Some designers are extremely successful. Others linger in mediocrity for years. Most of them have difficulty getting noticed at all.

So what makes or breaks a famous designer? Like in most businesses, it’s all about branding and building a name for yourself. And like in most businesses, it’s not easy. Read on to see what branding strategies are used in the design business, how they work and how you can use them too.

Branding, simplified

If you do research on branding, you will end up with dozen of definitions and an unlimited number of opinions. Features, benefits, experiences, sounds and visuals all have something to do with branding and it seems nobody can explain, in a nutshell, what branding is all about.

In all that, American Marketing Association has the simplest and most useful definition:

“A brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”

Having spent years in the advertising industry, I’d dare to simplify that even further:

A brand is any product or service which offers a one of a kind solution to customers’ needs.

Whenever people have a reason to consider you a part of the special few, you’ve managed to create a brand.

But how do you do this in the design business?

1. Do one thing well – the specialist way

This is the most common strategy: focus all your efforts developing skills in one particular area of graphic design, so you get extremely good at it. Over time, this brings you a reputation of a specialist, so clients who need a specific type of work will always consider you a better option compared to the average “we-do-it-all” shops.

Michael Wolff and Wolff Olins specialized in visual identities since 1965. Today, Wolff Olins is an international design agency with the same focus. Photo credit: Life-Times

For example, you might decide to focus on logos and brand identity then build your business on that. Wolff Olins, one of the leading identity design companies in the world, rarely (if ever) does projects that aren’t about corporate identity. That is the reason they are so good at what they do – and the reason they have such a strong reputation in the design business, along with Landor, Coley Porter Bell and other brand identity specialists.

Miles Newlyn is a solo designer who built a name for himself by doing great corporate logos.

You don’t have to build a company as large as Wolff Olins to use this strategy. In fact, one-man shows that employ this strategy are just as successful. Young UK designer Miles Newlyn became very successful by focusing on just one thing – corporate logos. His name is behind the looks of Unilever, Sky TV and Tate museum, among others. Today, he is the person-to-go-to when you need a great logo for a major corporation.

In Metalabs, user interfaces are the only thing on menu.

In the mid-size spectrum, you will see companies like MetaLab, who specialize in user interfaces, or WooThemes, who design only WordPress themes. They are both very strong design brands among their respective clients and communities.

Becoming a specialist designer

There are two main challenges connected with the specialist strategy – lack of clients and discipline.

The first obstacle is obvious – most designers do not have a steady stream of clients who need just one type of work. However, you can overcome this by actively developing your specialist portfolio and seeking clients you want to work with. It will take some time but it’s far from impossible.

The discipline is the harder part and comes after you become a specialist. You need to ruthlessly reject projects which have nothing to do with the area of your design specialization, no matter how lucrative they are. We are all too easy to accept a well-paying job which can be turned around quickly but this ruins the reputation of a specialist and throws you back into the generalist waters.

Is design specialization for you? The best way to answer this question is to ask yourself whether you truly enjoy designing particular things and wouldn’t mind doing that for the rest of your life. If yes, then you might have the commitment and discipline required to become a reputable specialist designer.

Otherwise, consider strategy #2.

2. Doing things your own way – the signature approach

The signature strategy is harder to implement but easy to describe – you basically do everything but you do it in a specific way. Compared to design specialists, you do not have to narrow down your design field; however, everything you design has to carry a distinct, recognizable style. Plus, you can find enough paying clients who love your work for what it is.

The signature strategy is common in the fashion industry but rare in the graphic design business because it takes boldness and determination to keep your own artistic flavor regardless of what most clients prefer. But if you succeed, it pays back well.

Mirko Ilic is a signature designer spanning almost all design fields but his work comes with a twist of his own. Photo credit: City Magazine

Consider Mirko Ilic, a renowned designer and illustrator from New York. During his career, Mirko designed logos, book covers, magazines, editorial illustrations, hotel interiors and even a title sequence for the 1998 movie, “You’ve got mail”. Today he has a successful company and rarely does any work himself but what made him famous is his distinct design style – you need to see just a few of his portfolio items and you’ll be able to recognize his work whenever you see it again.

People love Apple because it listens to nobody yet looks good and feels good. Essentially, this makes it a signature design company.

Then there is Apple. Yes, Apple is indeed a design company – they just make digital devices instead of websites or logos. And they do it in their own, distinct style, which could be recognized even if you were blindfolded. As with Mirko’s example, you just need to see one or two Apple products to be able to recognize all of their products and know exactly what to expect of them. That is a strong design signature and their corporate wallet shows it.

The challenges of signature strategy

The signature strategy is a hard route to follow, as the chances of failure are much bigger. You must be a strong designer with a distinct style and believe there will be enough people who will love what you do and make you famous for it. This is close to becoming a famous painter, which is, all things being equal, a rare event.

However, some designers are far more capable of doing this than others and it’s important to spot those special traits if you have them.

For example, all good signature designers have trouble fitting the mass market; they’ve got their own way of thinking and doing things and they get frustrated with clients who want their design done according to the latest trends. Good signature designers are bad crowd pleasers and their work generates either lovers or haters. They don’t have rounds of revisions; they believe their work is good as it is.

So if this sounds like you, then you might have a pretty good chance of becoming a notable designer by not letting clients or masses derail you from your own sense of aesthetics. Yes, this is daunting and not for the faint of heart but if you’ve got what it takes it will most certainly pay off in the end.

3. Being all things to all people – the self-defeating strategy

Whether you choose a path of design specialist or signature designer, there is one thing you should avoid if you’re trying to move up the ladder in the design business: trying to be all things to all people.

Offering a variety of products or services is a great thing to have. But if you want to build a name for yourself, you have to go beyond that and find a way to stand out.

Don’t get me wrong here: you can build a very successful design studio offering a variety of services and never think about branding strategies in your life. But if you want to get noticed in the industry, get top clients and build a name for yourself, you have to become one of a kind – either through specialization or signature design.

So if you haven’t made your decision yet, start thinking about it today. Because the sooner you decide, the better off you’ll be tomorrow.

Do you plan to specialize in a certain field of design or perhaps become signature designer?