How to Break into a New Field

September 15, 2015
8 min read
8 min read

Professionals in the creative industries, by and large, like a challenge. We see something that inspires us and we want to play with it, test it out, break it and remake it again. We like new things. It’s not uncommon for people in our line of work to learn a whole host of skills (full stack designers anyone?), sometimes completely by accident. I know videographers that have accidentally become marketing experts and sound engineers that have wandered into web design.

But what about when it’s not an accident? What about when you want to switch to something new? Craig Gunter from Inca graphic recently hit me up, asking me pretty much this; “How can I break into a field in which I have never worked?”.

So many of the creative skills we try so hard to define bleed into each other, and we live and work seeing them constantly on the peripheries of our vision. As with all things, sometimes the grass on the other side of the fence looks a little greener, but before you go plunging yourself into the glitter gilded world of whatever it is that’s sparked your interest, ask yourself this question…

Do you really want to?

One of the most effective marketing strategies you can employ is to promote yourself as a specialist, which is kinda the opposite of what this article is talking about, so the first thing you need to do is ask yourself is if this is something you really want to do?

“Those aren’t good enough reasons to exert energy, time and potentially money trying to push into a new field”

It’s a toss up I know. On the one hand it’s nice to be able to take any creative job that comes your way, and speaking personally I really hate hitting the boundaries of my creative abilities. But those aren’t good enough reasons to exert energy, time and potentially money trying to push into a new field. You need to be certain that this new field is one of two things:

  1. A dead cert – the industry is moving in this direction and if you’re not on board you’re going to be left behind. It will benefit your career no end, and letting this pass you by is just leaving money on the table.
  2. A true passion – this is something you could do, or even are already doing for free in your spare time. You have an undying passion for this field of the creative industry and it will literally change your life if you can incorporate it into your business. Jobs you’re passionate about are effortless, and when work is effortless making money is a happy by-product.

Use what you know

If you are moving into a new field, leverage what you already have. You have a reputation for producing a certain type of work for a certain type of client, so don’t change that, just change the product. You want to keep as much of your business unchanged as possible. This is an addition to your skill set, not the start of a new path.

“You always want new clients to think they’ve landed in just the right place when they come to your website for the first time”

Say you’re a wedding photographer and you want to move into illustration. Don’t start trying to pitch for book covers; instead offer bespoke wedding invites. It’s something that sits nicely with what you already do, and in time, once you’ve gained a reputation and an impressive portfolio, you can start to take risks and mix things up. Remember, you always want new clients to think they’ve landed in just the right place when they come to your website for the first time. Sending conflicting or mix messages about the kind of work that you do and the kinds of clients that you want to work with can really hinder that first impression.

The Portfolio Piece

When it comes down to brass tax though we all know what’s at the root of this question. The elusive ‘portfolio piece’. That shining beacon in that dark that will usher wave upon wave of clients to your shores, all desperate for your amazing new service. Well, perhaps that’s a little dramatic, but it is true that no client in their right mind is going to hire you to do a job when they have no idea if you can even do it. Your portfolio says “this is what I do” and if there isn’t an example from the field you want to work in up there, then you’re going to struggle.

I once had a client contact me about creating a brochure. Great, I thought. I gave her a call, had a chat and arranged a meeting. Later that day though I got an email asking me if I could bring some examples of my work along, only the actual request was far more specific than that. This client wanted to see brochure examples, from a specific field in her industry, talking about a very specific topic, in a style that was similar to her own companies branding. Needless to say I ‘forgot‘ to bring my plethora of examples along to that meeting.

So you need a good portfolio piece to get work, you need to get work in order to create a portfolio piece, but nobody will hire you without a portfolio piece. What’s the plan?

The Coca Cola Client

If you’ve been a designer for a few years and your name crops up anywhere on Google, then no doubt you’re inundated every year with requests from students looking to do their year in industry. Although I don’t take on interns, I do take the time to look though every portfolio that comes my way (it’s a very good way to find future freelancers), and one thing I can say after looking through literally hundreds of student portfolios, is that the majority of ‘clients’ in them are fake (and of those fake clients, at least one is almost always Coca Cola).

“I don’t like presenting the notion that I’m having to invent jobs to fill up my portfolio”

So that’s an idea. Grab a big name client and put a fake design together for them as a ‘pitch’ then bang that up on your portfolio. Aside from the fact that this is the de facto territory of the student designer, something about this approach just doesn’t sit well with me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some incredible design concepts put together in this fashion, but they just don’t seem to carry any weight with me. I don’t like presenting the notion that I’m having to invent jobs to fill up my portfolio. My portfolio, that speaks volumes for me as a professional to all who stumble across it.

If you think I’m blowing smoke here (and it’s entirely possible) then feel free to give this a shot, but with the best will in the world, I’d have to place this firmly as my last resort approach.

Assumers

If you’re lucky you might get an assumer. An assumer is a client that thinks just because you can do one thing, that you can do something else very tenuously related, often floating on the outskirts of the creative industry. You create a logo, they assume you can screen print 400 posters by the end of the week. You photograph an event, they assume you can fix the PHP bug they’re having on their website.

Mostly assumers are a pain in the arse, but every now and then you get one that’ll assume you can do exactly the thing you always wanted, but never could, and then it’s like snow on Christmas day.

An assumer is exactly how I got started in web design, and now it’s a cornerstone of my business. That being said though, as magical and perfect as they are, you can’t depend on them. Taking this approach is basically wishful thinking, but do make sure you pounce on the opportunity should one arise.

Charities

Charities are a sneaky way of producing work for an actual client (possibly even quite a reputable one) whilst not having to actually sell them anything. Of course I’m talking about pro bono work here, but if that idea about the fake Coca Cola piece peaked your interest then I’d highly encourage you to direct your efforts in this direction. This way you get to produce a piece of work for an actual client, but not only that – this way you actually get to do something good.

There is a bit of etiquette here though.

Bigger charities have a budget for this kind of work and so you’re probably best avoiding them; they’ll be looking at work from a myriad of well known designers, highly established in the field that you’re still trying to scratch your way into. So your offer of free work, noble though it might be, is likely to be lost somewhere along the line.

The better approach is to work with smaller, more local charities. Charities that could truly benefit from your work and need every penny they have going to the right places. It may not look quite as impressive as having Oxfam in your portfolio, but remember, this is your foot in the door piece we’re talking about here. Oxfam will come in due time.

Be Honest

I’ve kept this one till last, not just because it’s the most obvious option, but also because it’s the best. Be honest. Look for your ideal client, the person you want to walk in through your door with the perfect job. Go to them and tell them the truth.

You’re a designer who typically works in x industry, however you’re eager to start working in y industry and you’d love to opportunity to work with them. In return for taking a chance on you, you’ll happily work for no charge (remember – you can’t ever do discounts), it may take a little longer than they’re used to, and there may be a few more rounds of revisions, but you will work to the best of your ability until they’re absolutely satisfied with the product.

“You know you can make good on your word; in fact, you’re going to surprise this client with just how capable you are”

It’s a solid, honest, decent pitch and what’s more it’s a good deal. You’re not starting from zero. You’re not moving from web design into baked goods. You know you can make good on your word; in fact, you’re going to surprise this client with just how capable you are. If you’re really feeling confident, then try it without the freebie part and try and get paid. People appreciate honesty and confidence, it’s a winning mix.

honesty

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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