Design Domination Podcast Episode #80: Which Fish Are You?

Are you a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond? If you're a small fish in a big pond, you need clarity, so you can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond and get the right clients and the right design work.

Hi, and thanks for tuning in. I’m Colleen Gratzer, and in this episode of Design Domination, I’m asking: which fish are you? It doesn’t matter if you want to be a tuna, a mackerel or a sardine. But if you’re a small fish in a big pond, you need clarity, so you can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

Since it’s a new year, I thought this would be the perfect time to talk about something so fundamental to your business—getting clear on what you do, who you do it for and why you’re different from other designers.

If you can’t answer these questions, you don’t have the basis for your branding and marketing. Those affect where you are in the pond—the marketplace.

And if you’re saying the same thing as every other designer, you’re not standing out. You’re not getting attention. You’re the small fish in a big pond.

If you’re always saying the same thing as every other designer out there, how will you be remembered when a client needs your help?

But when you are clear about these aspects, you know what to say yes to, what to say no to, what to spend time on, what work will be profitable for you and what types of clients will be enjoyable to work with.

It also makes it so much easier for prospects to say yes to you.

Not only that, but without this clarity, you can easily lose focus in your business. That means you might take on work that you hate (been there, done that), take on work that isn’t a good fit (been there, done that) and take on clients who aren’t a good fit (been there, done that).

Instead, you should be focused on getting work you love and working with those you can help the most.

Who You Do Work For

The first factor is who you do work for.

Something I see a lot of designers saying is that they work with anyone and everyone. They fear alienating potential clients. Look, I get it!

But this can actually turn off potential clients. They may not consider you as seriously as they would a designer who clearly speaks to their problems and shows results for other similar clients.

Let’s say you normally work with solopreneurs. One day, a nonprofit organization contacts you asking for help with an annual report design.

Let’s assume you’ve never worked with a nonprofit, and you’ve never done an annual report. But you have done a lot of sales brochures.

As you talk to them, you’re using all kinds of terms that they don’t use. They’re talking about donations, fundraising and grants. So you’re not even speaking their language off the bat.

There’s not that connection there, so they will probably go elsewhere.

What You Do

Now let’s consider type of work.

Let’s say, for example, a potential client is a solopreneur looking for a new website, so she can sell her products. Like I mentioned earlier, let’s assume that’s who you normally work with, even though that’s still a broad audience.

Let’s say your website talks about how you can design anything and everything, including websites. I see this on so many designers’ sites and said it myself in the early days of my career.

Anyway, you have a call with the prospect about a website. Now, you design websites but you’ve never had a client in the past who sold products on their website. You’re not familiar with the setup and all that’s involved. But you say you can do the work—thinking it can’t be that difficult—and you give them an estimate.

A couple scenarios could potentially happen. And, by the way, these are scenarios I’ve seen several web designers get themselves into.

Scenario #1

You get the work. Because you hadn’t done an e-commerce site before, you find it’s way over your head. You realize that you underestimated and underpriced all that needed to be done. You end up having to pay for help from someone after staying up late every night for a week researching and asking in online groups to figure out what you need to do and how to get it done.

Oh, and you didn’t realize there would be a cost for an e-commerce plugin and that you’d need information from the client about the size, weight and shipping methods for their products. Oh, and all the product images need retouching too.

You decide to suck up the cost of the plugin because you’re afraid to ask the client to reimburse you, especially now that the project is running way behind schedule, and those delays are costing them money.

It’s not a win for you or the client. Far from it!

You’re exhausted and embarrassed. They’re pissed off and clearly won’t be giving you a testimonial.

Scenario #2

You submit a proposal and don’t get the work. Why? Because another designer who was asked to submit a proposal clearly communicated their expertise in this area. In fact, they even charged a lot more.

Their proposal included samples of e-commerce sites from their portfolio. You didn’t have any of that work to show.

Their proposal included testimonials from other similar clients saying how much they helped them increase sales. You didn’t have any of those either.

Their proposal mentioned details of the work that yours didn’t, such as creating a page with FAQs for customers to reduce the number of potential inquiries, adding live chat to the website and adding a chat bot to their Facebook page.

Their proposal included all kinds of additional services that showed they understood the needs of this client, such as:

  • the license fee for that plugin,
  • the cost for maintenance for the site that would be needed,
  • SEO optimization of their site, and
  • the design of social media templates for the products.

The prospect was impressed. Clearly, that designer had done this several times before. Not only that, the prospect wasn’t at all surprised by the higher estimate and was happy to make that investment.

I’ll share a story from my own experience.

Once, many years ago, someone contacted me for designing a Word document with a long form in it. I had been recommended by a very reputable colleague to her.

I took on the work because, well, why would I turn it down? When work is staring you in the face, you take it, right?

I had worked in Word plenty of times, although usually doing the work through clenched teeth. Up until that point, the work I had done in Word had mainly consisted of adding some images and formatting text. How hard could forms be?

Well, let me tell you… I struggled through that job. When I sent the client a proof, she asked for some modifications to it that I didn’t know how to do or even know if it was possible to do what she was asking.

The job seemed to go on and on and have more changes as we went. There were some things I just didn’t know to take into consideration back then, and she kept pointing them out for me to fix.

I remember that feeling after all these years. It was awful. I couldn’t wait for the job to be done because I clearly had let her down. What she was asking, I didn’t have enough experience in that, even though I had done way more complicated things in page layout software. Even though I was trying my hardest to get done what she needed, I was failing.

I’ve always been known for doing great work and being great to work with, and she had expressed what a frustrating process it had been.

I was mortified! If she ever said anything to our mutual colleague, well, she might have been embarrassed too since she had recommended me.

Understandably, I am sure she didn’t go recommending me after that experience. I hope that with the passing of all the time since then, she has since forgotten all about it.

How You’re Different

Another aspect is how you are different from competitors, especially when so many other designers are saying they do everything for everyone. That pits you all against each other, and typically what happens is that price becomes the deciding factor.

You’re a small fish in a huge pond. You may find it harder to find higher-paying clients in a sea of competition because clients don’t understand why they should work with you over someone else.

What has set me apart over the years from other designers is the attention to detail and deadlines, responsiveness and my expertise in complex publication design and layout.

Have I done other work than that? Yes. Anything and everything. But I don’t need to talk about anything and everything.

In fact, many years ago, I had the work on my website organized by type of work, like ads, books, direct mail, email design, web design, etc. That just put the focus on the deliverables instead of a niche, client needs or results.

Instead of showing just the work I wanted to get, I was showing how much different work I was capable of.

But you don’t usually want to do that. I did a whole podcast episode about that actually. Check out episode 52, 17 Essential Elements for an Effective Portfolio Website.

Anyway, that’s not what clients care about unless they’re looking for a Jack- or Jill-of-all-trades, and that’s rarely the case, even if they ask for it. There’s always going to be some other skill that they want that you can learn. It’s a moving target.

You’re not helping your clients or yourself by trying to do everything instead of owning what you’re good at.

Many of my clients have told me over the years that they find it very hard to find someone reliable and detail oriented, especially when it comes to publication design.

Now, what’s been setting me apart even more over the past few years is accessibility. That’s been a game-changer. Why? Because no other designers are talking about it. So I’ve become a big fish in a small pond.

Maybe the “how you’re different” is your approach. But maybe it’s results that you’re really good at helping certain clients get, whether that’s an industry you know well or have worked in, or a certain type of client or a certain size of client business, whether that’s based on revenue or number of employees.

The Consequences

What are the consequences of not having clarity on these three things?


Well, first, when you take on any and every client or type of work, it’s not fun.

It’s not profitable if you’re constantly changing gears from this type of work to that, like from print to web development, for example. If you usually do print work and you only get into CSS here and there, it might take you hours to tweak—or troubleshoot—something in the CSS, when it would only take you a few minutes if it were something you did all the time.

Worse, you may end up losing money on the project for having to hire someone else to finish the job.


It can also cost you a referral or testimonial. Worse, you might also get bad word of mouth. How much future business will that cost you?


Your lack of clarity will come out when you talk with potential clients—what you say and how you say it—and in your marketing. That’s a problem because when clients are confused, they will go elsewhere.

Like Donald Miller said:

The answer to “confusion” is always “no.”

When you’re not clear about these aspects of your business, you’re not going to exude confidence. When you don’t exude confidence, you don’t build trust with potential clients. When clients don’t sense confidence and have that trust, they will go elsewhere.


When it comes to your marketing, trying to be all encompassing actually waters down your chances of standing out to anyone. That makes it harder to sell.

It’s more like you’re trying to convince a client to work with you, rather than them already knowing that you’re the right fit before reaching out to you.

You’re going to be doing a lot of asking for work (a vulnerable position to be in) rather than having prospects come to you.

Get Clear

So how much is not being clear on these factors costing your business? But also what can you do about it?

When I worked with a coach on this—a problem I didn’t even know I had at the time! I thought I had a different problem… It changed everything. I became known for a certain audience, certain work. I knew what to say no to. But the best part was that the yeses started coming so much easier.

First, choose an audience or audiences that you want to work with and who are willing and able to pay for your services. Maybe you choose an audience that you have a lot of experience with. For example, I have a colleague who works with authors.

Second, consider what kind of work you’re really good at. When you’re really good at it, you’re faster at it too usually.

Third, figure out why you’re different from other designers, why clients hire you. Don’t know? Ask them.

To help you understand this more, check out the books Built to Sell by John Warrillow and Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller. Also be sure to check out:

If you want one-on-one help, inquire about a mentoring session with me by going to and then select Mentoring.

If you’re looking to specialize more of your design work, whether that’s branding, graphic design or web design, check out my accessibility courses.

Once you have clarity on what you do, who you do it for and why you’re different from other designers, make sure you tell others about it. It needs to be easy to remember and understand, so that you can use it over and over again in your marketing and so that others will be able to understand what you do too. Otherwise, if your clients, colleagues, friends and family don’t understand what you do, how will they sing your praises to others?

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