Shouldn’t I Just Stick to Design?

As a designer, you’re likely feeling overwhelmed with all of the skills you are supposedly expected to know in addition to design. After all, isn’t it better to be great at one thing that to be good at several?

The answer to this question is complicated. Yes, design should be your foremost talent. This is therefore the area to focus on above all others. You should be learning design theory, studying typeface combinations, finding quality inspiration, etc. However, your job doesn’t end there.

As either a freelancer or an employee, you have a product to market: yourself. This product must continually sell or you simply don’t make any money. As with any product, there’s plenty of competition, especially for freelance work. The rise of the Internet has given wings to freelance designers and provided us with endless work opportunities that we could’ve never dreamed of before. It has also given birth to a number of new problems for freelancers such as worldwide competition from countries with much cheaper labor rates, crowdsourcing, and super cheap, high quality stock art and themes.

An Evolving Breed


Many still cling to the argument that designers should be just that: designers and nothing else. To expect a designer to also know how to code the HTML and CSS of a website is unreasonable right? This argument would have stayed valid if designers had never given in, but we’re a curious breed, always hungry for new talents. Consequently, today’s freelance web designers don’t simply build Photoshop mockups, they code these designs themselves and keep up with the ever-evolving standards of HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Those still clinging to the notion that designers need not know basic web code are far too confident in the trends of the past and understand nothing of looking toward the future. Consequently, work will become harder and harder for these purists to find as clients continually pass them up in favor of someone who knows more than just Photoshop.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at some job postings. Google “design job” and try to find anyone looking for a designer that simply does interface mockups and has no knowledge of HTML and CSS. You may find a few, but they’ll be buried under the mountain of postings looking for all-star designer developers that know as much as possible about all popular web technologies. Like it or not, employers want it all.

Refusing to Evolve

You may read the section above while shaking your head and proudly declaring that you refuse to learn anything beyond design. Unfortunately for you, Darwin’s theories will kick in faster than your Dad can say “The Internet is just a fad.”

What I mean by this is that survival of the fittest applies directly to the professional world. You can refuse to evolve all you want, but your competition is moving on. While you’re constructing grand arguments about why designers should remain stagnant in their pool of talents, others are increasing the depth and breadth of their skill set.

The next time you’re sitting in a job interview or hunting for clients, you’re going to hear about other candidates that are far more qualified than you. You can try to land that job by insisting that you’re really really good at slicing a PSD, but everyone else is going to be really good at that and a whole lot else.

As someone who recently underwent a six month job search across several major cities, I can guarantee you that these claims are accurate and I will therefore never stop pushing you to better yourself by increasing your talents. You’ve chosen a rapidly changing industry to work in and you only have two choices: keep up or fall behind.

Why Marketing?


To many, marketing will seem even further beyond the realm of a designer’s job than copywriting. However, understanding marketing can be a key competitive advantage that really sets you apart from the rest.

If you ever work for a major marketing company, you’ll become aware of this chasm that exists between designers and marketers, aka, the jeans and suits. The blue jean-wearing, carefree designers just want everything to look great. They don’t want to clutter up their designs with cliché calls to action, hideous starbursts filled with exclamation points, or unending feature lists. Their most basic assumption is that consumers will choose the one that looks the best.

By contrast, the suit-wearing marketers don’t care much for the preferences of the pretentious designers. They have several degrees hanging on their wall proving they know how to make a sale by following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and embarking on complex market analysis ventures. Their most basic assumption is that consumers want the best deal and really need to be convinced that a certain product is it.

As an designer with 6+ years of experience and a degree in marketing, I can assure you that potential clients and employers instantly recognize the value of someone that understands both sides of the aisle. We designers often have a bad wrap among the professional world and are expected to be sort of artistic idiots; necessary to have but difficult to work with.

This is especially the case among small business owners looking to hire freelance designers. They can’t afford both a marketing guy and a designer and most marketing guys can’t create a logo or flyer, so they grudgingly hire a designer to either carry out their own feeble marketing plans or help them come up with something new.

The Super Designer


The small business owners in the previous example are a huge market. They’re on every street corner in every major city. These individuals represent the real heart of the need for designers that have a handle on marketing. Many of them don’t understand SEO or social media, they just know that these are hot buzz terms and feel that they’re missing out on the gold rush.

With these clients, you’ll be expected to understand these principals and how to apply them effectively to your work. Unfortunately, I find that the greatest part of my time spent in this area is undoing the damage that the hype surrounding these technologies has done to their expectations. Explaining Twitter to someone in their 50s is hard enough, doubly so when you’re trying to convince them that having a Twitter account doesn’t guarantee them fame and fortune or even a single extra customer.

Finding Your Limits

Despite my arguments above to continually push yourself to learn new things, you should also recognize that you can only do so much. My advice for designers is to know and understand basic marketing principals. Study the importance of a target audience and how to move people towards taking action rather than simple consideration. Keep up with the popular trends in online advertising, social media, SEO, etc. enough to know how to better structure your designs to take advantage of these mediums.

Know enough to put yourself ahead of the competition but recognize your limits and don’t expect to be an all powerful super designer that can single-handedly plan, design and execute complex marketing campaigns. Marketing and design have plenty of overlap, but they really are very separate disciplines. Focus on the overlapping areas that have reasonable potential to earn you more of the work that you love to do. Remember that this is the ultimate goal. I recently found myself setting up and running social media campaigns and writing extended promotion briefs for clients and hating every minute of it. I may have a degree in marketing, but my heart is in design so I ultimately abandoned these ventures in favor of getting back to what I really wanted to spend my days doing.

Teaming Up

As one commenter pointed out in one of my previous articles, sometimes the best option is to find someone to team up with. This makes your pay cut smaller but could potentially increase the number of jobs you take. Combine a talented marketer and a rockstar designer and you’ve got yourself a business model.

This will take an immense amount of pressure off of you and will allow you to focus on the design aspect while ultimately delivering a product that is “tailored to sell” thanks to your marketing friend.


To sum up, never stop learning. Always push yourselves to add to the skills section of your resume to remain competitive in a world filled with people more talented than you.

Pick up a book or two on marketing, study the basic principles and understand the popular trends. However, keep your eyes on the prize: more design work. If you find yourself over-extended and filling your days loathing all of the marketing you have to go through, reevaluate the services that you offer and refocus your efforts to both please clients and stick to the work you love. This may require you to find a marketer to team up with to help handle the extra workload.

Leave a comment below to let us know where you draw the line with marketing. Are you an SEO expert and master of keyword analysis and online advertising? Or do you go the opposite route and simply market yourself as a designer and nothing more?

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