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Episode #135: Top 11 Creative Business Books for Designers

Colleen holding a business bookFind out what books are on my list of top creative business books for freelance graphic designers to help you with starting your own business, sales and marketing, getting clients, positioning, pricing and profit, confidence, mindset and more.


Show Notes


Most of these business books are specifically for creatives. A couple are not, but they are so good I had to include them. They still have great advice that you can apply to your freelance business or agency.

These are not listed in any particular order.

1. The Business Side of Creativity

Cameron Foote is a legend in the creative industry. I was delighted to talk to him on my podcast.

His books and newsletters—even Cam himself from time to time—were so helpful to my business when I was starting out and for several years after that.

My copy of The Business Side of Creativity by Cameron Foote is from 1996, but the advice is still relevant for designers looking to start their freelancing business. There is a more recent version than the one I have though.

In one section, he talks about the pros and cons of leaving a full-time job and working for yourself, so you can decide if having your own business full time is a good fit for you or not.

In another section, he talks about what things you need to do to start your business, including some legal and tax aspects to consider.

Cam also goes into pricing, dealing with clients, sales and marketing, even adding staff at one point if you choose.

The back of the book contains tons of helpful sample forms such as:

  • non-compete agreements,
  • retainers,
  • questionnaires,
  • an estimate and
  • proposal.

This is an awesome resource to learn how to start your freelancing business.

2. The Creative Business Guide to Running a Graphic Design Business

Cam’s other book that I have and recommend is The Creative Business Guide to Running a Graphic Design Business. This book covers similar topics:

  • the organization of your business,
  • the business structure,
  • hiring,
  • marketing and promotion,
  • sales,
  • pricing,
  • working with clients and
  • others.

It too includes sample forms:

  • business plan,
  • proposal,
  • work-for-hire agreement and
  • others.

I recommend both of his books, even though there is some overlap. But if you have to pick just one, I think I’d say that The Business Side of Creativity may be more helpful for freelancers.

3. The Win Without Pitching Manifesto

The Win Without Pitching Manifesto is a must-read for all creatives. It’s by Blair Enns, whom I also had on the podcast.

I must comment about the physical book.

It is a hard back—at least my copy is. It has foil stamping and hand lettering for the text on the front cover. The inside last page includes credits for not just the cover design and hand lettering but also the typefaces used in the book and who printed it.

When I mentioned this on the podcast, he said it was because it was a book for designers, so he wanted it to be appealing to designers. It is.

About a third of the pages in my book are dog eared.

The book includes 12 proclamations for creative businesses to go from being seen as order takers to experts.

Something Blair says in the book and said on the podcast is that “No is the second best answer we can hear,” which may sound counterintuitive to most designers.

He also says, “Those who cannot talk about money do not make it.”

He also talks a lot about how important it is to specialize and to be selective.

This book will challenge you to get out of your comfort zone and make better business decisions. As someone who’s done that, I can tell you how rewarding it is once you do that, even though it can be so scary.

4. Pricing Creativity

Pricing Creativity is another book by Blair Enns. In its print format, it’s a very cool hardback binder with tabbed sections.

Blair goes into:

  • the mindset of pricing,
  • how to price,
  • how to present it,
  • the different conversations to have with clients and more.

He makes interesting comparisons between pricing creative projects and the airline industry.

It includes a few worksheets as well.

I highly recommend this book because it will not only help you overcome your own self-limiting beliefs about pricing but help you increase your profitability. Most designers undercharge or devalue their own work, and therefore so does the client.

5. Brutally Honest

Brutally Honest by Emily Cohen, who I also had on the podcast, has tons of business advice and insights in the areas of:

  • positioning,
  • marketing and promotion,
  • new business development,
  • pricing,
  • proposals and contracts,
  • staff management,
  • client and project management, and
  • industry trends.

It’s a fun book to read, as it’s very colorful and contains infographics and checklists.

It’s also got some short little sayings in between some pages.

It also includes 20 case studies from other creatives, one who I actually know. The case studies are from solo designers and firms.

Emily’s approach is very opinionated and direct.

6. Stop Thinking Like a Freelancer

I read Stop Thinking Like a Freelancer by Liam Veitch when it first came out in 2014. Almost half of my copy of the book is dog eared.

It’s chock full of insightful, actionable advice from Liam and others.

He covers topics such as:

  • mindset,
  • attracting the right clients,
  • differentiating yourself,
  • getting more exposure and
  • others.

It also includes helpful examples.

Liam shares his own story as a web designer who went through all the trials and tribulations of freelancing and then built a larger agency.

7. Ballsy: How to Grow a Bigger Pair and Score Extreme Business Success

Ballsy: How to Grow a Bigger Pair and Score Extreme Business Success by Karen Salmansohn came out in 2006.

It’s a thick, square book filled with 99 short, strong and witty insights and quotes she compiled from her colleagues and mentors.

Karen says that success is only 3% talent and that designers need to work the other 97% more in order to stand out.

This is a quick and fun read because of all the great design, typography and illustrations.

A couple of quotes include: “Play with people who are better than you.” and “Talk is not only cheap but can be very expensive.”

You could read one a day or a whole bunch at one time.

8. The Business of Expertise

I’ve followed David C. Baker for many years. He always has great advice for creatives.

I spoke to him about my own business probably about 15 years ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to invest in myself at that time. My mindset was a mess back then.

I had him on the podcast too. So I was excited to read The Business of Expertise when it came out.

There were so many insights in it, such as:

“If it’s easy to find a replacement for your expertise, you have no control (or power or choice) when you withhold it.”

“If you are not blessed with a heavy dose of confidence, you’ll need extra opportunity.”

“…[M]oney is the currency of respect, and the customer of an expert treats the advice more seriously if it comes with a hefty bill.”

These are hard-hitting, eye-opening statements!

This book is chock full of positioning advice for creative business owners and freelancers.

9. Built to Sell

Built to Sell by John Warrillow is an essential read for graphic designers who have a team or who want to one day think about selling their creative business.

If you haven’t thought that far ahead, don’t wait.

This book tells the story of a fictional creative business owner who finds it hard to compete with other creative businesses, and has a gorilla client and cash flow issues.

He talks to a trusted friend and advisor, who leads him through a process of making his business more niched, more profitable and more appealing to someone to potentially buy it.

Even if you haven’t thought about selling your creative business one day and even if you’re a solo designer, this book will be eye opening. It is chock full of so many great business tips.

10. Profit First

This next one is not a creative business book. It’s a book for any business. That’s Profit First by Mike Michalowicz.

I recommend this because most graphic designers are concerned with charging only for their time. You may not even know if your hourly rate covers your costs of being in business, and you don’t think about profit.

Mike Michalowicz will not only change the way you think about money in your business, but he takes a different approach from “sales minus expenses equals profit.”

His view is “sales minus profit equals expenses.”

This book helps you understand this but also assess your business and set up the Profit First system for your own business.

I have a few friends who have used this system and gotten great results from it.

11. Gap Selling

Gap Selling by Keenan is another great book. Sales can be a dry and intimidating topic for designers. But Keenan breaks things down in plain English, with helpful stories and examples, and a few worksheets.

His straight talk and personality kept me engaged, and his perspective on some things are different from what most experts have always said.

He says people don’t buy from you because they like you. They don’t care about you or your service.

He also says that it’s not your job to overcome objections. It’s the client’s job.

The book gave me many ah-ha moments.

I recommend this if you’re a designer looking for a no-nonsense book about understanding the sales process and getting the client to yes.

Conclusion

So those are my top 11 business books for creatives.

I want to hear from you. Have you read any of them? Is your favorite book missing from my list? Let me know in a comment.

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