Kickstart Your Freelance Design Business with Jacob Cass

Want to kickstart your graphic design career? Design and business expert, Jacob Cass, shares his top tips for succeeding in design.

Designer Jacob Cass
Portrait for Kelsie RimmerBy Kelsie Rimmer  |  Updated September 5, 2023

The demand for graphic designers is on the rise. Businesses and individuals are increasingly seeking the services of graphic designers to create visual assets for their brands, from branding and websites to logos and business cards – the list goes on. 

While graphic design is incredibly competitive, it’s also an industry thriving with innovation and opportunity. There’s no secret to success when carving out a successful graphic design career – it’s about putting yourself out there, working hard, and approaching your craft with passion and a willingness to learn from those who’ve already been there and done that.

Enter Jacob Cass, founder of JUST Creative – an award-winning branding agency, industry-leading design blog, and creative community. Jacob is a respected brand designer, strategist, educator, podcaster, blogger, business coach, and community builder passionate about empowering entrepreneurs and creatives to do what they love – and get paid for it. He’s also recently become an Envato Elements author after releasing his font, Just Sans, on the platform.

Ready to kickstart your graphic design business? Here are some tips for succeeding as a graphic designer from design and business expert Jacob Cass. 

How did you get started in graphic design?

My love for graphic design started in high school. Repelled by science, I was intuitively attracted to the creative arts, but it was only once my Career Advisor told me about graphic design as a career path that a lightbulb came on. 

Once I knew what I wanted to do, I went to university and studied visual communication. After studying for about 2.5 years and openly sharing my journey on my blog, I got headhunted by an agency in New York City.

I moved from Sydney to NYC, and this giant leap across the globe truly catapulted my career. I went from being a struggling design student to working for brands like Disney, Jerry Seinfeld, and Nike.

Consistency is essential. Show up, create, and share – consistently

During this time, I learned the ins and outs of the industry, all while building my brand – JUST Creative – so I could eventually go out on my own. I wanted to create a multi-faceted brand, just like me. Now, JUST Creative is my agency, portfolio, blog, and educational platform – it’s everything all in one.

What sparked the idea for your brand, JUST Creative? What made you want to start coaching other designers?

I originally started JUST Creative back in 2007 as a design blog. It was a way for me to document my studies at university, but it quickly blossomed into a much larger platform. 

It transitioned from a humble student blog into a platform that now attracts over a million page views monthly. The platform offers thousands of articles, tools, and resources, allowing the audience to stay updated on industry news, learn new skills, and connect with other designers. It also provides access to our JUST Branding Podcast, coaching sessions, and many downloadable freebies.

I got into coaching when Covid hit back in 2020. I started a “Mastermind” to connect with creatives worldwide and help them build their businesses. I’m still running that mastermind today and have created a community called Exponential Creatives to grow the careers of creatives worldwide. 

How did you design your font, JUST Sans?

JUST Sans is a clean, minimal, and friendly font. I wanted to create a font that reflected the values of JUST Creative, but I didn’t want to keep it to myself – I wanted to share it with other designers. 

It’s a highly versatile typeface with an endearing warmth. I find a lot of sans-serif typefaces lack warmth, so this typeface bridges that gap – it’s both serious and friendly at the same time. 

If you’re looking to create your own typeface, start with the end in mind. What style of typeface are you creating? And what type of personality will it evoke?

What are your top tips for designing a font? 

If you’re looking to create your own typeface, start with the end in mind. What style of typeface are you creating? And what type of personality will it evoke? Here are some great questions to ask before designing a typeface: 

  • Is it neutral or expressive?
  • Is it elegant or more rugged? 
  • Is it serious or more playful? 
  • Is it technical or organic?
  • Is it classic or more progressive?
  • Is it something familiar or something a little bit more daring? 
  • Is it loud, or is it more discreet?
  • Is it cold, or is it warm?

How can aspiring designers kickstart their careers?

Start by working at a firm or studio to learn from more practiced minds before going out on your own. While my advice may be biased due to my career path, I can’t underestimate how much I learned from working alongside experienced designers, art directors, creative directors, and project managers. Being part of a team is invaluable; you simply don’t get this experience from freelancing. 

Never settle. Continually improve your skills and stay up-to-date with industry trends and innovations to remain competitive and attractive to potential clients. 

Once you’ve got this experience, build up a “runway” and grow your freelance business. You’ll have a much smoother experience if you go slow and steady. Enjoy the journey.

That said, consistency is essential. Show up, create, and share – consistently

Part of your business is coaching designers for success. How can designers make more money? 

Coaching is one arm of my business that I love. I love empowering other creatives to level up in their careers. As for making more money as a designer, this is a pervasive question.

One way is to offer additional services which go beyond design work. You can provide training, brand consulting services, or upsell clients with other benefits. 

Another way is to create passive income streams, such as affiliate marketing or selling your designs as physical products, such as prints or t-shirts (or releasing a font!).

You can also license your designs to companies for use in their products or advertising, contribute to stock sites, or sell your designs through online marketplaces such as Envato Elements

The final – and, sadly, most overlooked way – is to increase your rates. Know your worth!

You’ve worked with some huge clients, including Disney and Nike. How can designers build a client base? 

First off, you have to be patient when building your client base. You can’t expect to come out of the gate and start working with Disney (despite that happening to me). It’s just not the norm. Many designers work with a limited budget, so leveraging free or low-cost marketing channels is vital. 

Here are some strategies designers can use to promote their business and attract more clients:

  1. Network and build relationships with prospective clients, showcase your work and portfolio online, and offer services that appeal to their needs.
  2. Attend industry events, conferences, and networking events to meet potential clients and build relationships.
  3. Join professional organizations and communities, such as design associations, forums, and online groups, to connect with other designers and potential clients. Hint hint: Exponential Creatives would love to have you!
  4. Build a professional website and online portfolio to showcase your work and highlight your skills, experience, and services. Your website is your online business card.
  5. Use social media to promote your work, engage with potential clients, and build your online presence.
  6. Collaborate with other designers and freelancers to offer a broader range of services and attract more high-paying clients. 
  7. Invest in marketing and advertising to promote your services and reach a larger audience.
  8. Provide excellent customer service and high-quality work to build a strong reputation and generate referrals from satisfied clients. I like to call this a “high-end customer experience.” Treat every client like gold.
  9. Never settle. Continually improve your skills and stay up-to-date with industry trends and innovations to remain competitive and attractive to potential clients. 

Why has branding design become so popular?

Branding design is becoming increasingly popular because businesses and organizations are starting to recognize the value of having a solid and consistent brand identity. A well-designed brand can help differentiate a company from competitors, build customer trust and credibility, and create a lasting impression in the market.

Additionally, the rise of social media and online marketing has made it easier for businesses to reach and engage with their target audience. A strong brand can help grab attention and stand out in a crowded digital landscape.

There’s been no better time to be a brand designer. 

You may have noticed an increased focus on sustainability and ethical practices. If you haven’t, it’s time to get out from under that rock. Branding design is essential for companies to communicate these values and commitments to their customers.

What’s the future of branding? 

The future of branding will focus on creating more personalized and engaging experiences for customers, leveraging the latest technology and data analysis to understand customer preferences and needs better. 

Overall, the future of branding is likely to be dynamic and adaptive, with businesses and organizations continually evolving and refining their strategies to stay competitive and relevant in an ever-changing marketplace. There’s been no better time to be a brand designer. 

What’s the first step toward starting a small business? What are the pitfalls to avoid?

Starting a small business is no small feat – it’s no wonder 65% of small businesses fail. They require careful planning, research, and execution to ensure success and growth. That’s why I love being a brand consultant – to help potential business owners with this process. It can be pretty daunting trying to fit all the pieces of the brand puzzle together.

The first step towards starting a small business is to conduct market research and develop a business plan. This involves researching the market and competition, identifying potential customers and their needs, and creating a clear and detailed plan for how the business will operate and grow. 

Simply put, create a compelling offer that your defined audience finds irresistible. 

This research will help validate the business idea’s viability and identify potential challenges and opportunities ahead. A well-developed business plan provides a roadmap for the brand and can be used to secure funding and support from investors, partners, and lenders if required. 

Some additional steps towards starting a small business may include:

  • Choosing a business name and registering the company with the appropriate government agencies. This step varies depending on your location.
  • Obtaining licenses, permits, and insurance to operate legally and protect the business.
  • Developing a marketing plan and strategy to reach and engage with potential customers.
  • Identifying and securing necessary resources and assets, such as equipment, premises, and staff, as required. 
  • Developing systems and processes for operations, finance, and management to ensure the smooth and efficient running of the business.
  • Launching the business and promoting it to potential customers and partners.

The main pitfall I see branding clients make is not knowing their customers well enough and not understanding what differentiates their brand. 

What problems are designers facing in 2023? How can they overcome them? 

Increased Competition

The rapid increase in graphic designers will require creatives to differentiate their work and services from other designers and agencies. To counter this, designers must develop unique and innovative solutions that stand out from competitors and offer a range of services and expertise that appeal to specific industries and customer needs. Simply put, create a compelling offer that your defined audience finds irresistible. 

The rise of automation and AI in design

The rise of AI will inevitably lead to changes in the demand for specific skills and services. To remain competitive in the market, designers should develop new skills and expertise in AI and automation and stay up-to-date with industry trends and innovations. For example, try out DALL-E or MidJourney and see how you could bring these tools into your workflow. Try new AI tools, and don’t get stuck in your ways. Adapt.

The increased importance of sustainability and ethical practices

This may require designers to evolve their work and techniques to meet new standards and market expectations. We must educate our clients about the importance of these issues! 

The rapid evolution of technology and digital tools

This will require designers to adapt to changing market needs. To counter this, we must invest more in our education and create more compelling offerings that add more value. For example, rather than providing design deliverables, give a strategy to help a business to grow.

We hope you enjoyed this interview with JUST Creative founder and Elements author Jacob Cass! While you’re here, brush up on the top Graphic Design Trends, or check out our Q&A with world-renowned designer Jessica Walsh.

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