that name carries weight. So then I can say, I worked with Google and everybody’s like, ooh. I think that there are those things that you have to drop names. A lot of people work with clients no one’s ever heard of. Sometimes you have to take on a famous client just simply to use their name, even if you don’t like the work you’re doing for them.

But I think it’s about making sure you communicate messages, why your specialization and how you’ve improved your clients businesses.

Colleen: Well, I have found sometimes that clients aren’t even tracking some kind of information to provide after the fact. So I guess it’s something that you could ask for up front to somehow get a baseline somewhere of something.

Emily: Yep.

Colleen: And then later on, be able to measure the success of it.

Emily: Yeah. If you’re a strategist and you’re a specialist, then you know how to measure those things, too.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: What to measure, so if a client doesn’t know, they’ll say, “I don’t know how to measure.” Then you, as an advisor, as a strategist, will say, “Here’s how you measure.”

It’s not just asking your clients, which is the first one. I think a lot of us don’t even ask clients, “How do you measure success?” I think that’s a really important question.

Colleen: Yeah, for sure.

Emily: If they say, “I don’t know,” which most clients will, or they’ll say, ”I’ve never done that.” Then you, as a specialist, will be able to say, “Hey, this is how my other clients do it.“ They’ll be like, “Oh, that’s great.” That reinforces your message of being an expert.

I always like to ask people when they measure it, because then the when is really important, because you put that in your calendar, and you call them on that date and say, “Hey, we were going to measure how many products did you sell. Did you sell or did you increase attendance at this event? I just wanted to check to see how you did.”

It’s about following through, which designers often have the worst trouble with, because they’re so busy fighting fires all day long, that they don’t spend the time reconnecting with people and checking in on those doors.

Colleen: I hear from designers from time to time that they’re afraid to reach out to new clients and prospects until their website copy is perfected, or they have their case studies up–

Emily: Oh, yeah.

Colleen: … or they have better work or they have work that’s in that particular niche that they’re trying to pursue.

I’m wondering if some designers unknowingly—I don’t know that unknowingly is the right word—subconsciously are putting these out as obstacles in front of themselves, so they don’t have to take the action?

Emily: Yep.

Colleen: Or they’re afraid to take action?

Emily: Yeah. I always joke… This is a constant thing… When I speak to clients—designers—and I ask them, “What are they doing for new business?” They do those things. They say to me, “Well, I’m still working on my website. I can’t do it until my website’s done.”

Then I’ll ask them this question, which is, “Well, how long you’ve been working on your website?”

“Oh, two years.”

It’s this magic number. Designers take two years to develop their website. So, for two years, they’re doing nothing to develop their business. Then when they launch their website and because they’ve been working on it for two years, they’re sick of it. They start all over again doing a new website.

It’s kind of a vicious cycle. They use that as a crutch. When I ask them what they’re doing for new business, they’re either doing their website or designing a fancy wine bottle or some kind of giveaway, or a brochure.

Designers want to design the stuff. That does nothing. Spend less time doing stuff and more things like reaching out to clients. Yeah, I completely agree with that. I hear those things all the time from designers.

Colleen: I also think that a lot of designers when they go to reach out to prospects, they’re talking too much about themselves and their services, rather than what they can actually do for the client. I saw that was something that you mentioned in your book as well.

Emily: Yep. Yep. That’s exactly what happens.

Reaching Out to Prospects

Colleen: What kinds of things do you think they should say when they’re reaching out?

Emily: I think that depends on every client. I tend to recommend that if you know their industry, you could talk about things around their industry. I always try to make a personal connection:

  • I saw somebody speak.
  • I read an article they wrote.
  • I read a book that they wrote.
  • I saw them/heard about them through a client.

I always start every inquiry or reaching out by saying something like, “I’ve always admired you,” ”I’ve seen you speak twice or three times,” or “I always shop in your store,” “I’m an an avid blah, blah, blah.”

Trying to make that personal connection is more important than talking about yourself, so that you reel them in.

Colleen: Yeah. That’s what I do ad what I recommend too. Leading with that personal connection makes it more likely they’re even going to read your email.

Emily: It’s never trying to sell. I always tell people to get the idea of selling out of their brain.

Colleen: Right.

Emily: It’s not new business. It’s not sales, because then you become aggressive. You expect an immediate win rate. That just doesn’t happen. To me, it’s about building relationships. So I call it “relationship building,” which is, just build lots of relationships and you don’t expect them to work with you right away. They won’t. It takes at least two years from when you meet them or connect with them to when they turn into clients.

Colleen: Yeah, don’t expect them to accept a marriage proposal on the first date.

Emily: Exactly! The other thing is what happens with that is you become more aggressive and assertive, and then you feel like a car salesman, and that’s why you don’t want to do it. If you can change your expectations and say, “I’m just making friends with people that I have similar interests,” it’s so much of a different kind of communication—

Colleen: Right.

Emily: … and a different reaching out. It completely changes your tone and your expectations. The prospect doesn’t feel like they have to respond to you only when they need new business. You might say something that intrigues them, and so they want to respond. So I think it’s just about building relationships.

Colleen: Well, like you said earlier, if you’re hanging out online where they are, then you can be helpful by answering questions that they might have. Then you start to know actual individuals from those groups and are able to reach out to them and help them or have a call or whatever.

Emily: Yep. You can say, “I spoke to my client, blah, blah, blah, and she mentioned she had lunch with you, and I should introduce myself, so I’m doing that.”

They all will talk to each other. So using people’s names and saying… For my my existing clients, people that I haven’t worked with in a while, I often reconnect with them to say, “Hey, I saw something you’ve designed. I’m so proud of you. You did a great job.” Just reconnecting with people to remind them I’m out there and to tell them that I’m really happy and prideful of them.

I think it’s also recognizing our clients’ and prospects’ achievements. We don’t do that enough. “I just read your article and I want to let I was inspired. It was really interesting. You had some messages that really resonated with me and I just left inspired.”

Colleen: Yeah.

The Brutally Honest Book

Colleen: Well, we could go on all day about this, because there’s so much stuff in your book there. It’s chock full of great insights.

Emily: Thank you. Yeah.

Colleen: So let’s talk about this book a bit. It is four-color process plus five spot colors. That is every print designer’s dream!

Emily: Yeah. And it’s on Mohawk Super Fine paper and it has the flat binding with the sewn binding. It’s varnished. It’s extremely expensive to produce.

I designed it specifically… I didn’t design it. The design firm Once-Future did. But I hired a design firm with the intention of telling them, “Go crazy.” I want this to be for designers. I want it to be an absolutely gorgeous object. Designers will not read anything that is just lots of words. So it has information graphics. It has case studies. It has lots of color and bulleted points. It has a sense of humor. It’s a book that designers want to read.

Colleen: Well, let’s remind everybody where they can find your book.

Emily: Yeah, so it’s not available on Amazon. It’s not available bookstores it’s only available on my site or my publishing site. So it’s available through or That’s my publishing arm. Because it’s so expensive to produce. I can’t give the the booksellers and Amazon one 50% discount and I can’t do that I’d lose a lot of money. Even though I’m not making money from this book. I’m mostly just doing it for fun.

So that’s where they can get the book. There’s a few bookstores in New York City. There’s the Cooper Hewitt museum that sells it. There’s a bookstore in L.A. that sells it, and there’s a bookstore in Toronto that sells it.

No, I just I love my my thing is I really care about our community. So I personally love to share knowledge with as many people as I can, because a lot of people can’t afford to work with me or are not the kind of clients I would work for.

I think what we do impacts our entire industry. So my goal in writing that book and as a consultant and as somebody that is a speaker in our industry is to educate people on the best practices, so that we position ourselves smartly, we price effectively, and we show that we have value.

I think a lot of us are not practicing good behaviors or are accepting terms or relationships that are just hurting our industry.

Colleen: Yes.

Emily: I’ve been on this mission to sort of spread the word that we need to all look at ourselves and not sacrifice who we are and our value simply to make a buck.

Colleen: So true! Well, thanks for coming on, Emily. I really appreciate it.

Emily: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun.

Colleen: It was.


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