Success Secrets from Petrula Vrontikis:
- Get the best education in design you can possibly afford.
- Take typing and writing courses. . . . Taking those courses in high school or college would have helped me immensely now.
- When leaving an office’s employ, do not to call on the office’s clients. If the client isn’t getting the kind of service that they need, they will find the designer. Because that’s how it happens.
- Doing good work for smart, well-connected clients is the best business development strategy for a small design office.
- Success is really a matter of the work being really, really top notch, because the clients will respond to that.
- If a designer doesn’t have any business or small business training they should take some basic classes.
Going into business, beginnings:
Going into business was something I’ve always wanted to do. I grew up around my family’s small business. I saw how difficult it was, but I also saw how rewarding it was. So, starting my own business was really a goal of mine. I wanted to start about 5 years after graduating from college, and that’s what I ended up doing. I’ve really taken a lot of pride in building my business. One might think it has to do with freedom, but it doesn’t; you know how hard we all work in our own businesses. It really has to do with pride of accomplishment that I’ve set out to do something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s difficult, but I’m responsible for it. It’s successes, and also I’m responsible for it’s challenges. I can’t blame anybody else. As far as the key to my success, there’s a number of ways I look at this, but I think being objective about what I’m designing has proven most helpful. The objectivity keeps me from being ego involved. It helps me have a better understanding of what clients need, and how far I can take them.
Petrula’s greatest accomplishments:
I feel the greatest personal pride about being in business for as long—since 1989, and I’ve been able to continue building on that. Still working with clients that I started out with means a lot to me. Equally, another would be teaching at Art Center. I’m really thrilled that I was given that opportunity so long ago.
I went to Cal State Long Beach. It was interesting how everything came together when I was still under 30, I began my business and began teaching. For me, it turned out to be the best foundation for a fulfilling career. I take a lot of pride when my students do well, when I see their names in competitions, winning awards for their work. It really makes feel good when they tell me that something I’ve done or said in class has made a big difference in their success.
Time management and authenticity:
The balance of teaching and design practice makes my career really great. This balance has been one of my greatest joys. When I started my business, I also started teaching. And, now I think I would feel isolated without both. Wearing both hats has also forced me to become highly efficient with my time because there’s not much of it. Being busy makes me feel purposeful. I appreciate opportunities to practice and refine what I can do. It’s also a great way to keep learning and growing as a person. I feel more authentic about my role as a graphic design teacher when I’m practicing graphic design every day. Other instructors are better at teaching design theory—my focus is on practice. Students that are getting ready to graduate really appreciate the time I take to convey this professional perspective. It would be so much harder to do just one and kind of shoe-horn in the other. The tandem nature of the two has been really been very rewarding. Some people think the clients are going to be upset about it, but that’s not the case. Clients are quite proud to introduce me, not just as their designer, but as their designer who’s also teaching students at Art Center. It lends a lot of credibility.
Things Petrula wishes she had done:
This is so funny. When I first saw the question about what I would have done over, I wanted to be so insightful and lofty in answering it. But, I would say, I wish I had learned better writing and typing skills. I so often find myself in front of my computer with my poor typing skills, and I often wish I could just zip through my emails and not spend the time. I’m not terribly slow, but it seems to be a bit of a handicap. Also, I wish I’d taken more writing courses, because I’ve had to develop my writing skills over time, and that has been a challenge. Taking those courses in high school or college would have helped me immensely now. I went to Cal State Long Beach, and I don’t have any regrets. It was a wonderful time to be there. I’d had enough good graphic design training from the University of Denver, where I attended right after high school. I didn’t need to start from scratch, and the method of teaching at Long Beach was aligned with what I needed.
Petrula’s new business venture:
Recently I’ve started doing some high level consulting. It’s a recent business venture called ib4e: Ideas Before Experiences. I’ve partnered with an architect and a market research expert to consult on projects in the initial development phase. We help clients craft and visualize experiences. Our expertise is the development of ideas, often using brainstorming techniques that help us and our clients discover unexplored solutions. It’s really enjoyable to collaborate with other disciplines in this innovative context.It’s been going extremely well. Also, it’s been really fun to take off my graphic designer hat and become someone who just really thinks innovatively and creatively, and not to have to worry about how it’s going to be programmed or how it’s going to be printed. It’s not that level at all. And, I love the collaboration. What’s most interesting to me is that it’s not really about end results. People at the higher levels of corporations mostly do front-end project development, and they’re not obligated to hire the people who do the finish work at all. On three of the projects ib4e has worked on, I’ve not been the graphic designer. On another three, I have, but that’s not the point. This is really about “what is the innovation level at the beginning.” And, there’s no promise that we’re going to be doing the work. I mean, it’s nice when that happens, but it isn’t the point.
Petrula’s views on business practices, including spec work and stealing clients:
When I first started with two clients. One was through my first employer, Ken White. He’d had a falling out with this client about a year after I had left, and she called me. That was really my first large project. It was a technology firm and I did their annual report. That was how I launched my new business. The other one was a client from my days working with Tom Antista when he operated Antista Design In Santa Monica. Tom was in transition between here and Atlanta at the time, and the client wasn’t getting the kind of response from Tom that she needed, so she called me. I’m pleased to say that when I first started out, I didn’t steal the clients, the situations fell into place. They called and said, “I need your help,” and I said, “Great! I’m starting a business. I need your help.”
I advise people who are leaving design offices not to call on the office’s clients. If the client isn’t getting the kind of service that they need, they will find the designer. Because that’s how it happens. Not soliciting clients from a previous job is very important. It’s important to understand that a client work with who they want to. The thing that’s bad in situation where a designer has stolen a client is that the new designer often undercuts the pricing, and that’s just bad business practice. It makes the client think they’re getting the same thing, only they’re just getting it cheaper.
It’s a bad practice for graphic designers to participate in this type of business development strategy. The graphic design industry doesn’t pitch for million-dollar accounts like an agency, or for assignments that last three to five years, like an architectural firm. Our work is primarily per project, so the reward is not worth the gamble.
Views on business development, getting good clients, and fun projects:
For the size of my firm, which is really small, I don’t really have to do a lot of new business development. If I had a firm of 7, 10, and more people, I absolutely would have a better new business strategy, and I would probably hire someone to help me. The only reason that the strategy I have works, is that I don’t need a lot more work that I currently have. I’m satisfied with the work load, and we just keep doing better work. People see that, and the referrals have been golden. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to go into an office with a prospective client, and have them feel like they know you because of whoever called and recommended you. It’s a much better position to be in than calling on the phone and saying, “I’m another graphic designer.” There are people who are very good at that, and I suppose I could be if I had to, but I just don’t need to because I’m not a large firm that has lots of mouths to feed. Most of our business finds us because of great word of mouth from our existing clients. Recently I tracked where my business has come from over the years—I created a client “family tree.” More than 75% of my work over the last 18 years has come from my ongoing relationship with one smart, well-connected marketing director. She takes us with her when she makes career moves, and we often retain work from the organizations she’s moved on from. She’s referred us to her business colleagues in various industries. The bottom line is that doing good work for smart, well-connected clients is the best business development strategy for a small design office. We work very hard to stay deserving of the comment: “They are a pleasure to work with.”
On cold calling, networking, and submissions to award shows and annuals:
I have tried cold calling, but it leads to too much time wasted on sending out materials and crafting proposals for bidding wars. We are not set up with any kind of dedicated marketing staff, so this work ends up on my plate. The process doesn’t suit my temperament. To expand our options for new clients in different industries, I’ve tried Chamber of Commerce and other business networking events, thought it’s not worked out very well. There are usually very few choosers among a sea of beggars. Most of the participants are looking for work, or looking for capital—not for well-compensated graphic design services. There have been times when I have contacted my vendors and ongoing clients, asking for leads. This has been somewhat successful, as I am at an advantage contacting them based on the introduction of someone they already know and trust. I’ve been surprised at how many clients have contacted us based on our work being printed in mainstream logo and brochure publications. Books with titles like “Best of Business Cards 8” or “Logos and Letterheads 6” are purchased by prospective clients at large booksellers such as Barnes and Noble. As part of their research process, they look through them, flag what they like, and contact us. It’s an easy sell when they call because they feel they’ve found the best firm for their vision.
Staying in Balance:
For balance, I’ve been practicing yoga. And, I can’t begin to tell you how beneficial consistent yoga practice has been for me, both on the physical and the emotional levels. It’s probably been the one thing that’s kept me from going insane. As you know, this is a very stressful business.Yoga has been simply amazing. I started to actually study yoga philosophy and ancient Vedic practices. It’s been fun. It’s been great to be a student again, and these philosophical/spiritual studies have been very rewarding. Also, I’m an avid scuba diver, actually an adventure scuba diver. I’ll go swim in far away places around the world and dive when the hammerheads are migrating, or when the manta rays are around, or just whatever. So, I’m also a crazy diver! I never would have thought that I would just love it and become a dive geek. But I am. I’m a complete dive geek.
Her views about ongoing business consulting & training:
I’ve really used the resources offered through AIGA for any kind of consulting and training. They offer quite a few business conferences. The GAIN conference is one. I’ve been attending that every other year for probably the last 16 years. They have a consultant by the name of David Baker, along with a number of others. David seems to be really someone whom I respect and aspire to understand. I’ve really used a lot of his principles in business. I think David is on the cutting edge. He’s very, very aware of what’ going on. And it helps just to attend his seminars when I’m at a particular conference. If I have a choice of different break out sessions, I’ll attend David’s, and I’ll get a lot of practical business advice. Also, as time has gone on, I’ve gotten better and better staff. And so, I would say that some of the consultants and trainers have been people whom I’ve hired to run my office and manage, because they are trained in those areas.
Petrula’s thoughts on the importance of education:
If someone who was new to the industry were to ask you what they needed to do to build and sustain a career I would tell them to get the best education in design they can possibly afford. I see a lot of people who start a design business, and they’re frustrated because things aren’t going their way. One of the reasons is that they really haven’t gotten the creative skills to reach their potential. And they’re frustrated because their work isn’t the best it could be. Success is really a matter of the work being really, really top notch, because the clients will respond to that. And if a designer doesn’t have any business or small business training they should take some basic classes. Also, I’ve found that vendors have really helped me. Pete Wilson from Costello Brothers Printing here in Los Angeles gives me great advice. Especially about sales. I’ve relied a lot on my vendors to inform me about business practices, and when I get into a dilemma, as a sounding board to figure out what is possible.
On starting a business too soon:
I don’t recommend that people who are coming out of school start their business right off, because too much time is spent slogging through unfamiliar business practices with too little time is being spent developing their creative skills. Working for Ken White and Tom Antista, I learned a lot about how things should go, and I learned a lot about how things shouldn’t go. So, I recommend that new graduates find people to work for who they respect creatively. Both Ken and Tom are terrific, terrific designers. I saw them struggle in their business, and I learned from that. It was really helpful because I had seen how they had successfully weathered difficult times. It was really generous of those guys, and as someone working really closely with them, I had the ability to see the triumphs and the struggles.
Petrula Vrontikis is a leading voice in graphic design. Her work has appeared in over 100 books and publications. She lectures at conferences, universities, and to professional organizations worldwide about her work with Vrontikis Design Office (35k.com), about graphic design education, and on the subject of inspiration. She has taught the senior graphic design studies course at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena since 1989, In 2007 Petrula received an AIGA Fellows Award honoring her as an essential voice raising the understanding of design within the industry and among the business and cultural communities of Los Angeles. Success Secrets from Petrula: