New business and sales never seem to be easy tasks
for designers, especially when freelancing or running
a small studio. Most of us would rather have our
hands on the design of a project than deal with the
business side of it, especially if it is a project we’re not
thrilled about doing in the first place.
Over the course of my years in the industry,
I’ve worked at four different design studios, all
small in size and exposure. Some might call them
the Davids to the Goliaths roaming the design
field (Pentagram, Avenue A/Razorfish, Duffy &
Partners). It was this idea of being a David—or
rather the underdog—that has attracted me to
In the studios I worked at, we employed a tool
that, even when pitted against a Goliath, gave us the
types of clients and projects we wanted on a consistent
basis. It may seem like we had lofty ambitions
far beyond a small studio’s reach, but the Client Wish
List—which we created and still use regularly—is
what helps a studio get the clientele it desires.
DEFINING THE CLIENT WISH LIST
The basis of the Client Wish List is quite simple.
In its rudimentary form, the document is usually a
bulleted list of client names, URLs and one sentence
explaining why you’d like to work with the client.
This is the format I used at each studio I worked at
and, even though it sounds too good to be true, it
provided me with a greater understanding of where
the studio was heading and what we wanted (and
needed) to do to get there.
As I kept using this list, I started to develop a
process I could follow. Over time I refined this process,
focusing on things that worked and removing
parts that didn’t. The result is a complete worksheet
that I use to focus on what industries I want to work
with, the types of clients I want, specific examples of
those types of clients and clear-cut ways I can contact
those clients and make a connection.
The worksheet (available for download at
www.dynamicgraphics.com/clientwishlist) is one I
use at my seminars and classes at the School of Visual Arts. Sharing it in those venues has been
invaluable because I’ve had over 150 students use
the process, discuss their successes and let me know
what needed to be refined. It’s not just my usage
that has made this a useful tool, but the input of
many types of creatives: designers, photographers
DEVELOPING THE CLIENT WISH LIST
The first two steps to the process help us define
what our ideal client looks like.
STEP 1: Write down the top three industries
you would like to work with.
Focus first on identifying the specific industries
you would like to work with. Particularly, think
of the industries you are most interested in from
an intellectual and emotional point of view, rather
than a financial one. Sure, I could say I’d like to
work on medical websites because I can assume
the budgets will be rather large, but if the medical
industry isn’t one that excites me, then my work
will most likely be subpar and overall success will
be an uphill battle.
This is often the hardest step in the process,
because seldom do we think about what industries
we’d truly like to work with. Take the time to sit
down, shut off the computer, put the phone straight
to voice mail and think about what makes you happy
in life. Is it your kids? Then perhaps working on children’s
books would be the most exciting. Is it music?
Then maybe helping local bands build an identity
and brand would be the best for you. Whatever it
may be, make it genuine. Remember, no one is judging
you right now, so the most important thing is to
be honest with yourself.
STEP 2: Write down the kind of clients
you would like to work with in each
industry (small, big, fun, serious, quick
projects, long projects, etc.)
The second step is to give you a thumbprint of what
a good client looks like. When doing this section, think of your work style, interpersonal skills, leadership
ability and overall business sensibilities.
In other words, if you find you and your team
work best on quick turnaround projects, and you
thrive on stressful situations, then maybe “quick
projects” would be one of the key identifiers for a
good client. On another note, if you enjoy teaching
small-business owners how to develop a lasting and
recognizable brand, then maybe some of the key
identifiers will be local, small business and design
novice. Here are some tips when developing a list:
- Get everyone involved
- Make it fun
- Keep it simple
- Don’t judge or censor
- Be honest
IMPLEMENTING THE CLIENT WISH LIST
The last two steps in the process help us focus on
the specific clients that fit our thumbprint from
Steps 1 and 2, as well as help us put together a plan
for making contact and getting our name and portfolio
in front of the right decision makers.
STEP 3: Choose one of the industries on
your list, and write down 10 prospective
clients that fit the description.
Now for the fun part: At this point brainstorm some
specific companies that fit the thumbprint in Step 2
for a specific industry chosen from Step 1.
For example, if one of the industries listed was
media and some of the descriptions from Step 2
were fun and children focused, then listing companies
like Nickelodeon, Simon & Schuster and Children’s
Workshop would be good places to start.
Try to focus on only one industry at a time
so you can give it your full attention. After you’ve
listed all of the possible clients for an industry, then
move on to listing them for another. But use caution:
Sometimes it’s smarter to focus on doing work in a
niche for a while, rather than attempting all three
industries at once.
It can sometimes be difficult to think of 10
companies that fit your industry and thumbprint—that’s to be expected, especially if this is your first
time really thinking about it. The best advice I can
give is to write down as many companies as you can,
and then do some of the following to help you find
the rest. Use these simple steps to find clients that fit
your industry and thumbnail:
- Conduct an internet search
- Ask friends
- Look in the yellow pages
STEP 4: Choose three companies from
above and provide five ways you will
make a connection with them to make a
sale (contacts, acquaintances, cold calls,
current client referrals, direct mail, etc.).
The last step in the process is to choose three of
your favorite companies from the list in Step 3 and
define some specific actionable steps you will take
to make a connection with them. When thinking of
how you will contact these clients, it’s a good idea to
put a time limit or specific date with each item.
If you’re having a hard time brainstorming ways
to make contact, you’ll always have at least one step
you can take: cold calling. Cold calls aren’t always
the most exciting proposition, but often they do help
get your name (and then your portfolio) to clients
that otherwise may not realize you exist, let alone be
aware of the services you can provide. Here’s some
advice on implementing the list:
- Think beyond your comfort level.
- Make completing the list a routine.
- Don’t get discouraged.
- Focus on the end result.
- Be supportive and never judge.
My favorite and best example of a Client Wish List
success has to be, without a doubt, obtaining the
account for the Dave Matthews Band website while
working for The Chopping Block, a web design studio
in New York City. We implemented the Client
Wish List at The Chopping Block in a manner that
allowed everyone on the team to submit names of
clients they would like to work with. One of my
personal submissions to the list happened to be the
Dave Matthews Band. The events that occurred
next were not luck, but instead a direct result of
focusing on getting Dave Matthews Band as a client
for Chopping Block.
The firm had a long relationship with the band
Phish and its front man. When Phish retired and the
group’s front man went to a new management company
to continue his solo career, it was an honor that
The Chopping Block was the first to continue building
websites for him. We soon realized his new management
company was the same that Dave Matthews
Band (DMB) uses, and furthermore, the management
company became what it is today because of DMB’s
success. Our work for Phish’s former lead singer’s website
showed this new management company we could
do the same for Dave Matthews Band.
Upon completion of the front man’s new website,
I kept up our efforts to attract Dave Matthews
Band’s management to use Chopping Block for web
design. I sent e-mails updating them on recent projects
we’d launched, phoned regularly with sporadic
ideas on how we could improve the existing DMB
website, and eagerly answered any questions the
management had about the web, design, online marketing
or ventures they were considering.
Sticking it out (and keeping to the process) for
about six months was the secret to obtaining the
Dave Matthews Band project. DMB management
came to visit The Chopping Block in New York City
to ask us about redesigning the DMB website—which happens to be the existing one you can see
today. We pulled off the website and maintained a
relationship with management that also got us work
for DMB stickers and a few T-shirts.
Now you might say, well, Chopping Block
already had a history of doing websites. That is a
relevant point, but the true reason the firm got the
Dave Matthews Band business was because we knew
what specific clients we wanted to work with, looked
for the connections to them, and kept maintaining
and finessing the connections until our wish came
The Client Wish List forces you to consider
those clients you really want and why you want
to work with them, and helps you to maintain
your focus on obtaining the work you want and