Graphic Design for a Start-up Businesses

July 16, 2013
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The one time a business needs a good graphic designer the most is when they’re first starting out. I’ve said many times before that you can have the best businesses in the world, but unless it looks professional you’re going to have a hard time convincing clients to trust you.

I was speaking to a friend of mine who works as a driving instructor today actually, and I asked him how he got into his line of work.  He told me he started out working for a company called BSM (British School of Motoring) which at the time was the largest franchised driving school in the UK. They gave him a car, business cards and teaching materials covered in their branding and supplied him with his first few students. After a time, he eventually stopped needing BSM to send him students as he was inundated by referrals from students that had passed their driving test with him. He took what money he had earned and bought his own lesson car and set himself up as his own school. Needless to say he’s been very successful.

So why didn’t he set out on his own to begin with?

The reason is that until you have proven yourself, people have nothing to judge you on other than how professional you look. A 17 year old looking for an instructor probably wouldn’t hire a random guy with his own car and no past experience. But they probably would hire an instructor from the BSM (even if they had never actually taught before) simple because they look the part.

As graphic designers, what we can do for Start-ups is basically leapfrog that entire first part by making a brand new business look super professional from day one. To a Start-up, that is really worth something.


The first thing on your plate needs to be nailing an identity for your client. This can be as simple as designing a logo, but often it’s not. The idea here isn’t just to create something cool and eye catching, it’s to look at the industry your client is looking to work in and make them look like they belong there. Sometimes it’s worth taking a leap of faith and stepping out from what the competitors are doing, but this can be really risky and can backfire in a big way. If a bank were to have branding that looked similar to a fast food joint, then they would definitely stand out, but I’m not sure they’d get many customers trusting them. Unless your clients USP is built around being unique you should always look at what others are doing in your field and try to emulate the best parts of their branding.

If a bank were to have branding that looked similar to a fast food joint, then they would definitely stand out, but I’m not sure they’d get many customers trusting them.

This can be anything from logo design and typography to advert layout and shop floor design. I’m not saying copy them. But look at what works and what doesn’t and make sure you’re clients new brand fits snugly into the very best of everything.  You want to push to create a full branding package for your client so that no matter what they do in the future you can always ensure that they’ll keep the level of professionalism you laid out for them.


Stationery can be a bit of a red herring in my experience. Back when I first started out, I’ll admit that I considered “branding” a company to be giving them a logo and business card, but the years have taught me that really isn’t the case.

Branding a company is very much what I described in that first section, it’s creating a set of rules that can be applied to literally anything from compliment slips to hot air balloons and back again. Until a company has a set of brand guidelines, you can’t successfully create a set of stationery for them.

It’s a difficult concept to convey to a client that comes to you just looking for a letter head and personally it took me a long time to get over the topic feeling like a shady up-sell, or like I was trying to extort more money from the client. But the truth is this: your clients are not coming to you because you have Photoshop, they are coming to you because you know what you’re doing. You have a level of expertise that they do not possess and that is what they are paying for. If you don’t talk to them about this stuff, then you’re simply not doing your job and taking money you haven’t earned.

So nut up and tell them exactly that.

Now – with all that being said, stationery is something that new companies will be looking for, and it’s important for you too as it actually provides your client with something physical rather than just a set of rules, which although very valuable, can sometimes seem a bit immaterial. It gives a greater sense of value for money.

The staples are business card, letter head and compliments slip, but depending on the business you may want to include other things. For example, a restaurant may need a menu template, or a wedding band may need a CD cover. Generally in my stationery packages I cover the basics plus one or two ‘miscellaneous items’ to cover things like this. I found this really works as a show of good faith and helps limit the impression that your just adding things to the bill. I know that’s vague, so you’ll need to use your better judgement here – obviously there is a difference between designing a invoice and a twenty page brochure so give yourself limits to time your willing to put into the extras, and make those limits clear to the client.


Man websites are tough aren’t they? I mean let’s be realistic here, they are something we can all agree that a Start-up absolutely needs. They are pretty much vital. But damn – they can cost dollar dollar bills y’all and new business especially often don’t have the capital to get what they want when they’re first starting out.

There are ways around this though.

The most obvious is to build the website in stages, so they just pay as they’re able to. For example, you could start by just putting together a home page with their details and address on, and then later maybe add a menu bar with links to an about page, booking form, contact page ect… The downside to this is it’s all a bit sporadic and messy and although you’re making things easier for the client, you’re making things tougher for yourself.

You could always just pitch them a cheaper, simpler website to begin with and then have the aim of a redesign down the line when they have some money coming in. Even complex things like responsive design have cheaper alternatives and there are places where you can design a free website preview to help give your client something to look at without costing you too much time.

To be honest – you just need to be up front with your clients. It can be rough to burst their bubble when they’re so enthusiastic, but it’s better than promising them stuff they can’t afford or worse yet; that will end up costing you time and money. In the end they’ll thank you for it.


Oooooo – discounts. I don’t like giving discounts (with the exception of charities) and I’ll tell you why. It gives the impression that you’re time can be worth less, or that your charging more than you need to begin with. You need to be rock solid with your prices in my book. By all means, offer to do things in a cheaper way, but always make it clear that your time is worth a finite amount.

Oooooo – discounts. I don’t like giving discounts

So what can you do for the struggling Start-up that’s clawing together the pennies down the back of the sofa in order to pay you? Well, I like to offer bundles. Basically I have a cost for branding. A cost for Stationery. A cost for Websites. But – if you agree to take all three from me then it’ll cost you less. This isn’t me dropping my price. This is me being honest. If I’m working on everything for you all at once, then I’m spending less time getting your files in order and remembering all the guidelines I’ve set up in the past for your business. I’m not stopping and starting, I’m flowing. Basically I’m saving time, and because of that it will cost you less.

So in conclusion, you need to be up front, clear and honest with your client. Make sure you explain everything in this article to them and make sure they understand it. Once they have a firm grasp of why you’re working like you are you’ll find things run a lot smoother and that your clients will be a lot more open to your ideas and advice.

If you have any tips about working with start up’s let me know in the comments below, and remember to follow the Design Range on Facebook and Twitter for more articles and advice like this one.

Photo credit to Dave Makes

is owner of Hunting Town Design, a small design house based in Manchester UK specialising in Graphic Design and Illustration. Alex is also the founder and editor of The Design Range. Find out more about Alex on his website or follow him on twitter.
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