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Knowing your special power and survival tips for graphic designers

I recently spent some time with graduates and while the conversation was wide-ranging, most of the questions were about survival. How to build a sustainable business in a crowded marketplace of designers. Especially when jobs are thin on the ground.

I talked about identifying my special power.

There are a lot of graphic designers in the world, but I’m a big believer that there is enough work out there for all of us, and that we all have different skills. Additionally, one of the huge benefits of being a micro business is the ability to spread the love and collaborate with other like-minded and often better-skilled specialist designers.

Being a micro-business means I no longer need to use the ‘next cab off the rank’ designer – the designer that’s available but perhaps not the most appropriate for the next project (we all have our strengths and weaknesses). Instead, I can collaborate with the best.

So, for the Annual Report I have printing at the moment, I used a large proportion of the budget to hire a really great photography team. And a current report I’m designing, I’m doing the text (that I love) whilst collaborating with a different designer for the cover.

The possibilities are endless.

But I digress.

What makes a business sustainable, is knowing your special power. Greg, in his workshops would call it your ‘onlyness’. I prefer to refer to my special power.

It’s knowing what you can do better than others. It’s your unfair advantage.

Knowing what you are good at and really understanding why you excel at it, is a huge part of running a successful business. It helps you hire people with different skills; it helps you narrow down the market of clients that need that skill and it makes for a happier career because you get to use that skill and be really good at something. And everyone wants to be good at what they do.

My special skill is comprehension.

I’m really good at listening to a problem, understanding the complexities and then regurgitating it back in a simpler form. It was a really handy skill to have through school and university, and now it’s proved invaluable in a design career.

It may seem a shaky skill to build a career in design on, but understanding my special skill meant that I sought out clients with heaps of (complex) content to communicate. I still use the skills I honed for exams, it’s just that now I regurgitate in words and images. And currently there’s more words than images.


Carol Mackay

Carol is co-founder of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating  more than 30 years in business.

Her expertise is in the use of design to package complex content into bite-sized chunks of information that is easy to understand and digest. She does that with clients in the corporate, cultural, government and not for profit sectors. More at